By LARRY NEUMEISTER and CLAUDIA TORRENS, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — The brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday after he was convicted at a trial that a prosecutor said exposed him as a central figure in one of the world’s largest and most violent drug conspiracies.
Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former Honduran congressman, was sentenced in Manhattan federal court by U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel, who also ordered him to forfeit $138 million.
Hernández was convicted in October 2019 of charges that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Laroche characterized the crimes as “state-sponsored drug trafficking.”
He called Hernández the “central figure in one of the largest and most violent cocaine conspiracies in the world” and said that Hernández for 15 years fueled a flood of cocaine shipments into the United States by paying millions of dollars to top Honduran officials like his brother.
Laroche said Hernández’s actions had turned Honduras into one of the most dangerous places in the world. Hernández, he added, turned to drug dealing even though he grew up well off.
He said Hernández “can’t point to poverty, lack of opportunities or a need to support his family.”
“He did it because he was greedy,” the prosecutor said, adding that Hernández has shown no remorse.
Hernández’s lawyer, Peter Brill, had argued for leniency and mercy for his client, saying the U.S. should focus anti-drug trafficking efforts on the “voracious appetite” of its citizens for drugs.
Brill said Hernández “feels that the witnesses who testified against him were not only self-motivated but were motivated against him… to make up as much as they could to ruin his life and the life of his family and have succeeded in doing so.”
In court papers, prosecutors had argued for a life sentence, citing Tony Hernández’s criminal history and saying he had transported at least 185,000 kilograms of cocaine, “a staggering amount of poison that he helped import into the United States.”
They say he also sold weapons to drug traffickers, some of which came from Honduras’ military, and controlled drug laboratories in Colombia and Honduras.
“Between 2004 and 2019, the defendant secured and distributed millions of dollars in drug-derived bribes to Juan Orlando Hernández, former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and other politicians associated with Honduras’s National Party,” prosecutors wrote.
His brother served as the leader of Honduras’ congress before assuming the presidency in January 2014.
They allege that among those bribes was $1 million from notorious Mexican capo Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to Juan Orlando Hernández.
President Hernández has repeatedly denied any ties to drug traffickers, as has Lobo, whose son is currently serving a 24-year drug trafficking sentence in the U.S.
In an audio recording sent to his staff, which The Associated Press obtained, the president said his brother’s conviction “is hard for the family, hard for me personally.”
“I find it outrageous, I find it unbelievable that false testimony by confessed killers could have been heard and given weight in this way,” the president continued, citing Honduras’ progress in reducing violence as evidence of his stance against organized crime.
In court on Tuesday, Tony Hernández looked pale and downcast. When the defendant was given a chance to speak, he complained about his lawyers, saying he hardly saw them and they barely responded to his emails.
“I feel I have been lied to,” he said through a translator.
As Hernández was led from the courtroom, a spectator yelled out: “Criminal! Just like your brother!”
Outside the courthouse, about 80 people with signs critical of the president of Honduras loudly protested.