NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jurors began deliberating Thursday in the U.S. drug trafficking case of Honduran politician Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez after a two-week trial featuring dramatic allegations that his brother, the country’s current president, accepted a $1 million bribe to protect cocaine shipments.
Prosecutors have accused Hernandez of helping smuggle almost 200,000 kilograms (220 tons) of cocaine into the United States while enjoying the protection of his brother, President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Tony Hernandez has pleaded not guilty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove told jurors Wednesday in his closing argument in federal court in Manhattan that Hernandez and his associates corrupted top officials and “used the government for state-sponsored drug trafficking.”
President Hernandez reiterated his previous denials of the claim in a public address Thursday, saying his country was not “a narco state.”
During the two-week trial, jurors heard testimony from several drug traffickers who are now in U.S. custody and cooperating with authorities, including Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, former leader of Honduras’ Cachiros gang, and Amilcar Alexander Ardon, a former mayor.
The witnesses described alleged bribes from drug traffickers to President Hernandez and other officials. Tony Hernandez even promised Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman protection for his shipments in exchange for funding his brother’s presidential campaign, according to Ardon.
Rivera Maradiaga, who admitted to murdering 78 people, testified that he paid bribes to multiple officials including President Hernandez.
Michael Tein, a lawyer for Tony Hernandez, urged jurors not to believe the prosecution’s witnesses, calling them “the worst people who you could ever imagine being asked to rely on” and saying they lied in the hope of getting lighter prison sentences.
“Their entire human existence has been lying, cheating, stealing, drug dealing and killing,” he said. “And then they look at you and they lie to you.”
President Hernandez, who began his second term in January 2018 amid allegations of electoral fraud, has not been charged with a crime.
He has represented himself as tough on trafficking, claiming responsibility for breaking up the nation’s six most powerful cartels and extraditing 24 traffickers to the United States. He said traffickers were using his brother’s trial to seek revenge.
Hernandez’s administration faces pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to curb migration to the United States. The two countries struck a deal last month under which Honduras would take in more asylum seekers.
Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York and Delphine Schrank in Mexico City; Editing by Tom Brown