NEW YORK -- The brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez created "state-sponsored" drug trafficking by corrupting the country's politics to protect drug dealers, a prosecutor told a jury during closing arguments Wednesday at a drug trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove in New York made the allegation as he asked a jury to convict Juan Antonio (Tony) Hernandez, 41, a former Honduran congressman, of drug conspiracy, weapons charges and of lying to the Drug Enforcement Administration. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
Defense attorney Michael Tein, though, dismissed what he characterized as a "shock and awe" presentation by prosecutors that included machine guns and testimony from five turncoat witnesses he described as "liars, losers and murderers."
"This isn't a referendum on the drug war," he said. "The question is whether the evidence you heard from the witness stand can be believed enough. If you're not sure, you cannot convict."
A highlight of the two-week trial came with testimony that convicted Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán personally gave $1 million in bribes to Antonio Hernandez to pass on to his brother.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been labeled a co-conspirator, though he has not been charged. Prosecutors allege he took some $1.5 million in drug proceeds to win his first presidential campaign in 2013, in exchange for traffickers receiving protection.
After the prosecution's allegations became public early in the trial, the president tweeted: "The allegation in itself is 100% false, absurd and ridiculous ... this is less serious than Alice in Wonderland." He has said before that drug smugglers extradited under his government are seeking revenge.
The drug-related corruption allegations against Antonio Hernandez have loomed over his brother's government in a Central American country that is a major transit point for cocaine shipments to the United States.
A poor economy and oppressive gang crime has spurred thousands of migrants to flee toward the U.S. border with Mexico.
Hernandez is accused of using his government connections to smuggle U.S.-bound cocaine through Honduras.
Juan Orlando Hernández was re-elected in 2017 despite a constitutional ban on re-election. Last month, Honduras signed an agreement over how to handle asylum seekers with the U.S. government.
In his closing, Bove said Antonio Hernandez entered the drug trade in 2004, stamping cocaine shipments with his initial, T.H.
Before he was arrested, he paved the way for nearly 200,000 kilos of cocaine to be shipped into the United States, Bove said. He said each kilo was worth over $30,000.
"These numbers, ladies and gentlemen, are staggering," he said. "They are horrific."
By 2010, the prosecutor said, Antonio Hernandez and his associates had taken control of the Honduran government.
"The largest and most violent drug traffickers who testified at this trial were protected by this defendant," Bove said. "He smothered Honduran in corruption to achieve it."
The prosecutor conceded that the government witnesses, who admitted to dozens of killings and the torture of individuals, had committed crimes "every bit if not more tragic and awful than the defendant's."
But he said their testimony combined with Antonio Hernandez's post arrest statements and other evidence show how they had access to levers of the Honduran government that enabled them to provide radar information to help planes and boats carrying cocaine and to warn them of Honduran military operations.
"The defendant had so much power in Honduras that anyone who challenged his authority was murdered," Bove said.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday.