Honduran president hits back at US court's bribery allegations

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez gives a message to the nation at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa on October 3, 2019 denying he took millions of dollars in bribes from drug lords (AFP Photo/Orlando SIERRA)

Tegucigalpa (AFP) - Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez said Thursday he placed his trust in the US justice system following allegations in a New York court that he took millions in bribes from drug lords rocked his presidency.

Hernandez told a news conference in the Honduran capital he trusts American justice "will be able to separate the fantasy from the truth."

"We rely on the impartiality and seriousness of American justice... to prevent a trial from becoming a public lynching," he told reporters.

The Central American country has been rocked by the allegations made at Wednesday's opening of the trial in New York of the president's brother Tony, on drugs trafficking charges.

New York Federal Prosecutor Jason Richman said the president himself had received millions in bribes from drug lords, including $1 million from 'El Chapo' Guzman.

The allegations are likely to intensify opposition calls on Hernandez -- who has long presented himself as a champion in the campaign against drug trafficking -- to resign.

A country of 9.4 million plagued by gangs, poverty and corruption, Honduras has been rocked by recent violent protests over the president's controversial health and education decrees.

When US prosecutors alleged in court documents made public in August that the president was part of the conspiracy in which his brother was charged, it brought crowds onto the streets demanding he resign.

In the hours after the accusations emerged on Wednesday, the president had dismissed them as "absurd."

It "is 100% false, absurd and ridiculous... this is less serious than Alice in Wonderland," he wrote on Twitter.

Hernandez said in a statement he had "dismantled the six most powerful cartels operating in Honduras."

Some of the extradited drug traffickers are among the witnesses in his brother's trial.

- Revenge -

It gave them "the ideal opportunity to attack the person responsible for their having been extradited and imprisoned in maximum security prisons," in the US, Hernandez told Thursday's news conference in Tegucigalpa.

He said the rest of the trial would be "full of unfounded accusations" from drug traffickers his administration had helped put behind bars.

His government, he added, had extradited 24 drug cartel bosses to the United States.

"The court will be a platform for these criminals to seek revenge," he said.

Prosecution witness and former Honduran drug dealer Victor Diaz -- known as 'El Rojo' -- told the trial Thursday he had distributed around 140,000 kilos of cocaine with Tony Hernandez over a 12-year period.

He added that Hernandez had asked him for a $40,000 donation for his brother's election campaign in 2005.

The president, a lawyer by training, was controversially re-elected in late 2017 for a second four-year term after polls that international observers said were beset by irregularities -- sparking deadly protests.

Violence and poverty has forced tens of thousands of Hondurans to form migrant caravans heading to the US border to seek asylum.

US President Donald Trump's administration recently hailed Hernandez as a "strong partner" in the fight against irregular migration in Central America.

Known by his initials JOH, Hernandez became president for the first time in 2014 with a pledge to fight drug trafficking.

Drug traffickers and organized crime gangs have made Honduras into one of the world's most violent countries, with a rate of nearly 80 homicides per 100,000 of population.

Hernandez claims that the figure has dropped to around 40 since his campaign against the cartels.