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Home Criminal News Honduras ‘Narco-State’ on Trial in US

Honduras ‘Narco-State’ on Trial in US

The first week of the trial of Honduras’ ex-President Juan Orlando Hernández was marked by dramatic testimony that detailed how drug money corrupted every level of the Honduran government and painted a damning picture of how state security forces were co-opted by drug trafficking groups.

Prosecutors allege that Hernández was part of a cocaine trafficking conspiracy and used the power of the presidency to protect drug traffickers and solicit bribes totaling millions of dollars. If found guilty, Hernández faces a life sentence.

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The first week of the trial of Honduras’ ex-President Juan Orlando Hernández was marked by dramatic testimony that detailed how drug money corrupted every level of the Honduran government and painted a damning picture of how state security forces were co-opted by drug trafficking groups.

Prosecutors allege that Hernández was part of a cocaine trafficking conspiracy and used the power of the presidency to protect drug traffickers and solicit bribes totaling millions of dollars. If found guilty, Hernández faces a life sentence.

US Trial of Honduras Ex-President Spotlights Thorny Security Ties

“This is a case about power. About corruption, about massive amounts of cocaine,” Prosecuting Lawyer David Robles said in opening statements.

Shortly after, the defense opened with Shakespeare. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” Defense Lawyer Renato Stabile said, a nod to Hernández’s often repeated complaint that those testifying against him were resentful traffickers.

Testimony from the trial quickly implicated three former Honduran presidents in accepting drug money and provided fresh details of how criminal groups have penetrated the heart of the Honduran state.

Below InSight Crime examines the key takeaways from the trial’s first week.

The Narco-State’s Continued Grip

José Sánchez, a former accountant for the defunct rice company, Granaderos Nacionales, was the prosecution’s first witness. His testimony implicated three former presidents in receiving drug money from Geovanny Fuentes, a convicted drug trafficker.

Sánchez alleged that Fuentes cut monthly checks of L 250,000 ($10,090) to Hernández, as well as two of Hernández’s predecessors, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo and José Manuel Zelaya, who received regular payments of L 100,000 ($5,400) and L 50,000 ($2,770) respectively during their terms. (Conversions based on the exchange rates at the time).

InSight Crime Series – The Downfall of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández

Zelaya is married to Honduras’ current president, Xiomara Castro. Links between the Zelayas and drug money were also highlighted in Fuentes’ 2021 trial when Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the former leader of the Cachiros, testified that he bribed Zelaya with $500,000 in 2006.

Previous testimony given in 2017 also implicated Zelaya’s brother, Carlos Zelaya, in drug trafficking activity in Catacamas, Olancho. Carlos is currently vice president of the Honduran congress. Both Zelayas deny the allegations.

For Hernández, testimony detailing millions of dollars of bribes kept coming. In one case, the former Cachiros leader reported seeing Hernández via video call at a 2012 birthday party for the brother of then-President Pepe Lobo.

The guest list was a who’s who of Honduras’ criminal elite. After the party, according to Maradiaga, the Cachiros agreed to make a $250,000 contribution to Hernández’s upcoming 2013 presidential campaign.

While current testimony suggests that Hernández’s National Party by far seems to have received the most drug money, it appears that traffickers had a cavalier attitude towards political alliances. One former trafficker, according to reports from inside the courtroom, testified that they bribed any politician who would win, regardless of political color.

The Increased Shadow Of The Sinaloa Cartel

Testimony from Alexander Ardón, a convicted drug trafficker and former mayor of El Paraíso, also featured prominently in the trial’s first week. Ardón detailed how the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” flew to El Paraíso by helicopter to deliver a $1 million contribution to Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign.

The money reached the campaign via Hernández’s brother, Tony Hernández, who was convicted of drug trafficking in 2019 and is serving a life sentence. Ardón’s allegations are consistent with testimony he gave during Tony’s trial.

However, new testimony from a former Sinaloa Cartel member using the pseudonym Luis Pérez indicated the group provided a total of $2.4 million to Hernández’s political campaigns. Pérez detailed how $1 million of these funds were funneled through a key official allied to Hernández at the Port of Cortés, Honduras’ main port and a major drug trafficking hub.

Drug Money Corrupts All Levels Of The Honduran State

In addition to detailing El Chapo’s campaign contribution, Ardón also described how he invested his own personal drug wealth to help the Partido Naciónal win both national and municipal campaigns. The drug trafficker said that he met Pepe Lobo and Hernández as early as 2008 and was asked to contribute $2 million in bribes.

Ardón also claimed that Hernández later requested that he finance municipal candidates in Honduras’ western provinces of Lempira and Copán in exchange for the continued protection of Ardón’s drug trafficking activities.

Ardón testified in previous trials that his drug shipments were never seized, nor was he arrested, indicating that Hernández made good on his promises of protection. Ardón’s detention ultimately came after he voluntarily surrendered to US authorities in 2015.

During the Hernández trial, Ardón was also questioned about several of the 56 murders he claims to have participated in, including the killing of Franklin Arita, a rival trafficker who was killed with a bazooka at the hands of Honduran National Police in 2011.

The police official who carried out the hit on Arita was Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who was later promoted to Honduras’ Chief of Police under Hernández and is considered by prosecutors as a key co-conspirator in the case.

Bonilla was arrested and extradited to the United States in 2022 and awaits trial. He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in February.

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