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Latin America & Caribbean

President of Honduras named as target of "large-scale" DEA drug trafficking investigation

Juan Orlando Hernández was named in court documents as a target of an investigation that has led to several indictments, including his brother, Tony Hernández. In a statement Hernández said the investigation "found no evidence" against him.
30 May 2019 – 06:03 PM EDT
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Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras during an interview with Univision News at his home in the capital, Tegucigalpa, Jan 19, 2018. Crédito: Univision

U.S. federal prosecutors named the President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, as a target of a major investigation into " large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities” in court documents filed in New York on Tuesday.

Hernandez’s brother Juan Antonio 'Tony' Hernández was arrested at Miami airport in November charged by federal prosecutors in New York’ Southern District with conspiring to bring tons of cocaine into the country between 2004 and 2016.

The document naming president Hernández was dated July 2015 and did not indicate if the investigation was ongoing. The previously sealed document is an application to the court in the Southern District of New York to compel Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL to give investigators email header information, but not emails' content, for a number of accounts. It also mentioned the president's name in connection with a bank account allegedly used to launder money, but does not include any other details regarding his possible involvement in drug trafficking activities.

There is no indication charges have been brought against president Hernández.

News of the investigation coincided with a national strike and major street protests in Honduras on Thursday calling for Hernández's resignation, potentially fueling the massive exodus of migrants to the U.S. southern border.

It was unclear why prosecutors chose to disclose the court documents this week. Despite political turmoil in his country, president Hernández has been considered a U.S. ally and the Trump administration stood by him after allegations of electoral fraud sparked violent street protests in 2017. The naming of a foreign head of state as the target of a U.S. government investigation is extremely rare and usually only undertaken with top-level government approval.

The U.S. Attorney's office did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The DEA also declined to comment.

No evidence

The president's office put out a statement late Thursday saying the DEA investigation cleared Hernández back in 2015 and that he currently enjoyed a good working relationship with the DEA. It blamed the investigation on traffickers seeking revenge on the government for its efforts to combat crime, as well as reduction in sentences in the United States.

"The Department of Justice of the United States, forced to investigate allegations by drug traffickers, found no evidence to support the accusation against the president and his collaborators," it said, adding that charges were filed against other Hondurans who were mentioned in the same investigation.

The statement went on to say Hernández enjoyed "the confidence of the DEA's top leadership," noting that they held a meeting with him as recently as March 1. It added that DEA " considers the president a trusted partner in the fight against organized crime."

The statement made no mention of Hernández's brother, or his cooperation with U.S. authorities. Hernández has long denied any involvement in his brother's alleged drug trafficking activities, saying he trusts the U.S. justice system to handle his case fairly.

Honduras is a major transhipment point for South American cocaine headed for Mexico and the U.S. southern border and has been the source of major corruption involving leading business families, politicians and military officers. The court document also named several other targets including Hernandez’s late sister, Hilda Hernandez, who died in a helicopter crash last year, security minister General Julian Pacheco, as well as the president's chief of staff Ebal Diaz.

After 'Tony' Hernandez’s arrest court documents show he offered immediate cooperation with the DEA agents, without prior consultation with his attorney.

Multi-ton loads, machine guns

The 2018 indictment accuses the 40-year-old former Honduran congressman of importing packages of cocaine stamped with his initials and protecting "multi-ton loads" of cocaine shipments by paying bribes to local officials and arranging for "machine-gun toting security", including Honduran police. Tony Hernández was also charged with weapons related offenses involving the use and possession of machineguns and "destructive devices," and making false statements to federal agents. If convicted, he faces possible life in prison.

The indictment alleges that Hernández was involved "in processing, receiving, transporting, and distributing" cocaine that arrived in Honduras via planes, go-fast vessels, and, on at least one occasion, a submarine. It adds that he had access to cocaine laboratories in Honduras and Colombia, at which some of the cocaine was stamped with the symbol “TH,” i.e., “Tony Hernandez.”

His arrest came a year after Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, a former leader of the once powerful “Cachiros” criminal group, testified that he paid bribes to Tony Hernández. The indictment described a video of a meeting in 2014 in Honduras where Tony Hernández agreed to help Rivera Maradiaga by arranging for Honduran government entities to pay money owed to Cachiros money-laundering front companies in exchange for kickback payments. Rivera Maradiaga paid Hernández approximately $50,000 during the meeting, according to the indictment.