Though it’s his younger brother who will be in the courtroom facing drug trafficking charges, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández will also be judged in the coming weeks for running what amounts to a narco-state.
Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández’s trial — scheduled to begin October 2 — is likely to be a bombshell, and could confirm the suspected nexus between organized crime and President Hernández, who prosecutors say received millions in drug money to support his campaigns.
President Hernández, his younger brother, and other politicians and law enforcement officials leveraged drug trafficking to “maintain and enhance their political power,” US prosecutors allege.
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Federal authorities arrested Tony Hernández, a former Honduran congressman, in November of 2018 on drug and weapons charges in Miami. Authorities accuse him of being a “large-scale drug trafficker” bold enough to stamp cocaine bricks with his own initials, according to the criminal indictment.
Since then, key figures ranging from mayors to former high-ranking policemen have been arrested in connection to the case, which has tightened the noose around a president whose crime fighting facade, ironically enough, brought him to power.
Here, InSight Crime looks at some of the evidence and players in the trial that could end a presidency.
Tony’s Underworld Contacts
Shortly after being arrested, Tony Hernández provided extensive testimony to US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, in which he described his connections to a veritable who’s who of prominent drug traffickers in Central America.
These included Hector Emilio Fernandez, alias “Don H,” who is serving a life sentence in the United States for trafficking cocaine; Victor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias “El Rojo,” a co-defendant in Hernández’s case; and the Cachiros, a family of cattle rustlers turned traffickers.
The former congressman is also linked to a number of government officials with suspected criminal ties. This includes Amilcar Alexander Ardón, a former mayor who told prosecutors he negotiated with Tony Hernández to provide drug proceeds to Juan Orlando’s campaigns; Fredy Renán Nájera Montoya, an ex-congressman facing drug trafficking charges; and Mario José Cálix Hernández, a former mayor who the United States has asked to be extradited on drug trafficking charges and who is also another co-defendant in the case.
In addition, the Valles clan — which at its height was one of the most important links between Mexican, Colombian and Guatemalan drug trafficking organizations — saw Tony Hernández and his connections to Honduras’ political elite as a way to potentially shield themselves from extradition.
“I spoke to [an associate of the Valles] by telephone only once … he offered me helicopters … what he wanted was to have people in Congress to be able to … to be able to handle, obviously, the issue of the extraditions,” Tony Hernández told the DEA after his arrest.
Bowing to US pressure in 2012, the Honduran Congress passed a constitutional reform under former President Porfirio Lobo to allow for extradition. President Juan Orlando Hernández, then the top-ranking congressman, played an integral role.
Even though both presidents went on to extradite a laundry list of notorious drug traffickers, prosecutors may have more evidence to show how Tony Hernández and President Hernández tried to use the latter’s political clout to protect traffickers within their close circles.
Devis Rivera Maradiaga: A Kingpin’s Recording
Drugs, surprisingly enough, were not part of a taped discussion between Tony Hernández and Devis Rivera Maradiaga, one of the heads of the powerful Cachiros drug trafficking clan who ended up cooperating with the DEA.
In a February 2014 meeting, Rivera Maradiaga asked Hernández — whose brother had just become president — about government debts owed to a construction firm owned by the Cachiros. The firm had been awarded $2.7 million in contracts in exchange for bribes during Lobo’s administration.
The meeting — secretly recorded by Rivera Maradiaga — is one of the few pieces of hard evidence seen so far in the case against Hernández. Two grainy photos of Hernández at the meeting are also among documents filed by prosecutors, who say he took $50,000 as a bribe from the trafficker. Hernández denied knowing Rivera Maradiaga during a meeting with DEA agents, even when he was shown the same images.
Prosecutors have used Rivera Maradiaga’s testimony and undercover recordings to convict former President Lobo’s son, Fabio Lobo; Alberto Valladares Zúñiga, a high-ranking police commander who acted as a hitman on behalf of the Cachiros; Sergio Neftalí Mejía Duarte, alias “El Compa,” a drug trafficker who worked with the Sinaloa Cartel and is said to have been present at a meeting to plan the 2009 murder of then-drug czar Julián Arístides González; and a number of other police and government officials.
Rivera Maradiaga has also implicated members of the powerful Rosenthal family, including the late banking magnate Jaime Rosenthal, in laundering money for the Cachiros. Yankel Rosenthal, who served as investment minister under President Hernández until June 2015, and his cousin Yani Rosenthal, both pleaded guilty to US money laundering charges.
Rivera Maradiaga is likely to be a witness at Hernández’s trial. The question is what else is on his recording of the meeting, and whether Juan Orlando is mentioned there or in other conversations.
Further evidence may come from Tony Hernández’s two cellphones, which were seized by DEA agents upon his arrest. Prosecutors have also requested access to several email accounts to trace communications among Hernández and his co-conspirators.
‘El Rojo’: Tony’s Friend and Co-defendant
Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias “El Rojo,” is a little-known Honduran underworld figure accused of drug trafficking in the same case as Tony Hernández.
Arrested in 2017 in Guatemala City, Díaz Morales operated for more than a decade in western Honduras along the Guatemala border.
It was during investigations into Díaz Morales — who allegedly counted on a network of politicians, police and military officials to facilitate his crimes — when a US embassy official told InSight Crime that the president’s brother had become a “person of interest” in 2016.
Díaz Morales’ organization was based in Gracias, Lempira — the hometown of the Hernández family and also the department where Juan Orlando got his start in national politics as a congressman. In the interview with US authorities after his arrest, Hernández admits to “being good friends” with Díaz Morales, and says Díaz Morales asked him to go in on “one load” and offered him “work,” meaning moving drugs to the United States. He also admits that Díaz Morales gave him gifts through an associate named Carlitos.
The gifts — which included two Glock pistols, a Rolex watch and a Peruvian horse — were “a bonus,” Carlitos told him, for being a “good friend.”
Mauricio Hernández Pienda: Top Cop, Cousin and Co-defendant
Before taking office in 2014, Juan Orlando Hernández pledged an iron fist to go after the country’s organized crime groups, which had helped make Honduras one of Latin America’s most violent countries at the time.
As part of that so-called commitment, President Hernández in 2016 began a process of purging the national police. But criminal accusations and arrests have since plagued the commission, and not every bad actor has been swept out.
Mauricio Hernández Pineda, a former high-ranking national police officer and cousin of Tony and Juan Orlando Hernández, is now facing drug and weapons charges as part of the case against Tony. He was reportedly removed from the force in August of 2017, not due to his alleged criminal conduct, but in a broader “restructuring.”
For nearly 20 years, prosecutors allege, Hernández Pineda provided armed security for cocaine shipments and “sensitive law enforcement information concerning planned operations” to his co-conspirators so they could evade capture.
While Juan Orlando Hernández was a congressman in 2010, prosecutors allege, his cousin bribed another national police officer with gifts and payments for information on security operations to further Tony Hernández’s drug conspiracy, according to a summary of the evidence.
Years later in 2012, when the other police officer, identified in court documents as only a cooperating witness (CW-4), raised concerns about his possible extradition to the United States, Hernández Pineda told his colleague that while extradition was available “in theory,” they “would not be extradited.”
President Hernández had considered eliminating the extradition law he helped pass in 2012, according to court documents, due to fears that his brother would be subject to a US extradition order. He ultimately did not.
Tony Hernández and Hernández Pineda, according to prosecutors, conspired to leverage drug trafficking for the purpose of “maintaining and enhancing … the power of the National Party in Honduras,” of which their family member, President Hernández, was a rising star before he became the face of the party as head of state.
In Tony’s interview with the DEA, Hernández Pineda never comes up. But Tony does say that his brother had warned him, in more general terms, about the company he was keeping.
“If there’s anything, it’s going to be your problem,” he says Juan Orlando told him.
This case might prove otherwise.