Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking in a US federal court in New York on Tuesday as his country's onetime police chief was extradited to America for allegedly assisting him.
The 53-year-old Hernandez was brought to the United States last month to answer charges that he aided the smuggling of hundreds of tons of cocaine to America in return for millions of dollars in bribes from drug traffickers.
Hernandez, whose 2014 to 2022 stint as president was plagued by allegations of corruption, is expected to go on trial early next year and faces life in prison if found guilty.
He is accused of having facilitated the smuggling of some 500 tons of cocaine -- mainly from Colombia and Venezuela -- to the United States via Honduras since 2004, starting long before his presidency.
His plea came as ex-Honduran police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla was extradited to the United States, where he stands accused of supervising drug trafficking operations on behalf of Hernandez.
An airplane belonging to the US Drug Enforcement Agency took off from a military base in Tegucigalpa with a handcuffed Bonilla aboard, an AFP journalist at the scene saw.
Bonilla, 61, was implicated during a trial in a New York court in which Hernandez's ex-congressman brother Tony was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to life in prison.
Bonilla "allegedly abused his positions in Honduran law enforcement to flout the law and play a key role in a violent international drug trafficking conspiracy," then federal prosecutor Geoffrey Berman said in a statement in April 2020.
In the name of the Hernandez brothers, he also "oversaw the transshipment of multi-ton loads of cocaine bound for the US, used machine guns and other weaponry to accomplish that, and participated in extreme violence, including the murder of a rival trafficker, to further the conspiracy."
Bonilla -- known as "The Tiger" -- could face life in prison if convicted.
He served as police chief from 2012 to 2013, when Hernandez was the leader of the Honduran legislature.
He was arrested in March and the Supreme Court ratified his extradition a month later.
Security Minister Ramon Sabillon said Bonilla had submitted to the extradition to "shorten the process."
Several days ago, Bonilla wrote an open letter claiming he had been targeted "unfairly by unknown people acting outside the law" to implicate him.
He said he would travel to the United States "with head held high" and a "clean conscience."
US prosecutors say Hernandez turned Honduras into a "narco-state" by involving the military, police and civilians in drug trafficking.
Several drug traffickers have told US prosecutors they paid bribes to Hernandez's inner circle. By the time he left office, DEA agents were ready to move against him.
His family claims he is the "victim of revenge by the drug traffickers he himself had extradited or forced to flee to the United States."