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Latin America

From hero to villain: the saga of a Honduran army captain caught in a drug war

A helicopter allegedly tied to the president's brother, a plot to kill the U.S. ambassador and a charge of torture are part of Capt. Santos Rodriguez's story.
21 Nov 2017 – 05:47 PM EST
El excapitán del ejercito hondureño, Santos Rodríguez Orellana, participó en las misiones antidrogas. Fue suspendido de las fuerzas armadas y luego dado de baja deshonrosa después de haber estado involucrado en la incautación en 2014 de un helicóptero vinculado a Tony Hernández. Crédito: Univision

Former Army Capt. Santos Rodriguez Orellana has no doubt that his career in the Honduran armed forces crashed because he asked for an investigation into whether a suspected helicopter used to traffic drugs was linked to the Honduran president's brother.

After the helicopter was seized in mid-2014, he was suspended from the armed forces and then dishonorably discharged. And then last year, the U.S. government announced that he was suspected of drug-related corruption in an unusual press release.

His situation turned even more complicated, Rodriguez said, when counter-drug agents at the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa urged him to plead guilty in a plot by drug traffickers and the president's brother to assassinate then-U.S. Ambassador James Nealon, today a senior national security official in the Trump administration.

However, none of those allegations ever became criminal charges. The U.S. embassy has not accused him of terrorism or drug trafficking. Rodriguez is currently facing only charges of torture and abuse of authority in a case unrelated to the seized helicopter, which he claims was trumped up.

Election Sunday

Antonio 'Tony' Hernández, the brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández, has denied any links to the seized helicopter. He told a news conference that he had met with U.S. officials because “he who owes nothing, fears nothing.”

President Hernandez, who has rejected the accusations against his brother, is favored to win re-election in presidential elections this Sunday.

During a lengthy interview with Univision Investiga, the president's brother said he has received death threats but will continue to defend himself.

“You go into the armed forces and you think that something must change within the institution, which I believe is still honorable,” he said. “But when the commanders of the battalions in those regions get there, they allow drug trafficking.”

This would not be the first time that Antonio Hernandez, a member of the national legislature, has been linked to a drug case. Convicted Honduran drug smuggler Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga told a federal court in New York in March that he bribed Hernandez in exchange for his help getting the government to pay its debt to one of Rivera's companies.

A transcript from the New York case includes the following exchange between prosecutor Emil J. Bove and Rivera, who had become an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA):

Q. During the course of your cooperation with the DEA, did you ever meet with Tony Hernandez to discuss your front companies?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. What were some of the things were discussed at that
A. That Tony Hernandez was going to help us pay some money to INRIMAR.

Q. Sir, at the time of this meeting, did the Honduran government owe INRIMAR money pursuant to contracts?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. And what did Tony Hernandez offer to do with respect to those debts that the Honduran government owed to INRIMAR?
A. He was going to get funds from the government in order to pay INRIMAR.

Q. Did he ask for anything in return?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. What?
A. Bribes.

Q. Did you record that meeting?
A. Yes, sir. I recorded it.

Q. Did you turn it over to the DEA after you recorded it?
A. Yes, sir.

The Mosquito Coast

Rodriguez was assigned to counter-drug operations in a swampy and jungled region of northeastern Honduras known as the Mosquitia, or the Mosquito Coast. The geography makes it a good refueling spot for small airplanes bringing drugs from Venezuela and Colombia.

He participated in several arrests of drug traffickers, seizures of drug shipments and the raid of a farm that was equipped as a control tower for the drug flights.

Rodriguez, 43, has several photos of the radio tower and others that show him shoulder to shoulder with DEA agents in joint operations for which he received recognition certificates from the U.S. military's Southern Command.

But Rodriguez' military life crashed after 10 years in the Mosquitia.

Everything started, he said, on Aug. 26, 2014, when his unit seized more than 1,000 gallons of fuel aboard a boat abandoned by its crew after a chase. The following day, Rodriguez received a tip from an informant that two drug-packing helicopters would soon land in the area to refuel on their way from Costa Rica to Guatemala.

One of the helicopters was seized after it landed near the Laguna de Rapa. Hours later, Rodriguez said, he received a telephone call from the drug traffickers.

“Captain, let's be clear and straight,” the caller said. “I say, 'What do you want?'” “Look you have something we want,” the caller said. “We'll give you $500,000. Give us 10 of the fuel barrels you seized.”

The offer later rose to $1 million, but he did not accept it and instead notified his superior, Capt. Mateo Mejía, according to Rodriguez' statement to the Honduran government's counter-drug agency.

“Well someone says $1 million, that can really fix my life and my many problems. But I have principles that do not allow me to do that,” he told Univision.

When Rodriguez inspected the helicopter, a Bell painted black with red stripes and U.S. registration number N-86AF, it contained no drugs, he recalled. But the passenger seats had been removed and it was covered with a camouflaged tarp.

U.S. Federal Aviation Administration records show the registration number belongs to a Bell Textron helicopter exported to Guatemala in December of 2011, but the serial numbers did not match. Under the fake U.S. Registration, the military found a Guatemalan registration, TG-LON.

A few hours after the helicopter was seized, Rodriguez said, he received another call from his informant.

“'Captain, you're in trouble.' 'Why trouble?'” I said. “Because I am told that helicopter belongs to the brother of the president and the minister of defense, Samuel Reyes.”

Rodriguez' soldiers searched a nearby house and found several empty fuel containers and tortillas and beans over a still warm wood fire. They seized 13 people, weapons and marijuana, but Rodriguez said that evidence was never forwarded to legal authorities.

Rodriguez said that three days later he was ordered to Tegucigalpa, where his nightmare began.

“They took me to a military base,” he said. “I would go home and return for interrogations, for questions about what I knew about that helicopter … And I always told them the same thing, that the helicopter belonged to the brother of the president.”

Rodriguez said he believes that his military interrogators suspected that he was working for rivals of the owners of the helicopter.

“Gen. José Trinidad Moreno Bello told me, 'How is it that you knew that helicopter was landing? How did you manage to grab a group of drug traffickers?'” Rodriguez said. “It's incredible. I was in that helicopter operation. I seized it. And they were accusing me of cooperating with the drug smugglers.”

The embassy

The U.S. embassy was following the Rodriguez case closely. When the captain was released from the military base where he had been held, Ambassador Nealon wrote on his Twitter account, “regrettable.”

Days earlier, Rodriguez had been contacted on WhatsApp by a person who claimed to be a DEA agent named Mateo. The approach was not a surprise. Police Gen. Ramón Sabillón had told him the DEA was going to contact him.

Rodriguez still has the cell phone chat, which begins in a friendly tone but bad Spanish.

“Sabillón said you are an honest man,” the presumed DEA agent wrote.

But the chat turned into an interrogation, and the man ended up warning the captain that he had a lot of negative information on Rodriguez and that his only option was to cooperate if he did not want to face legal problems in the United States.

“I know more than you imagine,” Mateo wrote.

Rodriguez repeated that he was innocent and ready to cooperate, but was upset by what he perceived as a blackmail attempt by Mateo.

“You have a wife and children, right?” Mateo wrote. After Rodriguez confirmed, Mateo went on: “Look, I know. You have contacts with them … haha … I have sources all places here.”

Mateo did not hide what he wanted from Rodriguez: information about the president's brother, three Honduran drug traffickers and drug connections with Venezuela.

At one point Mateo misunderstood when Rodriguez wrote that he was “disposed” to cooperate, perceiving the word as “deposed” – making a statement under oath.

They agreed to meet at the embassy the following Sunday. Rodriguez turned up and confirmed that Mateo was indeed a DEA agent. During an interrogation in the embassy's basement, he received another shock.

The DEA believed, Rodriguez said, that he had been picked to kill Ambassador Nealon in collaboration with members of a street gang because of his knowledge of explosives. The plot was being financed by the brother of the president and two drug traffickers identified as Wilter Blanco and Roberto Soto Garcia.

“I started to laugh and I told the agent, 'I though you people were smart,” Rodriguez said. “They said, 'Are you calling us fools?' Yes, I told him. How can you believe that we would attack a U.S. official? Here in Honduras, that's totally negative. Tell me where you got this craziness?”

Rodriguez said one of the DEA agents warned him.

“If by tomorrow at 8 a.m. you don't agree to testify against the brother of the president, I will publish your name in the news media,” the former captain said.

Rodriguez said he answered.

“But I don't want to testify about something that is not true. I can testify to you that those people are drug traffickers, that the brother of the president is a drug trafficker because you yourselves know that,” Rodriguez said he told the DEA agent. “But I can't testify in a U.S. court that the brother of the president is paying me” to kill the ambassador.

The following day, Mateo called him again. Rodriguez refused to cooperate and the embassy sent out a news release saying that he was under investigation “because of his alleged links to drug trafficking activities and corruption.”

U.S. Embassies rarely identify people under investigation in their countries. An embassy spokesman told Univision that he would not comment on Rodriguez' account, but that the mission stood by the news release.

Rodriguez is now growing coffee in the mountains of Honduras. He and his wife also receive income from her family, which supplies food items to the armed forces.

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