US prosecutors say Honduras president took bribes in 2019

International
Juan Orlando Hernandez

FILE – In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez speaks to reporters as he leaves a meeting at the Organization of American States, in Washington. U.S. Federal prosecutors in New York said on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, that an accountant witnessed meetings between Hernández and a drug trafficker in which they planned the trafficking of cocaine to the U.S. Hernández has previously denied any involvement with drug traffickers and has not been charged. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández accepted bribes from a drug trafficker as recently as 2019 — not just while running for office years earlier — a U.S. prosecutor said Friday.

In the closing arguments of the trial of accused Honduran drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez in New York, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard said that the defendant had met with and paid bribes to Hernández twice in 2019.

The repeated allegations against Hernández, who has been president since January 2014, have overshadowed the allegations against Fuentes Ramírez, even though Hernández has not been charged with any crime.

Hernández has repeatedly denied any connection to drug trafficking, though one of his brothers faces the possibility of a life sentence for drug trafficking in the same court later this month.

Lockard said Fuentes Ramírez spoke of these meetings to Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, former leader of the Cachiros cartel, while both were locked up in New York.

“As recently 2019, the year before his arrest, the defendant continued to meet with and pay bribes to President Hernandez,” Lockard said. “When he saw Rivera Maradiaga in jail, he said he had two meetings the year before with President Hernández and had paid him bribes in both meetings.”

“Juan Orlando Hernández did not only want the cash, he wanted access to the defendant’s cocaine,” Lockard said. “The defendant’s drug lab was a short distance to Honduras’ biggest port city, Puerto Cortes, and Juan Orlando wanted the defendant’s cocaine so he could export it through that port. Access to the defendant’s lab would be worth millions.”

Lockard also said that Fuentes Ramírez met with high-ranking officials in the Honduran military at Hernández’s request to discuss a money laundering business.

An accountant testified earlier in the trial that he witnessed two meetings between Fuentes Ramírez and Hernández in 2013, during which the accused paid bribes to the presidential candidate.

In documents filed this week by prosecutors in the case of Hernández’s brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former Honduran congressman, the U.S. government alleged the president’s long-running involvement. Prosecutors say the president’s political rise was funded by drug traffickers in exchange for receiving protection for their illicit activities.

“The defendant was a Honduran congressman who, along with his brother Juan Orlando Hernández, played a leadership role in a violent, state sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy,” prosecutors wrote.

On Friday, President Hernández sent via Twitter an image of seized cocaine he said was the result of Honduras’ cooperation with international agencies. “Honduras will continue being hostile territory against drug trafficking,” he said.

That was followed by a lengthy thread of messages from the presidency’s account claiming success in reducing drug trafficking in Honduras and referring to the New York trial as producing a “tsunami of false testimony.”

It said, as Hernández has previously, that the testimony comes from vengeful drug traffickers trying to reduce their sentences.

In his closing statement on Friday, Fuentes Ramírez’s attorney Avraham Moskowitz lampooned the idea that the future president of Honduras would meet with Fuentes Ramírez take two bribes that totaled $25,000, as the prosecution alleged. “For $25,000 Geovanny supposedly owned Juan Orlando Hernández?” Moskowitz asked hypothetically.

He also echoed Hernández’s own defense that cocaine moving through Honduras had been greatly reduced during his tenure. “Hell of a corrupt drug-trafficking president!” Moskowitz said sarcastically.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacob Gutwillig defended the accountant’s testimony about the meetings, saying that because he witnessed them, he had to flee Honduras.

“He knew too much because he had seen the defendant and the president talk about flooding the United States with cocaine,” Gutwillig said. “That meeting was burned into his memory.

“You saw him up there. He remembered every last bit of it. He remembered he sat on a blue couch. And he remembers all of it because that meeting changed his life.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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