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Trial begins for Honduran president's brother on drug charges

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New York (AFP)

The trial on drug charges of Juan Antonio Hernandez, brother of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, began Wednesday in New York amid expectations of new revelations that could threaten the Honduran leader's reputation.

The former Honduran congressman, who also goes by the name Tony, was arrested at a Miami airport in November 2018 for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, weapons offenses and making false statements.

The charges run to four counts. If convicted, he faces from five years to life in prison.

"He believed that he could operate with total impunity," said US Attorney Geoffrey Berman.

The US government alleges that Hernandez, who served as a member of the Honduran Congress from 2014 to 2018, was a large-scale drug trafficker who worked from 2004 to 2016 with others in Colombia, Honduras and Mexico to import cocaine into the US via plane, boat and submarine.

The prosecution also claims Hernandez was involved in at least two murders of rival drug traffickers in 2011 and 2013.

Some of the cocaine he was transporting was labeled with his initials "TH," according to Berman.

Hernandez, 41, wore a blue suit and appeared calm during the selection process of 12 jurors and six alternates. For security reasons, the jurors will remain anonymous and will only be identified with numbers, as is typical for major drug trafficking trials.

The judge estimates the trial will last between 10 and 12 business days.

- Pursuit of alleged Honduran traffickers -

US prosecutors have aggressively pursued current or former Honduran public officials and their relatives over drug trafficking allegations.

The prosecution also alleges that several candidates from Honduras's ruling National Party accepted campaign funding from Hernandez, including former president Porfirio Lobo and the current president, who was elected first in 2013 and again in contested elections in 2017.

The Manhattan prosecutor's office filed a motion in August alleging that President Hernandez received at least $1.5 million in drug money from one of the prosecution's cooperating witnesses for his first campaign, and $40,000 for the second.

President Hernandez and Lobo have both rejected the accusations, and neither has been formally charged by the US judicial system.

After massive demonstrations demanding his resignation, Hernandez told the UN General Assembly last week that there is a smear campaign against him led by former drug lords furious for having been extradited to the US.

The prosecution plans to call as witnesses five former drug lords imprisoned in the US who claim they were Tony Hernandez's accomplices.

One witness is a former cartel leader who claimed during the 2017 trial of Fabio Lobo, Profirio Lobo's son, to have bribed Hernandez during his congressional tenure.

Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in a US prison for conspiring to smuggle cocaine.

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