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Honduras ex-police chief pleads guilty to US drug charge before ex-president's trial

FILE PHOTO: Honduras security forces arrest ex-police chief after U.S. extradition request on drug-trafficking in Tegucigalpa

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A former Honduran police chief has pleaded guilty to a U.S. drug trafficking charge, less than a week before the country's ex-President Juan Orlando Hernandez is expected to stand trial on similar charges.

Court records on Wednesday showed the former national chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, entered his guilty plea to one count of cocaine importation conspiracy at a hearing on Tuesday.

Bonilla, known as "El Tigre", previously pleaded not guilty, and was expected to be tried alongside Hernandez in federal court in Manhattan starting on Feb. 12. Hernandez will now be tried alone.

Prosecutors said Bonilla directed police to let cocaine shipments pass through checkpoints without being inspected or seized, in exchange for bribes while leading the Central American country's national police force between 2012 and 2013 under right-wing President Porfirio Lobo.

Bonilla faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years behind bars at his scheduled June 25 sentencing. He had been extradited to the United States in 2022.

Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to taking bribes from cartels while serving as president from 2014 to 2022.

He was extradited three months after leaving office, and has been jailed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for nearly two years.

A third defendant, Hernandez's cousin Mauricio Hernandez, pleaded guilty last Friday to one count of cocaine importation conspiracy.

Hernandez was a U.S. ally on issues such as drug trafficking and immigration.

But the U.S. Department of Justice said he ran Honduras as a "narco-state" and received bribes from Mexico's Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the now-imprisoned leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

Hernandez has accused traffickers of smearing him to extract revenge for his crackdown on the drug trade, and to lighten their own sentences.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Ljunggren)