By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors on Thursday announced drug trafficking charges against a former chief of the Honduran National Police, the latest in a string of U.S. drug cases against officials of the Central American country.
Prosecutors said that Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, also known as "El Tigre," oversaw the multi-ton shipments of cocaine bound for the United States on behalf of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his brother, former Honduran congressman Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernandez, who was found guilty of U.S. drug trafficking charges last year.
Bonilla, 60, was charged with conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and with carrying machine guns and destructive devices as part of the conspiracy in a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"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," Bonilla, who is not in U.S. custody, told a Honduran television network in response to the charges. He said he could defend himself "anywhere" against the accusations, which he said were false.
Bonilla has held multiple official positions, including chief of the Honduran National Police from about 2012 to 2013. Prosecutors said Bonilla took bribes to allow drug shipments to pass through Honduras undisturbed, and passed information about law enforcement activities to drug traffickers.
Prosecutors said that Tony Hernandez told a witness now cooperating with U.S. authorities that Bonilla was "very violent" and was trusted with "special assignments, including murders." Bonilla took part in the 2011 murderer of a rival drug trafficker at the request of Tony Hernandez and others, and later claimed to investigate that murder, prosecutors said.
Multiple Honduran officials have been charged in the United States with drug-related offenses. Several have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison.
The president's office said later on Thursday that the accusations against the Honduran leader were "100%" false.
The president has repeatedly denied the allegations, representing himself as tough on drugs and responsible for breaking up the six most powerful cartels in Honduras and extraditing numerous traffickers to the United States.
He has not been charged with a crime, but U.S. prosecutors and witnesses at Tony Hernandez's trial have implicated him in drug trafficking and taking bribes. One witness said he took $1 million from Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Tony Hernandez is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)