Honduran president target of U.S. investigation, court filings show

By Laura Gottesdiener

(Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors are investigating Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, according to a new court filing, piling pressure on a leader who prosecutors have already accused of participation in the nation’s bloody narcotics trade.

In a document filed Friday night in the Southern District of New York in the case of Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, an alleged Honduran drug-trafficker, federal prosecutors said Hernandez himself was the target of an investigation, along with other “high-ranking officials.”

They did not say what the investigation concerned. But in the filing they accused Hernandez, who has been president since 2014, of using Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers as part of a plan “to use drug trafficking to help assert power and control in Honduras.”

Last month, U.S. prosecutors said in a court filing related to the same case that Hernandez had by 2013 “accepted millions of dollars in drug-trafficking proceeds and, in exchange, promised drug traffickers protection from prosecutors, law enforcement, and (later) extradition to the United States.”

The prosecutors said that assistance from the Honduran government in its investigations “has hardly been forthcoming,” accusing the Honduran government of providing “limited records” and not honoring extradition requests for potential witnesses against the president.

The Honduran government did not respond to requests for comment. Hernandez has repeatedly denied any ties to drug cartels.

The Honduran president has been a key U.S. ally in the region and the investigation could complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to invest $4 billion in Central America, including Honduras, to address the causes of migration.

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 the country.

Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the revelations raised difficult questions for the new U.S. government of President Joe Biden.

“Will the Biden administration, despite this further evidence, continue to shore up and fund Hernandez, including his corrupt police and military that protect drug shipments at his beck and call?” she said.

References to Hernandez, who is referred to as CC-4, have frequently appeared in the U.S. court filings against Fuentes Ramirez, as well as in a successful drug-trafficking case against the president’s brother, Tony Hernandez.

Previous court filings also show that, around 2013, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began investigating Hernandez and others for drug trafficking and money laundering.

Friday’s filing appeared to be the first confirmation from U.S. prosecutors that the Honduran president was currently under investigation by the United States.

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Dave Graham and Rosalba O’Brien)

Judge orders mass trial as Italy takes on ‘Ndrangheta mobsters

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – A judge on Thursday indicted 444 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia on an array of charges, including murder, attempted murder, extortion, money laundering and drug trafficking, a judicial source said.

The trial of 355 of the defendants will start on Jan. 13 and will be one of the largest cases to target organized crime in Italy since the so-called maxiprocesso that severely weakened Sicily’s more storied Cosa Nostra mafia group in the 1980s.

A further 89 suspects agreed to a quickfire trial in the same case, which will start on Jan. 27, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, who had a copy of the court indictments. Those who accept such shorter hearings get reduced sentences if found guilty.

The ‘Ndrangheta is based in the southern region of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, and has surpassed Cosa Nostra to become the most powerful mafia group in the country – and one of the largest crime gangs in the world.

Anticipating Thursday’s ruling, a fortified courthouse has been built in the Calabrian city of Lamezia Terme, large enough to house the defendants, lawyers, prosecutors and judges.

The case hit the headlines a year ago when police arrested 334 people, including lawyers, accountants, public officials and court clerks, in one of the largest anti-mob operations ever seen in Italy.

“Obviously mafias change and evolve along with the society around them and they get to look increasingly like the rest of us. Mafiosi are not Martians, they live among us,” Nicola Gratteri, the lead prosecutor on the case, said this week.

“Mafiosi prefer corrupting people rather than killing them, because shootings draw unwelcome attention,” he added.

The last time Italy tried hundreds of alleged mafiosi simultaneously was in 1986 in Palermo in a case which represented a turning point in the fight against Cosa Nostra, marking the beginning of the group’s sharp decline.

The Calabrian trial involves a high number of white-collared workers and does not target the top hierarchies of the ‘Ndrangheta clans in the way the Palermo case did.

Gratteri told reporters that the group had spread far from its remote southern bastion and was present in every region of the country as well as in parts of Europe and north America.

He said it had grown easier for mobsters to infiltrate local administrations and win lucrative contracts or siphon off funds.

“There has been a sharp fall in ethics and morals (in society) in recent years … which has made it easier to corrupt public officials. This doesn’t just involve Italy. It involves the Western world,” he said.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by Barbara Lewis)

U.S. judge blasts drug lord El Chapo’s ‘overwhelming evil,’ imposes life sentence

FILE PHOTO: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers during a presentation in Mexico City, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

By Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican drug lord who twice escaped maximum-security prisons in that country will spend the rest of his life in a U.S. penitentiary, a federal judge said on Wednesday after accusing him of “overwhelming evil.”

Guzman berated the U.S. justice system, and a former associate described how he had paid a gang $1 million to try to kill her before U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan imposed the mandatory sentence of life plus 30 years.

Cogan also ordered Guzman to forfeit $12.6 billion in a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn.

Guzman, 62, was found guilty by a jury in February of trafficking tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana and engaging in multiple murder conspiracies as a top leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, long known as one of Mexico’s largest and most violent drug trafficking organizations.

Guzman, whose nickname means “Shorty,” developed a reputation as a Robin Hood-like figure that made him a folk hero to many in his home state of Sinaloa, where he was born in a poor mountain village.

He has been held in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a fortress-like jail in lower Manhattan. Cogan last month rejected his request for more time to exercise on the jail’s roof, after prosecutors said that would risk an escape.

Guzman, who recently grew a mustache, complained about the terms of his confinement before his sentence was handed down.

“It has been psychological, emotional, mental torture 24 hours a day,” said Guzman. He alleged that the jurors on his case allowed media accounts of the trial to influence their thinking – an argument his lawyers have also made.

“Since the government of the United States is going to send me to a prison where my name will not ever be heard again, I take advantage of this opportunity to say there was no justice here,” he told the court.

Before he was finally captured in 2016, Guzman twice escaped maximum-security prisons in Mexico. He was extradited to the United States to face trial in January 2017.

Guzman made a name for himself as a trafficker in the 1980s by digging tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border that allowed him to smuggle drugs more quickly than any of his rivals. He amassed power during the 1990s and 2000s through often bloody wars with rivals, eventually becoming the best-known leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

His 11-week trial, which featured testimony from more than a dozen former associates of Guzman who had made deals to cooperate with prosecutors, offered the public an unprecedented look at the cartel’s inner workings.

‘EL CHAPO’ ASSOCIATE: ‘I SINNED’

Andrea Velez, a former associate of Guzman, said Guzman had paid the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang $1 million to have her killed, and that she had escaped with the help of U.S. authorities.

“I confess that I sinned, but I paid a high price for my faults,” Velez said of her work with the cartel.

The witnesses, who included some of Guzman’s top lieutenants, a communications engineer and a onetime mistress, described how he built a sophisticated organization reminiscent of a multinational corporation.

He sent drugs northward with fleets of planes and boats, and had detailed accounting ledgers and an encrypted electronic communication system run through secret computer servers in Canada, witnesses said.

U.S. prosecutors have claimed that Guzman sold more than $12 billion worth of drugs, and Forbes magazine once listed him as among the world’s richest men.

Though other top cartel figures had been extradited to the United States before, Guzman was the first to go to trial rather than pleading guilty.

Guzman often lived on the run. Imprisoned in Mexico in 1993, he escaped in 2001 hidden in a laundry cart and spent the following years moving from one hideout to another in the mountains of Sinaloa, guarded by a private army.

He was seized again in 2014 but pulled off his best-known escape the following year when he disappeared into a ventilated, mile-long (1.6-km) tunnel dug into his cell in a maximum-security prison.

He was finally recaptured in January 2016. The Mexican government says he blew his cover through a series of slipups, including an attempt to make a movie about his life.

Guzman’s lawyers have said they intend to appeal his guilty verdict. They have already asked Cogan to overturn it, citing a report that jurors disobeyed court rules by reading news reports about the case during the trial, but the judge rejected that request.

Despite Guzman’s downfall, the Sinaloa Cartel had the biggest U.S. distribution presence of Mexican cartels as of last year, followed by the fast-growing Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Mexico’s ‘El Chapo’ found guilty in U.S. drug trial

FILE PHOTO: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The world’s most infamous cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who rose from poverty in rural Mexico to run a global drug empire and amass billions of dollars, was found guilty in a U.S. court on Tuesday of drug trafficking.

Jurors in federal court in Brooklyn found Guzman, 61, guilty on all 10 counts. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison.

One of the major figures in Mexican drug wars that have roiled the country since 2006, Guzman was extradited to the United States for trial in 2017 after he was arrested in Mexico the year before.

Guzman sat and showed no emotion while the verdict was read. Once the jury left the room, he and his wife put their hands to their hearts and gave each other the thumbs up sign.

Though other high-ranking cartel figures had been extradited previously, Guzman was the first to go to trial instead of pleading guilty.

The trial, which featured testimony from more than 50 witnesses, offered the public an unprecedented look at the inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, named for the state in northwestern Mexico where Guzman was born in a poor mountain village.

The legend of Guzman was burnished by two dramatic escapes he made from Mexican prisons and by a “Robin Hood” image he cultivated among Sinaloa’s poor.

U.S. prosecutors said he trafficked tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States over more than two decades, consolidating his power in Mexico through murders and wars with rival cartels.

Small in stature, Guzman’s nickname means “Shorty.” His smuggling exploits, the violence he used and the sheer size of his illicit business made Guzman the world’s most notorious drug baron since Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, who was shot dead by police in 1993.

Guzman’s lawyers say he was set up as a “fall guy” by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a powerful drug lord from Sinaloa who remains at large.

In a statement after the verdict, lawyers for El Chapo said they were “obviously disappointed” but respectful of the jury’s decision. “We were faced with extraordinary and unprecedented obstacles in defending Joaquin, including his detention in solitary confinement,” the statement said.

DRUG WARS

Mexico has been mired for 12 years in a deadly military-led war against drug gangs. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected last year after promising a change, suggesting a negotiated peace and amnesty for non-violent drug dealers, traffickers and farmers.

The most detailed evidence against Guzman came from more than a dozen former associates who struck deals to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors.

Through them, jurors heard how the Sinaloa Cartel gained power amid the shifting allegiances of the Mexican drug trade in the 1990s, eventually coming to control almost the entire Pacific coast of Mexico.

They heard how Guzman made a name for himself in the 1980s as “El Rapido,” the speedy one, by building cross-border tunnels that allowed him to move cocaine from Mexico into the United States faster than anyone else.

The witnesses, who included some of Guzman’s top lieutenants, a communications engineer and a onetime mistress, described how he built a sophisticated organization reminiscent of a multinational corporation, with fleets of planes and boats, detailed accounting ledgers and an encrypted electronic communication system run through secret computer servers in Canada.

A former bodyguard testified that he watched Guzman kill three rival drug cartel members, including one victim who he shot and then ordered to be buried even as he was still gasping for air.

Estimates of how much money Guzman made from drugs vary. In 2009, Forbes Magazine put him on its list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated $1 billion. It later dropped him from the list, saying it was too difficult to quantify his assets.

The U.S. Justice Department said in 2017 it sought forfeiture of more than $14 billion in drug proceeds and illicit profits from Guzman.

The trial also featured extensive testimony about corruption in Mexico, most of it involving bribes to law enforcement, military and local government officials so the cartel could carry out its day-to-day drug shipping operations undisturbed.

The most shocking allegation came from Guzman’s former top aide Alex Cifuentes, who accused former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto of taking a $100 million bribe from Guzman. A spokesman for the ex-president has denied the claim.

In one of the trial’s final days, Guzman told the judge he would not testify in his own defense. The same day, he grinned broadly at audience member Alejandro Edda, the Mexican actor who plays Guzman in the Netflix drama “Narcos.”

Despite his ties to government officials, Guzman often lived on the run. Imprisoned in Mexico in 1993, he escaped in 2001 hidden in a laundry cart and spent the following years moving from one hideout to another in the mountains of Sinaloa, guarded by a private army.

He was seized and imprisoned again in 2014, but pulled off his best known escape the following year when he disappeared into a tunnel dug into his cell in a maximum security prison.

But the Mexican government says he blew his cover through a series of slip ups, including an attempt to make a movie about his life. He was finally recaptured in January 2016 following a shootout in Sinaloa.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson, Tina Bellon and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Alistair Bell and Grant McCool)

El Chapo loses last minute bid to postpone trial

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman walks out of United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in the Brooklyn borough of New York, New York, U.S., October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Tuesday turned down a last-ditch effort by accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to delay his trial, scheduled to begin next Monday with jury selection in Brooklyn federal court.

Lawyers for Guzman said in a motion last week that they needed more time to review more than 14,000 pages documents, largely related to key witnesses expected to testify against their client, that prosecutors turned over on Oct. 5.

However, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said at a hearing on Tuesday that the volume of documents was in line with what they should have expected, noting that prosecutors had said in July that it could be 25,000 pages and that sprawling, complex cases like Guzman’s were necessarily challenging for both sides.

“Nobody is going to be as ready to try this case as they would like to be,” he said.

In what he called a small concession to the defense, Cogan ruled that opening statements in the trial would begin no earlier than Nov. 13, which could allow some extra time to prepare if jury selection finishes early next week.

Cogan also raised concerns at the hearing about the prosecutors’ planned case at the hearing. He said he was concerned that the prosecutors had indicated that they were prepared to present evidence that Guzman was involved in more than 30 murder conspiracies, even though the charges against him are for drug trafficking.

“This is a drug case,” he said. “I’m not in any way going to let them try a murder conspiracy case that happens to involve drugs.”

He said that while some evidence of murder conspiracies connected to alleged drug trafficking would be allowed, it would be limited.

Guzman, 61, has been in solitary confinement since being extradited to the United States from Mexico in January 2017. He was known internationally as the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Colombia peace deal security gains will take decade: general

Juan Pablo Rodriguez, Commander of the Colombian Military Forces, greets children during the army's arrival to an area that was previously occupied by FARC rebels, in Meta, Colombia June 1, 2017. Picture taken June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

By Luis Jaime Acosta

GRANADA, Colombia (Reuters) – Consolidating security gains from Colombia’s recent peace deal with FARC guerrillas while battling remaining leftist rebels and drug trafficking gangs will take a decade, according to the head of the armed forces.

Nearly 7,000 rebels from the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are in the midst of a demobilization process, but dissidents from the group and fighters from the National Liberation Army (ELN) remain top targets for the military, General Juan Pablo Rodriguez told Reuters.

“Once the FARC leave, other agents of violence will try to fill their space and that is the challenge that the armed forces and the national police have – to occupy those areas, to reestablish security,” Rodriguez said Thursday during a visit to Meta province, which once had heavy FARC presence.

“We are intensifying territorial control operations to prevent violent actors from arriving,” he added.

The Andean country and the FARC signed a peace deal late last year after more than 52 years of war and recently extended the deadline for rebels to hand over weapons. The country’s conflict has killed more than 220,000 people.

Most fighters are now living in 26 special United Nations demobilization zones, but some units have refused to lay down their arms and are expected to continue their involvement in the cocaine trade, illegal mining and extortion.

Smaller rebel group the ELN has begun much-delayed peace talks with the government, but negotiations are expected to take years.

Crime gangs like the Clan del Golfo, Los Pelusos and Los Puntilleros are trying to move into former rebels’ territories, Rodriguez said, despite 65,000 police and soldiers sent to secure the areas.

The Clan and the Puntilleros both count former right-wing paramilitaries among their leadership, while some members of the Pelusos are ex-fighters from another rebel group that demobilized in the early 1990s. The gangs have around 3,800 members, Rodriguez said.

“Stabilization is very complicated, very difficult. Colombians have to understand it will take time.” Rodriguez said. “I would say at a minimum in ten years we will be able to see how we’ve done and see more concrete results.”

FARC dissidents have been holding a U.N. official working on to substitute illegal crops hostage for nearly a month, while the Clan is accused of killing police officers in the north of the country.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo’ gets April 2018 U.S. trial date

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (R) and his attorneys Michael Schneider (L) and Michelle Gelernt are shown in a sketch of a court appearance at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., May 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. judge has scheduled the trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — for years his country’s most wanted man — on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges for April 16, 2018.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan in Brooklyn federal court acknowledged at a hearing Friday that the date was “somewhat aspirational” and could be delayed, given the complexity of the case and the amount of evidence that lawyers must review ahead of trial.

The hearing came the day after Cogan refused to order Guzman released from solitary confinement in a New York City federal prison, where his court-appointed lawyers have said he faces needlessly harsh and restrictive conditions that make it difficult for him to mount his defense.

The judge did, however, rule that Guzman could send pre-screened letters to his wife, Emma Coronel, who was present at Friday’s hearing. She has not been allowed to visit him.

Michelle Gelernt, one of Guzman’s lawyers, again brought up the conditions of Guzman’s imprisonment at Friday’s hearing, saying it was difficult to review evidence because lawyers were only allowed to speak to Guzman through a plexiglass barrier.

Cogan said he would send a magistrate judge to look at the room where Guzman meets with his lawyers and make recommendations about how the problem could be overcome, though he said he did not want to “micro-manage” the prison.

Guzman also said at the hearing, through an interpreter, that he understood that four of the witnesses expected to testify against him had previously been represented by the same federal public defender’s office that represents him, though not by the same attorneys, raising the possibility of conflicts of interest.

He said he wished to keep his attorneys nonetheless.

All four of those witnesses, whose names have not been disclosed, are currently serving prison sentences in the U.S., Coogan said.

Guzman, who sold oranges as a child before turning to the drug trade in the 1970s, was extradited from Mexico to the United States to face drug trafficking charges on Jan. 19. He had previously escaped from two Mexican prisons.

In his most recent escape in 2015, Guzman walked out of prison through a mile-long, highly engineered tunnel from his cell, a sign of the huge influence he was able to wield even from behind bars.

(Editing by Alistair Bell)