Open secret: the mountains of Honduras where drug traffickers ruled
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GRACIAS, Lempira - After he gets home from a hard day’s work in the fields, coffee farmer, Domingo Gutierrez, 58, likes to turn on the news.
These days, the remote, mountainous region of western Honduras where he lives is in the headlines after drug traffickers took advantage of its strategic location near the border with Guatemala to smuggle cocaine bound for the United States. “I suppose corruption exists everywhere, but in the news, they say Honduras is the most corrupt country in the world,” he said, wearing a Stetson-style farmer’s hat and sitting on a park bench under shady trees in Gracias, a colonial town of cobbled streets.
This week, Gracias will find itself at the center of a high-profile drug trial in New York against Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernandez, member of one the leading local families and brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
It’s an open secret that drug traffickers seized control in recent years of this mountainous region of tropical pine forests. But the trial threatens to lift the veil over their alleged illicit activities, much like the mist that covers the pine-covered slopes.
Univision spent four days last week interviewing local officials and townspeople to get a sense of the potential political impact of the trial which has transfixed residents like a TV soap opera.
“We don’t care about which political party is involved, we just want it investigated and if they are guilty, they should pay for their crimes,” said Gutierrez.
Tony Hernandez, along with three other co-defendants, is accused of being a “violent, large-scale drug trafficker,” who bribed high-ranking Honduran officials to safely smuggle multi-ton cocaine shipments, and gained political influence by pouring millions of dollars into the 2009 and 2013 election campaigns of National Party candidates, including President Hernandez.
Tony Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
President Hernandez, who is an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, has also fervently denied the allegations against him, blaming them on traffickers seeking revenge for his anti-drug policies.
Gracias Mayor, Javier Enamorado, a 48-year-old dentist, said he did not believe the allegations. "We are, in my case, amazed ... What I know of the Hernández is that they are a distinguished family ... with long-standing assets, said Enamorado in an interview in his office on the town’s main square.
Despite all the rumors of drug trafficking, Enamorado said Gracias continued to be a quiet coffee town, with no outward signs of wealth.
Enamorado noted that Tony and Juan Orlando Hernandez are part of a large family with deep roots in the town. Their father, Juan Hernandez, who was also an unofficial political boss, or rural ‘cacique,’ fathered 17 children. The family owns the best hotel in town, the modest Posada Don Juan, where an air-conditioned room cost $53 a night, with breakfast included.
Mario José Cálix
Enamorado is also a member of the National Party and has served as mayor since 2010 and one of the co-defendants in the New York trial is his former vice-mayor from 2010 to 2014, Mario José Cálix, a coffee farmer known locally by his nickname ‘Cubeta’ (‘Bucket’ in English).
The Honduran Supreme Court announced Tuesday that U.S. officials have requested the extradition of Cálix, though his whereabouts are unknown.
Univision visited his home in Gracias and spoke to his mother, Iris Hernández de Cálix, at the family’s hotel and restaurant, La Finca del Capitan. “I haven’t heard anything from him in ages,” she said with a pained looked on her face. “I trust in his innocence,” she added.
A legal representative for the family, Jose Madrid, also told Univision that Honduran anti-narcotics officers had visited the family’s properties in February seeking legal documents, presumably looking for evidence of money laundering. They came up empty handed, said Madrid. “The hotel property has been in the family for years. Nothing has been confiscated,” he added, noting that eight months had passed since the agents visited.
A local opposition politician, Ramon Lopez, 40, said he was as stunned as everyone by the revelations about Cálix and Tony Hernández. He said he grew up playing soccer with Tony Hernández, 41, and knew him as a typical cattle rancher who was elected to Congress in 2013. He recalled his fierce tackles on the soccer field.
“He wasn’t that good. As we say here, he was a hacker, one of those who tackles hard,” he said.
Tony Hernandez also had a law office and gained notoriety for successfully representing a Colombian arrested during a raid on a clandestine drug laboratory in 2013.
Local residents and some opposition politicians dismissed all professions of innocence as part of a long-standing cover-up by the ruling National Party to maintain its political dominance in the region. Even so, they too expressed their shock at the scale of their alleged misdeeds.
“Tony was a monster, only we never realized,” said Yester Munoz, 47, a former National Party mayor who was once close to Juan Orlando Hernandez, but left the party and is now an opposition member of Congress for Gracias.
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“We have gone from being a little town to a nest of capos," said Munoz. “We are swimming in a pool of corruption. Whatever you touch here, puss comes out,” he added.
Before long, local businessmen and politicians began to show signs of new wealth. “It snowballed. They began building big homes, there were fiestas and luxury horses and cars,” he said. “It was an open secret ((secreto a voces)),” where the money came from, he added.
Young men drive around town racing flashy all-terrain vehicles worth more than most cars on the road. In April 2016 the government inaugurated a small, local airport on the outskirts of town as part of a national tourist plan to link major cities with the nearby famous ancient Mayan ruins of Copan.
But the tourists never came. Instead, the runway is now used almost exclusively by president Hernandez who visits at weekends, and several other local politicians who have built homes in the area.
Residents also talk in hushed tones of suspicious planes landing in the dead of night bringing cocaine from Colombia, and the eastern Atlantic coast of Honduras.
“It’s a total waste of money, with all the poverty in this country,” said a 35-year-old evangelical pastor who stopped on his motorbike near the airport to talk to reporters, but asked not to be named. “May God protect us from the bad guys. God will make them pay,” he added.
The unused airstrip sits on the edge of town guarded by soldiers. Along a newly paved road leading past the airstrip is a new housing development as well as several modern, luxury residences under construction that stand out in sharp contrast to the traditional, modest single-story homes in the town.
The president’s office did not respond to several messages seeking comment about the allegations surrounding him and his brother. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday Hernandez said he was the “victim” of a “smear campaign" by drug traffickers, corrupt police and political opponents.
Down one dirt track is the president’s personal mansion, a large compound occupying several acres and hidden behind trees and a 10-foot tall, green metal fence.
After driving past the house and taking photos and video a Univision crew was followed for 30 miles over the course of several hours by a pick up with tinted windows belonging to a private security firm that offers "armored cars and more." Univision asked the president's office if the car was rented to his security team, but received no response.
Munoz described growing up with modest means, like the Hernandez brothers, and questioned the president’s rapid rise to riches on a public servant’s salary. “His big leap is hard to explain. I’d like to have his magic wand to be a millionaire like him,” said Munoz. “He couldn’t do it all himself,” he added.
According to the New York indictment, one of those people is Alexander Ardón, the former mayor of El Paraíso, a cattle town about 75 miles northwest of Gracias in the neighboring department of Copan.
Ardón was indicted January 23 by the same New York federal court, along with Calix, charged with importing “massive quantities of cocaine into the U.S. and used heavy weaponry to protect drug shipments.”
According to court documents, Ardón, 43, has confessed to helping Tony Hernandez raise $2 million in illicit drug money for National Party presidential candidate Porfirio Lobo in 2009 in return for protection. Lobo has denied that allegation as pure fantasy.
In 2010, Ardón also allegedly agreed to help Juan Orlando Hernandez bribe fellow legislators with drug money to obtain the necessary votes to become president of the national Congress. Then in 2013, he also allegedly gave $1.5 million in drug proceeds to the Hernandez presidential campaign in western Honduras where Ardon was a National Party campaign coordinator.
Ardón wasted no time turning himself in to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in February and prosecutors are billing him as the chief witness against Tony Hernandez.
“The perfect pair”
By all accounts, Ardón was a pistol-packing, charismatic mayor, despite only a fifth-grade education, who enjoyed rodeos and cock-fights. “He was a natural born leader who cared for the people,” according to his former vice mayor and closest of friends, Adonías Morales, 53, who is the current mayor of El Paraíso.
The two men teamed up 12 years ago to try and address social problems, such as crime and the lack of paved roads, schools and health clinics, backed by a group of citizens who complained that the national government had failed to provide basic services.
Ardón provided the charisma, while Morales, armed with a business degree, was the brains. They were known locally as “the perfect pair.”
Speaking with deep affection for his friend, Morales said he mentored Ardon, helping him clean up his act, including persuading him to shave, use less bad language and abandon his pistol and bodyguards.
Crime rates fell dramatically under their municipal management, streets were paved, schools and medical clinics built. They also built a fancy new municipal building with a pillared portico which became famous in the Honduran media.
Even if some of the public works may have been paid for with drug money, residents said they were grateful. When killings took place they were mostly between the drug traffickers. they added.
"People always rumored about [Ardon's] business," said one local resident who asked not to be named. "Regardless of what [Ardon] was doing, there was more security," he added.
Others complained of electoral fraud in local elections. "There was total control to tip the vote towards the ruling party," said one local market seller. "I was going to vote, but when I go to the [voting] table they had already voted for me," he said.
Waiting for the storm to pass
Morales said Ardon kept his business dealings private and never knew of the extent of his drug ties. “He wasn’t a rich man, but he had his bonanza moment,” Morales conceded.
He had gotten out of the drug business eight years ago and hoped to avoid paying for his earlier sins, Morales told Univision in a lengthy interview. “He was waiting for the storm to pass without getting wet, but he got caught by the last drops,” he added.
Even so, Morales says he finds it hard to believe that Ardón, or Tony Hernandez, were capable of the enormity of their alleged drug crimes. The municipality of El Paraíso has a population of 28,000, with 10,000 in the town itself, and only a total annual budget of roughly $1 million, according to Morales. The larger, more prosperous municipality of Gracias numbers 55,000, with 22,000 in the town, and an annual budget of roughly $2 million, according to Mayor Enamorado.
While he is suspicious of the U.S. plea bargaining system, he recognized that Honduran law enforcement and judiciary lacked the resources to confront the drug traffickers.
“It was a necessary evil,” said Morales, comparing Honduras to the drug war in Colombia in the 1980s and 90s when Pablo Escobar sought to turn the country into a narco state. “Like Colombia, Honduras was already consumed by mafias. And few were going to risk their life to take measures against them,” he said.
He also put his hand on his heart to express his deep faith and trust that Ardon will tell the truth in court even if it is costly for the National Party and President Hernandez.
“In this case, I think he (Ardon) realized that you don’t lie to Americans, they know everything," he said. "That was one of the things he told me once, so I think he will say what he really knows," he added.