MANHATTAN (CN) – When trial opened two weeks ago, U.S. federal prosecutors regaled a New York jury with a portrait of Honduras with its president and his brother, a congressman, on the take from El Chapo: a virtual narco-state with mayors, congressmen, military guards and police chiefs guarding a lucrative cocaine trade.
“They control the whole government there, according to them,” summarized attorney Michael Tein, representing Honduran Congressman Antonio (“Tony”) Hernández, on Wednesday.
The congressman and his brother, Juan Orlando Hernández, have denied allegations that their family served at the top of a machinery of corrupt politicians who facilitated the international drug trade. Prosecutors have claimed the congressman, whose presidential brother has not been charged, kept drug lords awash with military machinery and protection.
“The defendant for years exploited the political system in Honduras to protect his drug trafficking business,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Houle told a jury Wednesday. “He used the military to protect his cocaine shipments, he used the police to murder his rivals, and he used the president of the country to protect his allies.”
“But all of that power and that prestige mean nothing in this courtroom,” Houle added.
Earlier in the morning, her fellow prosecutor Emil Bove encouraged the jury to consider the human toll.
“There are eight thousand individual doses of cocaine in a kilo,” Bove calculated. “And there is real misery in that number. This is not Netflix. This isn’t a movie. Every single dose could leave a parent wondering where their child is.”
A passing observer could be forgiven for seeing cinematic potential in the prosecution’s tale: One allegation had Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman handing the congressman $1 million, to give to his brother.
The case of the Honduran congressman has scandalized his home country. His brother, the president, compared to the prosecutors’ accusation as a work of surrealism.
“Any claim the President received or agreed to receive money from El Chapo is 100% false, absurd, ridiculous, Alice in Wonderland crazy,” the official account of the Honduran presidency tweeted on Oct. 2.
The congressman’s attorney drew an analogy from the Iraq War.
“You heard ‘shock and awe,’” Tein told the jury, recounting the emotional impact of military weaponry introduced into the courtroom.
“When they brought all those machine guns in here, that was scary,” he added later. “It’s scary especially for people who aren’t used to handling machine guns or guns at all.”
Tein encouraged the jurors to scrutinize the evidence, which included testimony from cooperating witnesses whom he said committed 168 murders, collectively.
“How many murders is too many before you just completely reject their testimony?” he asked.
Prosecutors note that the government relies on more than just their words. The congressman’s name appears on the ledgers that Honduran police seized last year referring to a 650-kilo cocaine shipment.
Trying to cast doubt on the physical evidence, Tein noted that the other entries referred to other people by their nicknames.
“Everyone is named Chevy and El Guapo and El Flaco and Gordo and El Lexus and El Toyota except for Tony Hernandez,” he said. “Come on. The thing was tampered with.”
The prosecution noted that the congressman admitted to its authenticity in a stipulation.
“This didn’t say anything about planted ledgers,” Houle said, adding that Honduran police found it in a hidden compartment of a vehicle they stopped on June 6, 2018.
“It is devastating evidence of the defendant’s guilt,” she added later.
As the trial’s summations transpired, President Donald Trump boasted of a deal that would keep asylum-seekers from Honduras and two other nations in their home countries. “Guatemala, Honduras & El Salvador have all signed historic Asylum Cooperation Agreements and are working to end the scourge of human smuggling,” Trump tweeted this afternoon, during defense summations. The three countries are known as “trans-shipment points” in the international drug trade.
The geopolitical backdrop of the trial regarding Trump’s deal, not relevant to the Honduran congressman’s guilt or innocence, was not an issue before the jury, whose deliberations will resume on Thursday.