NEW YORK — The brother of the Honduran president was convicted Friday in a massive drug conspiracy case in New York City after prosecutors said he relied on "state sponsored drug trafficking" enabled by the Central American leader.
Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, 41, a former Honduran congressman, was stoic as the verdict was announced by a jury that deliberated over parts of two days. He was convicted of drug conspiracy, weapons charges and lying to the Drug Enforcement Administration. His attorney promised to appeal.
The two-week trial put a spotlight on the lucrative drug trade between the United States and Honduras, where thousands of migrants have fled toward the U.S. border with Mexico.
On Twitter, Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández said he received news of the verdict "with great sadness."
"In the name of the Honduran government and its institutions any false and irresponsible version that aims to stain the name of Honduras as a result of this verdict is rejected," he said.
Attorney Omar Malone said his client was disappointed by the outcome and that the jury reached its verdict despite a "vigorous defence." He underscored, however, that the process was fair.
"He holds his head high knowing in his own heart that what was said about him in court was inaccurate and untrue," Malone said. "And so he maintains to this day his innocence of the charges levelled against him and he wants to move forward. And we will."
U.S. prosecutors say the drug conspiracy was protected by the Honduran government. The trial featured testimony that convicted Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman aided the conspiracy by giving $1 million in bribes to Tony Hernández to pass along to his brother.
Another defence lawyer, Michael Tein, had argued that prosecutors had insufficient evidence and that five turncoat witnesses who admitted to dozens of killings were "liars, losers and murderers."
The Honduran president was not charged in the case but was labeled a co-conspirator. The president tweeted during the trial that the prosecution's allegations were "100% false, absurd and ridiculous."
In a closing argument Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove said the drug conspiracy was already over six years old in 2010 when Tony Hernández and his associates gained control of the government to protect drug traffickers aligned with the country's National Party.
"That is state-sponsored drug trafficking. And with that level of power and control the defendant was virtually untouchable," he said. "The results of that are astonishing."
He described a scheme that began with monthly "massive cocaine shipments" to the U.S. beginning in 2010 and said the Honduran president used the military to protect drug turf. He accused Tony Hernández of using the national police to kill a rival and said that the "ringleader" in that murder was then promoted to become chief of the force.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor said, Guzman was able to travel to Honduras in 2013 twice despite being one of the most wanted people in the world.
Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected in 2017 despite a constitutional ban on reelection.
Former Honduras Attorney General Edmundo Orellana said he didn't expect the verdict to change anything in Honduras.
"Everything will continue the same because our society is impacted, in shock and doesn't know how to act," Orellana said. "Honduras is submerged in a social, political and economic crisis. The New York verdict clearly establishes that the drug traffickers have taken control of the Honduran state."
Raúl Pineda, a political analyst, said the verdict could complicate matters for President Hernández and should lead to the resignation of Oscar Chinchilla, the naiton's attorney general, because Tony Hernández was never prosecuted in his home country.
"Tony doesn't have a criminal record in this country," he said.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas contributed to this story from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.