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Jury selected in U.S. drug trial involving Honduran president

FILE PHOTO: Honduran President Hernandez Alvarado delivers a speech for the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris

NEW YORK CITY (Reuters) – A jury was selected on Monday in a criminal case against a Honduran man who prosecutors say smuggled drugs into the United States with the help of President Juan Orlando Hernandez and other high-ranking officials.

Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, 50, was arrested trying to leave Miami in 2020 and has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States and related weapons charges.

According to the indictment in the case, Hernandez, who has been president since 2014, used Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers, including Fuentes Ramirez.

Hernandez, who is not named in the indictment, is labelled as co-conspirator 4, though his identity is clear.

The president has strongly denied the allegations. He has often represented himself as tough on drugs, claiming credit for breaking up powerful crime cartels and extraditing numerous traffickers to the United States.

Hernandez’s name was also mentioned in a criminal case against his brother Tony, who was convicted in Manhattan Federal Court of drug trafficking and related weapons charges in October 2019.

In that trial, U.S. prosecutors said President Hernandez had accepted millions in bribes from drug traffickers. He has repeatedly denied the allegation.

Hernandez was a key ally to the United States under both the Obama and the Trump administrations.

The investigation will not only affect future bilateral relations but also complicate the new Biden administration’s efforts to invest $4 billion in Central America, including Honduras, to address the causes of migration.

In a series of tweets on Monday, Hernandez said that drug traffickers were giving false testimony against him to U.S. authorities as revenge against his government and to reduce their own sentences. He warned of possible consequences.

“I will maintain the international alliance in the fight against drug trafficking until the final day of my presidency,” Hernandez said on Twitter. “But if drug traffickers…win benefits from the United States for false testimony, the international alliance will collapse in Honduras and then in other countries.”

MIGRANTS FLEE HONDURAS

Last month, thousands of Hondurans joined one of the largest-ever migrant caravans hoping to reach the United States, with many citing rampant violence, government corruption and worsening poverty as their reasons for leaving home.

Democratic U.S. senators in late February introduced a bill that would sanction Hernandez for alleged drug trafficking and corruption and cut off financial assistance and ammunition sales to Honduran security forces.

In addition to potentially shedding light on the extent of corruption and official involvement in drug trafficking in Honduras, revelations from Fuentes Ramirez’s trial could affect presidential primaries taking place in Honduras this month ahead of November’s election.

Previous court filings in the case show that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began investigating Hernandez and others for drug trafficking and money laundering around 2013, the year he was elected president after heading the parliament, or Congress.

He was re-elected in a contested ballot in 2017 to hold office until early 2022.

U.S. prosecutors in this case said in a February filing that the Honduran government has “hardly been forthcoming” with assistance in their investigations and said the government had not honored requests to extradite potential witnesses against the president.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Aurora Ellis)

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