A judge in the United States sentenced the brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández to life in prison for drug trafficking, closing one case but increasing tensions between the two countries, as the president continues to protest his innocence.
The life term plus 30 years for Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, who was found guilty in October 2019 of trafficking thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States for more than a decade, was handed down by Judge Kevin Castel March 30 in a New York federal court.
“Based upon Tony Hernández’s free choice to engage in a life of drug trafficking for 12 years, a sentence of life imprisonment is richly deserved,” Judge Castel said. He also ordered Hernández to forfeit $138.5 million in drug proceeds.
Defense attorney Peter Brill had requested Hernández receive the minimum 40-year sentence, arguing that the jury was given “incomplete, incorrect, and inaccurate information upon which to make its decision.” Tony’s mother also requested leniency in a letter to the judge.
After Hernández's sentencing, US Attorney Audrey Strauss said he was "rightly sentenced to life in prison." She had requested the maximum penalty in a March 16 sentencing submission.
Hernández was "involved in all stages of trafficking through Honduras," arranging armed security for cocaine shipments and brokering bribes from "major drug traffickers to powerful political figures, including the former and current presidents of Honduras," she said. Strauss also accused Hernández of being complicit in two murders.
Hernández's sentence, which his defense team will appeal, comes just one week after Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez was convicted of drug and weapons charges in the United States. Fuentes Ramírez was part of the same Honduran cocaine trafficking conspiracy as Tony Hernández. Both cases implicated President Hernández, who continues to deny the allegations.
Judge Castel said in his final remarks that Tony Hernández "sold protection from the Honduran government" to drug traffickers like former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo."
Prosecutors called Tony a "uniquely bad character" who, along with his brother, the president, is "at the center of years of state-sponsored drug trafficking."
InSight Crime Analysis
While Tony Hernández’s life sentence sends a strong message to Honduras' embattled head of state, it’s uncertain whether the United States will go ahead and prosecute President Hernández, who has long been relied upon in Central America.
In both his brother’s trial and that of Fuentes Ramírez, President Hernández was constantly in the spotlight. Both prosecutors and cooperating witnesses accused him of engaging in a quid-pro-quo with cocaine traffickers, in which he protected their operations and shielded them from extradition in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes used to fund various political campaigns.
SEE ALSO: Honduras President’s Alleged Role in Drug Conspiracy Comes Into Focus
President Hernández, who has not been charged with any crimes, has consistently and emphatically said the accusations against him have all been made by traffickers looking to negotiate deals with US prosecutors.
“The repeated use of evidently false testimonies … is outrageous. Frankly, it is very offensive because it is perverse,” the president said during a March 24 televised address.
President Hernández went on to claim that he has recordings of a conversation between an undercover US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and a group of Honduran traffickers that show they were “never able to buy, manipulate or intimidate” him.
“They claim that in 2013 they had made a deal with me, that they had bought impunity, but their own conversations in 2013, their own words, spoken privately between them, show that none of this is true. Everything they are telling the court is a lie,” President Hernández said.
Suspicions of President Hernández's alleged involvement with drug traffickers date back years. He was named as a target in a 2013 DEA investigation. To date, he has now been identified as a co-conspirator in three international drug trafficking cases. US prosecutors have moved from alluding to him as a co-conspirator to naming him directly more than 50 times in the March 16 filing in his brother's case.
But little hard evidence has been offered to accompany the explosive witness testimony about President Hernández's suspected links to traffickers. The most damning pieces presented have been geographic location data showing Fuentes Ramírez at the Presidential Palace in mid-2019, and a ledger confiscated from a prominent drug trafficker. The president’s initials, “JOH,” appeared in the ledger, which detailed cocaine shipments and payments made out to specific individuals.
In a March 25 letter sent to InSight Crime on behalf of President Hernández, Honduras Communications Minister Luis René Suazo Peña pointed to security forces having destroyed hundreds of drug laboratories and landing strips used to receive cocaine-laden aircraft -- as well as seizures of marijuana and cocaine -- as evidence of the “concrete actions” the president has taken against drug trafficking.
These are “based on internationally recognized facts and not on allegations of confessed criminals who seek revenge on those who cut off the drug trafficking business in Honduras,” Minister Suazo Peña wrote.
But as InSight Crime reported in an in-depth investigation, his ruling National Party has been engulfed by criminal allegations that stretch back to at least 2009. President Hernández's fate in the eyes of the administration of US President Joe Biden -- who as vice president supported Hernández between 2014 and 2017 following the US-backed coup d'état -- remains to be seen.
The Justice Department largely avoids indicting heads of state. Even if they were to charge President Hernández, the US government has long used Honduras to further its interests in the region. Hernández has worked closely with past administrations to stem migration to the United States from Honduras and other Central American countries. Honduras also provides the US military with a strategic, yet controversial, foothold in Central America.
That said, the current administration has made clear that it would like to see a regional commission set up in Central America to tackle corruption, and the growing list of accusations suggests President Hernández would be squarely in the crosshairs of such an initiative.