October 3, 2019 / 7:51 PM / 2 months ago

Honduran president denies protecting brother caught in U.S. drug probe

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said on Thursday he had never intervened to protect anybody, after his brother was accused of smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States for years under Hernandez’s protection.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez arrives to a news conference at the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa, Honduras October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

“Nobody is above the law,” Hernandez told a news conference in the Honduran capital. “I’ve never intervened, nor will I, to protect anybody - not friends, nor fellow party members, nor family members - absolutely nobody.”

The trial of Hernandez’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, began on Wednesday in federal court in New York. The politician, arrested in Miami last year, faces charges of drug conspiracy and possessing illegal weapons.

He has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer has denied the charges.

On Thursday, jurors in the trial heard testimony from former drug trafficker Victor Hugo Diaz Morales, who said he gave $40,000 to Juan Orlando Hernandez’s congressional campaign in 2005 at Tony Hernandez’s request.

Diaz, who is now in U.S. custody and cooperating with prosecutors, testified that he worked together with Tony Hernandez to traffic about 140,000 kilograms of cocaine to the United States from about 2004 to 2016. Some of that cocaine, Diaz said, came from a Colombian factory partly owned by Tony Hernandez, and was stamped with a “TH” logo.

President Hernandez, who began his second term in January 2018 amid allegations of electoral fraud, has not been charged with a crime.

He said drug traffickers and former police and officials who had been targeted by his government are using his brother’s trial to retaliate.

“The trial against Juan Antonio will undoubtedly become a platform for these criminals to seek revenge,” he said, adding he expected witnesses to provide unfounded statements that “border on the absurd.”

“All we need is for them to say at some point that they saw Pablo Escobar come back to life, and that he contributed to my campaign,” Hernandez said, referring to the infamous Colombian drug lord who was killed in 1993.

The trial for his brother is unfolding as the Hernandez administration faces intense pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to curb migration to the United States.

Last week, Trump stood side-by-side with President Hernandez in New York, giving a thumbs up, as the countries struck a deal under which Honduras would take in more asylum seekers.

Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Additional reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis

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