US federal prosecutors have accused the former national police chief of Honduras of trafficking tonnes of cocaine to the US on behalf of the country’s president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and his brother, who was convicted of similar charges in October.
Hernández was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the trial of his brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, but the US has continued to call him an ally in its “war on drugs”.
According to the complaint filed on Thursday by the Southern District of New York, the former police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla “participated in extreme violence, including the murder of a rival trafficker, to further the conspiracy.”
Bonilla, an imposing figure known as El Tigre (the Tiger), was appointed as national police chief in May 2012 at a time when Honduras had one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
In the role, Bonilla collaborated with US counter-narcotics forces operating in Honduras and helped to create a special unit of the police that works with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), leading to the indictment of numerous high-profile drug traffickers including the president’s brother.
Bonilla, who was also identified as an alleged co-conspirator of Tony Hernández last year, has repeatedly cited his relationship with the DEA as evidence of his innocence.
The US pushed for his removal from the police job in 2013 owing to persistent allegations of violence, including that Bonilla had participated in death squads targeting suspected gang members.
Bonilla was previously the regional police chief of the Copán department on the border with Guatemala, one of the most crucial points on the drug trafficking route.
During that time, prosecutors allege, he orchestrated the murder of a rival drug trafficker who was threatening a route controlled by Tony Hernández and an associate.
Bonilla has denied all allegations, telling a local news station on Thursday: “I am not a villain. I am a former officer of the national police with the rank of general who served my country and served society.”
It is unclear if the US has formally requested Bonilla’s extradition. If so, the president would be faced with a dilemma of whether to order the capture of a person who could someday testify against him in court.
Experts believe Bonilla is likely to follow the example of others who have been indicted on drug trafficking charges and turn himself in to the DEA.
US prosecutors allege that President Hernández received millions in bribes from drug traffickers including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
The president has vigorously denied all allegations of ties to drug traffickers, referring to them as “fairytales”.