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Latin America & Caribbean

How the DEA helped rescue Honduras from the narcos, and the president's brother ended up being arrested

A New York drug trial which started Wednesday alleges a massive conspiracy between politicians, drug-traffickers and corrupt police and military officers in Honduras. On trial is a former congressman, Tony Hernandez, brother of President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Much like previous drug cases involving the famous cartels in Colombia and Mexico, this latest case reveals how local law enforcement in Honduras was incapable of standing up to the narcos. Instead, it was left to the DEA.
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2 Oct 2019 – 02:28 PM EDT
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TEGUCIGALPA – General Leandro Osorio says his problems began on January 31, 2014 when he was sent to bust a drug laboratory in the tiny mountain hamlet of Iguala in the western province of Lempira.

In the early morning mist his special police investigative unit surprised two barely awake Colombians, arresting them and seizing several weapons and 6,000 marijuana and heroin poppy plants.

Two months later Osorio said he learned the Colombians had been freed after the intervention of an influential lawyer in the nearby town of Gracias named Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernandez, and had immediately fled the country.

Despite working for a small provincial firm, Hernandez was no ordinary lawyer. He was also a member of Congress and the brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez. "What a coincidence. I don't know how he got them out, as if by magic,” says Osorio, 55.

Hernandez goes on trial in New York federal court on Wednesday accused of being a “violent, large-scale drug trafficker,” who bribed high-ranking Honduran officials to safely smuggle multi-ton cocaine shipments, and allegedly gained political influence by helping pouring millions of dollars into the election campaigns of the ruling National Party candidates, including his brother’s.

Tony Hernandez has pleaded non-guilty. President Hernandez, who is an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, has also strenuously denied any involvement with drug money.

The 2014 drug laboratory raid was only one of numerous examples of how Honduran politicians intervened in criminal cases involving drug traffickers stretching back decades, frustrating the work of a cadre of honest cops, military officers and prosecutors who risked their careers - and often their lives - to go combat the drug trade. As a result, drug corruption went unchecked for years and the Honduran judiciary failed to prosecute a single major drug case.

In the case of Tony Hernandez, U.S. prosecutors say his involvement with drug traffickers began as early as 2004. But he never faced charges in Honduras despite accumulating evidence compiled by Honduran officials, according to multiple Honduran law enforcement sources who spoke to Univision.

In the end, U.S. law enforcement was obliged to step in and take command of prosecuting the alleged traffickers, such as Tony Hernandez who was finally arrested – in Miami – last November.

Culmination of US effort

“This trial is the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people,” said former U.S. ambassador James Nealon, who served in Honduras from 2014-2017 at a time when U.S. anti-drug efforts were ramping up. “A parallel effort has been to try to strengthen Honduran institutions so that in the future, cases of corruption and narcotrafficking can be brought to trial in Honduras, as we've begun to see,” he added, referring to a slew of new corruption cases being handled by prosecutors in Honduras, with international backing from the Organization of American States (OAS).
In Osorio’s case, his career went downhill after the laboratory raid.

Two months later removed from investigative unit, without any explanation. “They put me in another office, practically as an adornment, without a secretary,” he told Univision.

He was forced into early retirement last year as part of a U.S.-backed purge and restructuring of the police which is widely credited with cleaning up the force, though he was never accused of any wrongdoing. He was also stripped of his U.S. visa, indicating that U.S. officials no longer trusted in his honesty.

But he maintains any blemish on his record is nothing compared to what others around him were up to. Like many other officials, he said he was the victim of a political culture that forced officials to shelve cases and stay silent, or risk being killed.

In December 2009, Julian Aristides Gonzalez, the antinarcotics czar in Honduras called by some “the last great hope” was assassinated in an ambush on the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa. The murder is widely believed to have been carried out by police officers hired by politicians and drug traffickers, though the case remains officially unsolved. And two years later, anti-drug crusader, Alfredo Landaverde, was also assassinated when hitmen drove up to his car a motorcycle on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. Evidence in his case, which is still under investigation, has also implicated top generals, politicians and drug traffickers, according to investigators.

"The political class here has been involved in organized crime. Nobody messed with drug traffickers in this country,” said Osorio. “Here the narcos ran things at the highest level. If anyone did anything to them they were immediately gotten rid of,” he added.

Univision interviewed six former senior police and military officials, and two others still in active service, including three generals and two colonels, who all told similar stories of investigations that went nowhere due to political interference.

“It touched the structures not only of the Armed Forces, but also the Supreme Court of Justice, the Prosecutor's Office, judges … everything. It’s a huge structure that colluded all the authorities of our country,” says Santos Rodríguez, a 45-year-old former Honduran army captain who was involved in anti-drug missions. He was suspended from the armed forces and then dishonorably discharged after he was involved in the seizure of a helicopter in 2014 linked to Tony Hernandez.

U.S. officials say he was himself suspected of drug-related corruption, though he was never charged.

Rodríguez has fought to clear his name, saying he is being punished to cover up for the political corruption. "We reported on the activities of congressmen, ministers and all that they were engaged in, and the Armed Forces never took charge of the problem," he said.

Ironically, one the main sources of information came from the aide-de-camps, military and police security escorts, who traveled around the country with politicians. (los edecanes). "They were so arrogant, they never realized they might report to us," said Rodríguez.

"The extra mile"

One active duty officer who asked not to be named, described being out in the field conducting anti-drug patrols without proper resources and having to borrow food from local farmers. "We wanted to go the extra mile and do more operations than they expected of us," he said. “We sent reports. Nothing ever happened. It always just hung in the air. The reports were shelved," he added.

He described being bribes by fellow police officers. “They offered me $150,000 to look the other way for 15 minutes,” he said. “We captured a Mexican one time and he offered us $1 million,” he added. “I could have been a millionaire and a big landowner. But that never interested me. I was raised with principles. La paz que tengo en este momento no tiene precio.”

His said his career also ran into problems when he began to uncover evidence linking Tony Hernandez and other local politicians to drug traffickers in the remote Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras on the Atlantic coast.

Much of their efforts were futile. Two officers described destroying scores of clandestine airstrips with explosives, only to see them repaired within days by teams of men armed with chain saws to cut up pine logs and fill in craters with baskets of dirt.

In recent years though they said operations improved with the help of local informants and intelligence provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) which provided intelligence.

Murder rate

U.S. officials began to realize that they had a big problem on their hands as the murder rate soared in Honduras during the first Obama administration (2009-2013).

By 2011, the homicide rate peaked at an all-time high of 86.5 per 100,000 habitants, making Honduras the most violent country on earth.

In January 2012 U.S. and Honduran officials, including Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was then president of the Honduran Congress, met quietly in Miami to hammer out an agreement that would, for the first time, allow Honduran citizens to be extradited from their own country to the United States. A few days later, by a hand vote behind closed doors, the Honduran Congress approved a reform to article 102 of the constitution to allow for the extradition of persons accused of drug trafficking, terrorism or other forms of organized crime.

Honduran officials deny they were pressured into the agreement. “I don’t think the U.S. has to use much pressure in Honduras. If the US tells Honduras it wants something done, they don’t have much alternative,” said Patricio Navia, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University, who is listed by prosecutors as an expert witness in the New York trial. “When the U.S tells some Latin American countries to do something there are some that cannot say no, and Honduras is one of them.”

The U.S. involvement in Honduras has deep roots going back to the early days of the so-called ‘Banana Republic,’ when American companies controlled large plantations on the north coast. In the 1980s, the U.S. financed a secret counter-insurgency against the neighboring left-wing Sandinista regime, led by Daniel Ortega, in Nicaragua.

Cargando galería

Special units

After the extradition agreement was in place the wheels of justice finally began moving. On October 8, 2012 the U.S and Honduras signed a secret agreement to create a ‘Sensitive Investigative Unit’, or SIU in Honduras. The SIU program allows the DEA to vet and train local police and military personnel for use in operations "to neutralize, dismantle, and prosecute major international drug trafficking networks."

Other special units were created, to combat kidnapping and extorsion, as well as a Special Tactical Operations Unit (GOET) backed up by the FBI's sophisticated 'StingRay' electronic eavesdropping technology, to listen in to cellphone calls.

The DEA credits the SIU with producing some of its biggest busts. In Honduras the results were dramatic.

In September, 2013, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions under the Kingpin Act against the Cachiros crime family, including brothers Javier Eriberto Rivera Maradiaga and Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga. The sanctions led the brothers to turn themselves in to the DEA in January 2015.

Later that same month, Fabio Lobo, son of former president Porfirio Lobo, was captured by the DEA in Haiti and later extradited to the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. He was accused of using his politically privileged position to act as an intermediary between the Cachiros crime family and other high-level government officials who colluded to award government contracts to the Cachiros’ money laundering front companies, allegedly as payment for contributions and favors made during the 2009 electoral campaign.

More cases followed. Since 2014, 25 Hondurans have been extradited to the United States on drug charges, and another half dozen have surrendered to U.S. authorities.

By the end of last year, the homicide rate had fallen to 41.4 per 100,000 habitants, less than half of the peak rate from seven years earlier, though still one of the highest rates in the world.

'The Tiger'

The former head off the National Police, General Juan Carlos Bonilla, told Univision that the U.S. role was key. “There was a before and an after,” he said. “The opportune moment arrived when, in a synchronized and articulated way, we began working jointly with the Department of State, DEA and the total support of the American embassy and of Colombia and Mexico,” he said. “It’s important to know that this scourge had been ignored and it seemed that there was collusion. And that collusion, well, it came to an end … this isn’t going to be their territory any longer,” he added.

Bonilla, known locally as 'The Tiger,' said the DEA was given access to Honduras police and intelligence records, including all the once ignored reports on suspected traffickers and their political friends. “All the reports went to the DEA. They got everything,” he said.

That came to a dramatic conclusion in October, 2016 when U.S. officials informed president Hernandez that his brother was the subject of a DEA investigation. A few days later, Tony Hernandez flew to Miami to meet with DEA officials as part of a voluntary interview. It was later revealed that during the interview Hernandez denied having met the Cachiro family, despite being shown video proof of an encounter.

But U.S. officials apparently lacked the legal documents they needed to detain him on the spot. Hernandez returned to Honduras to proclaim his innocence.

For two years, Hernandez remained at large in Honduras, though he did step down from Congress in 2017. His brother, however, engineered a constitutional reform to successfully run for re-election as President, sparking violent street protests.

Perhaps emboldened by his brother’s political supremacy, and seemingly oblivious to his apparent legal risk, Tony Hernandez returned to Miami in November 2018.

On this occasion his reception was different. The apparent lies told by Hernandez that day resulted in an additional “lying to federal officials” charge upon his indictment.

The keys to the kingdom

The arrest of his brother has put President Hernandez in an awkward spot, some say of his own making. If evidence in the trial proves his campaign received drug money, as alleged, his political future could be jeopardized. He could even face charges one day himself, though he enjoys immunity while in office.

President Hernandez points to his accomplishments in office, including cutting Honduras’ homicide rate, and purging 5,600 corrupt police officers, including 47 percent of all high-ranking officials.

“Because of my fight against organized crime, I am the victim of a smear campaign led by drug traffickers, gang members, corrupt and purged police, confessed killers, colluding businessmen who finance these criminals, and politicians,” he said in a speech to the United Nations last week. Hernandez's office did not respond to an interview request with Univision.

His cooperation with the United States is a double-edged sword, said Eric Olson, a Central American expert at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. Olson. “He may have turned over the keys to the kingdom,” he said, referring to the enforcing of anti-corruption efforts, including the extraditions. “This may all lead back to him,” he said.

Last week, Hernandez scored a big victory when President Donald Tru mp shook hands with him at the United Nations and praised him for doing a “fantastic” job after he signed an asylum agreement designed to help the United States reduce the flow of immigrants.

But Olson, and others, wonder if that handshake could turn into an embarrassment for Trump as the evidence begins to be heard just a short distance from the U.N. at the Southern District of New York federal courthouse.

“He [Juan Orlando Hernandez] has gotten further and further out on a limb,” “One of his only protections is to continue cooperating with the United States. If he turns his back on the United States, he’s a dead man walking.”

With additional reporting by Claudia Mendoza in Tegucigalpa