MANHATTAN (CN) – And El Chapo makes three. The trial of a Honduran congressman charged with cocaine trafficking opened Wednesday with a U.S. prosecutor saying that Mexico’s most famous drug lord “personally delivered $1 million” for the congressman’s brother, who is president of Honduras.
The case against the Juan Antonio Hernández, the congressman, had been filed in the Southern District of New York in 2015 before finally going to trial this afternoon.
Giving a jury a sense of the scale of the charged drug-trafficking conspiracy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richman began his opening statements with a series of short, incomplete yet evocative sentences.
“Tons of cocaine,” the prosecutor said. “Millions of dollars in drug money, and the vicious cycle of corruption fueled by both.”
As described by the U.S. government, the “sophisticated state-sponsored organization” operated through a network of mayors, congressmen, military guards, police chiefs and the highest representative of them all: Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was elected for a second term last year.
“They were all bought and paid for with the dirtiest of drug money, and most importantly, the defendant was protected by and had access to his brother, the current sitting president of Honduras,” Richman asserted, describing the Honduran leader as a “man who himself has received millions of dollars in drug money bribes.”
“Bribes he received from some of the largest cocaine traffickers in the world, bribes he received from men like El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel who personally delivered $1 million to the defendant for his brother,” he continued.
While business boomed for the Honduran politician, Richman told the New York jury: “His country suffered.”
“You will learn that Honduras is one of the most violent places on earth,” he said, describing that country as a key “transshipment point” for U.S.-bound drugs.
During the U.N. General Assembly last week, President Donald Trump made a deal with Honduras’ Hernández to keep asylum-seekers in his drug-violence riven nation in a four-nation agreement that also included Guatemala and El Salvador, which are also known as “transshipment points.”
“Honduras sits at a crucial location in the cocaine trade,” Richman noted, portraying the congressman as a nexus between a violent trade and the country’s government.
Congressman Hernández helped drug traffickers obtain “high-powered, military-grade weapons” used to protect the drug trade and was personally involved in two murders, the prosecutor said.
Over the course of a two-week trial, prosecutors promised to deploy a variety of evidence against the congressmen: ledgers, expert witnesses, cooperating witnesses and a video of the Honduran legislator with a drug-trafficker responsible for 78 murders.
Hernández’s attorney Omar Malone, a partner in the Florida-based firm Tein Malone, cast his client’s only “mistake” as the decision to take his brother’s advice to enter into the rough-and-tumble world of Honduran politics.
“We’re in basic training in our politics,” Malone remarked, referring to the United States. “They’re Desert Storm. They’re the mother of all dirty politics in Honduras.”
The attorney’s opening statement depicted the Hernández brothers as opponents of the drug trade targeted by their enemies for agreeing to extradite criminals to the United States, who would later point the finger against them.
Describing Hernández’s routine dealings with U.S. leaders, Malone tried to tell the jury about a meeting with ex-U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, sparking an objection from the prosecution table.
U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel ordered the attorney to skip over that anecdote.
After the jury left the room, the judge pressed Malone on why the subject was relevant and not a “disguised form of character evidence.”
“Judge, I will fall on my sword on that one,” Malone replied, leaving the matter alone.
The prosecution’s first witness, Honduran law enforcement official Miguel Reynosa, is expected to testify about the drug ledger he seized last year, alongside a grenade, cash and firearms.