NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jurors on Thursday began deliberating in the U.S. drug trafficking case of Honduran politician Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, brother of the Central American country’s current president, following a two-week trial in federal court in Manhattan.
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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove told jurors in his closing argument on Wednesday that Tony Hernandez and his associates were able to operate with impunity by corrupting the highest levels of government.
“They turned the government against its people,” he said. “And they used the government for state-sponsored drug trafficking.”
Hernandez’s lawyers told jurors their client is innocent of all the charges, and the president has denied the allegation.
In the course of the 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, former mayor of the town of El Paraiso.
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 some of those traffickers are using his brother’s trial to seek revenge.
Hernandez’s administration also 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; Editing by Tom Brown