By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five members of the Honduran National Police pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to U.S. charges that they conspired with a son of former Honduras President Porfirio Lobo to import cocaine into the United States.
The five officers entered their pleas in federal court in Manhattan one day after surrendering and being brought to the United States to face charges contained in an indictment that was announced less than two weeks ago.
"For allegedly conspiring to move tons of cocaine from the Honduran jungles to American cities, these Honduran police officers will now face these charges in an American court of law," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
The officers included Mario Guillermo Mejia Vargas, Juan Manuel Avila Meza, Carlos Jose Zavala Velasquez, Victor Oswaldo Lopez Flores, and Jorge Alfredo Cruz Chavez. A sixth officer, Ludwig Criss Zelaya Romero, remains at large.
"This is the first we've learned about these allegations, and we're going to be investigating the charges," said Daniel Parker, Avila Meza's lawyer.
Lawyers for the other defendants declined to comment.
The case comes amid efforts in Honduras to clean up the country's 12,000-strong police force, which has long been accused of working with criminal gangs in the poor Central American country.
According to the indictment, the officers agreed to take bribes to help two informants posing as drug traffickers transport a multi-ton load of cocaine through Honduras so it could be sent to the United States.
The two informants, who worked on behalf of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, were introduced in 2014 to the six officers by Fabio Lobo, a son of the former Honduran president, the indictment said.
Lobo, who prosecutors said agreed to provide the informants with security and logistical support in the purported drug deal, was arrested in 2015 in Haiti and pleaded guilty in May to conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by James Dalgleish)