NEW YORK - The trial of an alleged drug trafficker who prosecutors say bribed the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, is set to begin on Monday in a federal courthouse in New York. Honduran businessman, Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, is charged with drug trafficking and weapons charges.
The trial began as is customary with the selection of the jury and is expected to continue with the opening statements in the afternoon.
As the trial got underway, Judge Kevin Castel advised the court of his concern that a son of Fuentes had contacted the wife of a protected witness in the case, which could be interpreted as an act of interference or intimidation. Fuentes's attorney, Avraham C. Moskowitz, had requested the exclusion of that witness's testimony on the grounds that he contacted prosecutors just a week ago, but it appears that the judge will admit his testomony.
According to prosecutors at the Southern District of New York, Fuentes was “a prolific, powerful, and murderous cocaine trafficker” who was aided by high-ranking politicians and police officials in Honduras. Fuentes is charged with drug trafficking and related weapons charges.
“We’re going to shove the drugs right up the gringo’s noses,” Hernández allegedly told Fuentes during an alleged meeting between the two that is likely to be at the center of the case, the outcome of which could mark a point of no return for U.S.-Honduras relations.
Fuentes allegedly reported “directly to Tony Hernández,” a brother of the president and former legislator who was convicted of drug trafficking in October 2019. After a lengthy delay due to the pandemic, he is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.
DEA agents arrested Fuentes on March 1, 2020 in Miami as part of it’s ongoing investigation of President Hernández and what prosecutors called “the unholy alliance of Honduran officials and drug traffickers.”
The embattled president has denied all accusations of links to drug traffickers, affirming in a recent address to Congress that drug traffickers have found a “magic key” to reduce their sentences by telling what he says are lies against him. The address was in response to a bill presented by U.S. senators that would sanction Hernández due to alleged corruption and drug trafficking.
Hernández warned that bilateral cooperation, including extradition and counternarcotic operations, could be "collapse" if U.S. officials "commit the error of awarding the narcos who give false testimony instead of raising their sentences.”
In a post-arrest interview, Fuentes appears to corroborate some of the accusations against him, admitting to knowing drug traffickers, police officers and assassins who are unindicted co-conspirators. He also acknowledged knowing “very well” a Honduran businessman whose office is where he allegedly met with Hernández.
Prosecutors are expected to call several former drug traffickers to testify. Devis Rivera Maradiaga, co-leader of the violent Cachiros crime family who has been a star witness in a number of notable trials, could be joined by his brother, Javier, on the stand for the first time.
The government could also count on the testimony of two protected witnesses, including one who just made contact with prosecutors about a week ago after apparently traveling from Honduras to New York. A ruling on whether to admit the last-minute witness is pending from the judge.
The trial is expected to last a little over a week. A guilty verdict would condemn 51-year-old Fuentes to a minimum of 40 years in prison and ratify the accusations against Hernández in the case, further complicating relations with the U.S.
President Hernández has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in three drug trafficking cases and prosecutors accuse him of receiving millions in bribes from drug traffickers. He has promised to leave office at the end of his current term in January 2021. Until then, an unwritten rule at the justice department would prevent any potential charges from being filed or unsealed against him.