Six weeks after the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernandez was arrested in Miami on four counts of drug trafficking and related charges, a U.S. district court judge denied bail to Antonio “Tony” Hernandez on the grounds that he represented a significant flight risk and danger to the community.
In a letter to the judge submitted before Friday's hearing, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman stated that, “For more than a decade, [Hernandez] abused his privilege and power in order to enrich himself by distributing massive amounts of cocaine in connection with staggering levels of political corruption.”
A former congressman, Hernandez is the latest in a string of high-profile politicians and drug traffickers from Honduras to face justice in the United States. As the brother of a sitting president, his trial – certain to expose more corruption and implicate more people – threatens like never before to reveal the state’s ties to the drug traffickers who made the country one of the world’s most dangerous and caused the flight of countless migrants to the north.
In an overview of the case, prosecutors stated that investigation by U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), "have demonstrated that Honduras is one of the principal transshipment points in the world for cocaine that is produced in South America and imported into the United States."
The day of his arrest on November 23, Hernandez was carrying a diplomatic Honduran passport. He first claimed that he had traveled to the U.S. to go shopping before later admitting to the meeting with the owner of a Mexican company, who he said wanted to invest in Honduras and with whom he discussed introducing to “a minister in Honduras who could facilitate a deal.”
A search of Hernandez allegedly turned up “at least six bank cards with foreign financial institutions that were issued in his name, and eight firearms licenses.” At the time he was carrying two cell phones, a review of which later found multiple photos of high-powered firearms, documents related to business dealings.
During his initial interrogation, Hernandez allegedly admitted to a slew of incriminating activities, including: discussing drug trafficking with persons he knew to be drug traffickers, including at least one who is expected to testify against him; knowledge that the same person “transported cocaine through Honduras by hiding it on cattle cars so that drug-sniffing dogs could not detect the cocaine;” and accepting gifts from drug traffickers, “including an expensive watch and two firearms.
He also allegedly conceded that cocaine stamped with “TH” represented his initials; and that he helped a notorious Honduran crime family, Los Cachiros, launder their proceeds from drug trafficking.
According to newly released documents, Hernandez traveled to the U.S. on November 18 with an unnamed Honduran associate, eventually ending up in Houston where he met with the owner of the Mexican company, TRADECO that was owed money by the Honduran government for a road contract, and had a history of irregularities and lawsuits.
Hernandez is accused of a now infamous meeting with a leader of the Cachrios in 2014 – shortly after his brother’s inauguration – during which he agreed in exchange for kickbacks to push through money related to construction contracts owed to the family’s money-laundering front.
That meeting was taped via video and audio. Screenshots of the meeting were shown to Hernandez by DEA agents when “so confident that his power permitted him to operate with impunity that he traveled voluntarily to the United States in October 2016 to lie about his activities.” Nevertheless, at the time he denied the meeting happened, resulting in charges for lying to a federal agent.
In the weeks since Hernandez’s arrest, several newly emboldened former law enforcement officers in Honduras have spoken out about what they knew about Hernandez as well as the state’s apparent complicity.
In an interview with Radio Progreso, former general of the National Police Henry Osorto asserted that the drug trade in Honduras had been monopolized by a cartel approved and protected by politicians and with Hernandez at the helm.
When the public prosecutor’s office in Honduras moved to seize a couple of Hernandez’s assets – nearly a month after the arrest – it was forced to admit that last June it had seized during an arrest $193,220 in cash that documents linked to him. According to court documents, Hernandez maintained at least two residents, but only one has been seized thus far along with four vehicles.
Despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, in a petition for bail Hernandez’s defense lawyer, Manuel Retureta, wrote to the judge that his client "has limited resources, none of which would finance life as a fugitive.”
"The government condemns a whole country"
Retureta added that the government's case consisted of a series of "unsubstantiated allegation" that failed to link his client to drugs, besides the 2014 meeting with Los Cachiros. "With a broad brush, the government condemns an entire Central American country. The drug activity described ... could be mistaken for other any other foreign country dealing with the problem of illegal drugs," he wrote, adding that "the government fails to offer the Court any link to Mr. Hernandez."
At least six cooperating witnesses are expected to testify against Hernandez at trial. Chief among them is likely former Cachiro’s leader Devis Leonel Maradiaga Rivera, with whom he met and whose testimony led to the conviction of Fabio Lobo, son of former President Pepe Lobo, on similar charges.