NEW YORK — A brother of the president of Honduras admitted to U.S. federal agents that he'd accepted presents from violent drug traffickers he'd known for years and once asked Honduran officials about money the government allegedly owed the traffickers.
Recently unsealed documents show what Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández told agents last November, after he was arrested at Miami International Airport on his way back to Honduras.
In the 56-page transcript of testimony, the former Honduran congressman sheds new light on the corruption and close relationship between the government and drug-trafficking rings like Los Valle and Los Cachiros, accused by the U.S. government of being among the world's most dangerous transnational criminal networks, to "flood American streets with deadly drugs."
In the unsealed statement, Hernández says that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández warned him over the phone about the bad company he kept. Hernández said the president told him "that I was going to wind up dead or compromising the people I hanged around with." On another occasion the president also told him: "Well, if there is anything (drug-related) it's going to be your problem."
"Of course, I said to him, 'I am a big boy now,'" Hernández told agents.
Hernández, 40, has been charged in the U.S. with crimes accusing him of scheming for years to bring tons of cocaine into the country. The corruption allegations have cast a shadow over his brother's government in a Central American country that is a major transit hub for cocaine. Prosecutors call Hernández a big-time trafficker so enmeshed in the trade that the drug was sometimes stamped with his initials.
He has pleaded not guilty and his trial has been set for September in federal court in Manhattan.
The relationship between the U.S. and Honduran governments has been a delicate balancing act.
While the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. prosecutors have aggressively pursued well-connected Hondurans, including police and politicians, the U.S., eager for Honduran cooperation on immigration and drug trafficking, has maintained close security ties.
The son of Juan Orlando Hernández's predecessor and mentor, Porfirio Lobo, was sentenced to 24 years in a U.S. prison in 2017 for drug trafficking.
Honduran migrants heading north in huge numbers in recent years often cite government corruption among their reasons for leaving.
During his interrogation, Tony Hernández denied trafficking drugs, but admitted being invited to participate in the drug trafficking business several times, as well as receiving a horse, two Glock pistols and an expensive watch as enticement to join.
According to his indictment, Hernández met in 2014 with one of Los Cachiros' leaders, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, and others.
The former congressman said that Rivera asked him to get public funds that the government allegedly owed to a company the cartel used to launder money. Rivera paid Hernandez a $50,000 bribe, says the U.S. government, although Hernández denies that. Rivera recorded the meeting and gave the tape to the DEA.
According to the newly unsealed documents, Hernández said that, after the meeting, he went to the Honduran Office of the Director of Highways and asked what happened with the money owed to Los Cachiros.
"Look, these people are telling they are owed so much," Hernández said he told someone there described as "Engineer."
The "Engineer" allegedly told him that after former U.S. President Barack Obama accused Los Cachiros of being large drug distributors President Hernández did not want "to be in the eye of the hurricane" and said that they were not going to be paying that company.
A spokesperson for the Honduran President did not reply to messages left by The Associated Press.
Rivera has pleaded guilty to charges that include drug trafficking and involvement in the slayings of 78 people. In 2017, he testified during a trial about the meeting with Hernández and said the company's name was Inrimar. It was a construction company with public contracts, he said. Hernández told U.S. agents last year that the alleged money the Honduran government owed was never paid.
Lawyers for Hernández did not respond to phone calls and emails sent by the AP.
They have filed a motion to suppress Hernández's statement, saying federal agents interrogated Hernández without his lawyer being present, persuaded him that his lawyer was unavailable and even told him that he was no longer his lawyer, violating regulations and Hernández's constitutional rights.
In his testimony, Hernández gave the names of the drug traffickers he says he knows, some of them already in jail in the U.S., like Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, known as "El Rojo."
Associated Press reporter Chris Sherman contributed to this report from Mexico City.