Central America / Corruption

Fabio Lobo: Juan Orlando Was “the Brains” behind Hernández Family Drug Trafficking


Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Jeff Ernst and David Adams

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After Fabio Lobo passed through immigration, a man and a woman approached him in the airport and asked to see his passport again. “Welcome to Haiti, Mr. Lobo,” they said.

Then they trailed him to a shop where he bought a local SIM card. “I could feel in my body something was wrong,” recalled Lobo. “I grabbed a taxi and was thinking of the two people in the airport the whole way.”

He arrived at a fancy Port-au-Prince hotel and made his way to the restaurant. He had come to meet with men with whom he’d negotiated a drug trafficking deal and were supposedly interested in investing in his mining project in northern Honduras. But they weren’t the only ones waiting at the hotel.

It was May 20, 2015. Lobo, a son of former Honduran president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (2010-2014), had walked into a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation. The traffickers he was negotiating with were cooperating sources. Undercover agents were on site.

Caught red-handed, Lobo, who is now 52, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and in 2017 was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Now, he’s expected to speak publicly for the first time as a star witness against his father’s successor, former president Juan Orlando Hernández, who the Department of Justice accuses of accepting millions in bribes from drug traffickers, some of them former Fabio Lobo associates. After multiple adjournments, the trial just began in New York’s Southern District this Tuesday February 20.

Fabio Lobo, the eldest son of former Honduran President Porfirio
Fabio Lobo, the eldest son of former Honduran President Porfirio 'Pepe' Lobo, in an undated image in Rome. Devis Rivera Maradiaga, former head of the Cachiros cartel, claims to have paid Pepe Lobo and his son hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, and identified Fabio as an interlocutor with the Cachiros. AFP Photo/Courtesy of La Tribuna

“Hernández used drug trafficking proceeds to finance his political ascent and, once elected President, leveraged the Government of Honduras’ law enforcement, military, and financial resources to further his drug trafficking scheme,” said DEA administrator Anne Milgram. “This case should send a message to all political leaders around the world that trade on positions of influence to further transnational organized crime.”

Following two terms as president, Hernández, 55, was arrested in February 2022. Suspected for years of involvement in drug trafficking, his capture was not entirely unexpected, although it was certainly a surprise that it happened just weeks after leaving office. He pleaded not guilty upon extradition to the United States.

Hernández rose to the presidency under the wing of his predecessor, Pepe Lobo. The testimony of Fabio Lobo, a stunning last-minute addition by the prosecution, could paint the most damning picture not only of former president Hernández’s alleged role in the Central American drug corridor, but also expose new strands of the twisted web between politicians and drug traffickers in Honduras over the last decades.

But before he ever spoke with U.S. prosecutors about testifying against Hernández, he spoke exclusively to a reporter from a Florida prison. The interview, which was conducted in two parts in 2022 via a phone call and then a visit to the facility, is the only one Lobo has granted since his arrest.

The conversation, published for the first time in El Faro English, offers a snapshot, from inside, of Honduran narco-politics and what Fabio Lobo might say when called to testify in court in the next few days.

A recent court filing identifies Fabio Lobo as CW-3, or cooperating witness three against Hernández. Although his name does not appear, the context and biographical information included makes the identity of CW-3 clear. The document, a supplementary motion filed by prosecutors, outlines several accusations that are expected to be part of his testimony.

That includes an alleged dinner with Juan Orlando, his brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, and a trafficker known as “El Cinco”, in 2009 during which it was discussed “who among them would assume the cost of an airplane [loaded with cocaine] that had recently been seized in Roatan,” according to the document. Fabio subsequently received a call and met with another trafficker, Amilcar “El Sentado” Leva, who wanted help with an unsuccessful attempt to get back the plane from authorities.

A former legislator, Tony Hernández was convicted in the United States on drug trafficking and weapons charges in an October 2019 trial that implicated his brother, who was still president at the time, as a co-conspirator.

Picture of Juan Antonio
Picture of Juan Antonio 'Tony' Hernández taken in September 2017, when he was still a deputy for the National Party. Tony, the brother of former President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández, was arrested on Nov. 23, 2018 in Miami by U.S. authorities, and was later sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking. Photo Orlando Sierra/AFP

Witnesses testified that El Cinco was a Colombian trafficker who partnered with Tony and others. Amilcar Leva was a major Honduran drug trafficker with close ties to the National Party who became an early DEA informant. He was murdered in 2015 after his two-timing became evident when he appeared in a secretly recorded video by the DEA at a drug trafficking trial.

Fabio is also expected to testify about what he learned about the Hernández brothers’ involvement in drug trafficking from the narcos he mingled with, as well as helping Tony retrieve millions of dollars in cash from traffickers for Juan Orlando’s 2013 presidential campaign.

The court document highlights only part of what Fabio might testify about during the Juan Orlando Hernández trial; the interview suggests he has much more to say. In it, Fabio Lobo not only talked about three Honduran presidents, but also implicated in cocaine trafficking —as convicted narco Devis Rivera Maradiaga did in court testimony in 2017— the current Vice President of Congress, Carlos Zelaya, who is also the brother of former president Manuel Zelaya.

He portrayed a narcostate where the drug trade was routine business for the political elite. In the Juan Orlando Hernández trial, he will face the dilemma of how to describe the role that his father, Pepe Lobo, played in that state of affairs.

A Political Tradition

In the morning of February 25, 2022, Fabio Lobo spoke over the phone with a raspy voice. He alternated between first-person, often using the terms “we” or “us” as though representing something beyond just himself, and referring to himself in the third-person.

“I was surprised when they arrested us,” he said. “I fell into shock.”

Seven years since that day in Haiti, he said, had given him plenty of time to reflect, and to pass through each step, each encounter, again and again in his mind. “Sometimes I ask myself, who conspired against who, if Fabio Lobo conspired, or the American government conspired against Fabio Lobo?”

In a case that involved a DEA sting operation and informants, no doubt there was some conspiring on both sides. But, as Lobo would admit, he began working with traffickers well before the DEA caught wind. And the case was airtight.

“The evidence was strong,” said Lobo. It included numerous audio and video recordings made by DEA informants and Honduran traffickers who flipped sides. “But how was that evidence obtained if the due process was respected?”

Fabio Lobo, during a conversation with drug traffickers in May 2014. The meeting, in which Lobo promised support from the Honduran military to move cocaine to San Pedro Sula that would later travel to the United States, was recorded by his associates, who were collaborating with U.S. authorities. The image was part of the court file against Pepe Lobo
Fabio Lobo, during a conversation with drug traffickers in May 2014. The meeting, in which Lobo promised support from the Honduran military to move cocaine to San Pedro Sula that would later travel to the United States, was recorded by his associates, who were collaborating with U.S. authorities. The image was part of the court file against Pepe Lobo's son.

A former lawyer and judge, Lobo has represented himself in recent years and spent countless hours studying his case and American law, searching for the way to reduce his sentence.

“I know that I committed a crime,” he said. “But one might ask, if Lobo conspired, how come they give other people six to ten years? How come 24 years for Lobo? … Imagine if I were [John Doe], do you think I’d be in this problem? But since it’s Fabio Lobo, who logically represents the political class of Honduras, my father, my family.”

He answered his own question. The judge who sentenced him made it clear that he was given a sentence beyond the 10-year minimum because his case represented an extraordinary abuse of privilege.

Lobo couldn’t dispute that he had a gilded life. “To be the son of a president is a privilege and a blessing,” he said.

Lobo was blessed from birth. The family is a local dynasty in Olancho, a department known for cattle ranching and drug trafficking that’s roughly the size of El Salvador or the state of New Hampshire. By the time he entered high school in the mid-eighties, his father was a legislator for the conservative National Party, one of the two traditional political forces in Honduras. His uncle would become one too, representing a department to the north, Colon. “My dad always liked politics. All the children, we all love politics,” he said.

But he never entered electoral politics, taking a judgeship instead and supporting his family’s political ambitions, and those of the National Party, on the sideline, and in the shadows. According to U.S. prosecutors, that included funneling his own ill-gotten gains into the party’s campaign coffers.

He wanted to repent for his crimes, he said, and to explain to the reporter how “someone from a good family, with a good education,” could have conspired with drug traffickers. “Nobody is perfect. Only God is perfect. Then why the son of a president? What happened to me could happen to anybody.”

But what happened to him, happened precisely because of who he was and how the Honduran political system has operated across two decades since the country began its spiral into a narco-state. The traffickers found a country with scant economic opportunity and a rapacious political elite. They didn’t rise up on the margins, but alongside the politicians they financed, hand-in-hand all the way.

Fabio is not the exception. He just got caught. The son of a president got involved with traffickers because that’s how the system is designed to work in Honduras.

Visit to Prison

After restrictions on visits set up during the COVID-19 pandemic were finally lifted, a reporter visited Fabio Lobo in Coleman federal prison near Orlando on August 8, 2022.

The three hour interview took place in a small and otherwise bare room with just a table and three chairs in the prison visiting area. Prison guards left Lobo unattended and did not sit in or otherwise appear to monitor the interview. No camera or recording equipment was allowed, only a pen and notepad.

Wearing a faded yellow prison uniform, Fabio Lobo, looked fit. He spoke of his exercise routine, a habit maintained since he attended a military-style boarding school outside of Tegucigalpa, and the food at the prison, which he mostly liked but supplemented with cans of tuna from the commissary, before delving into the story of how he ended up there.

He said it all started around 2009. That June, a coup ousted President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who then represented the center-right Liberal Party. Five months later, amid a deep political crisis, Pepe Lobo was elected president of the republic and Juan Orlando Hernández would become president of Congress when the new legislature was called to session in January 2010.

Former President of Honduras Porfirio
Former President of Honduras Porfirio 'Pepe' Lobo (center), upon his arrival in court in Tegucigalpa on April 13, 2023, to face charges of corruption during his administration. Former President Juan Orlando Hernández is also accused in the case, which is still awaiting trial. Photo Johny Magallanes/AFP

At the time, Fabio Lobo was married with kids and living a comfortable life as a lawyer and judge in Olancho, well-above the standards of the average Honduran.

But he wanted, he said, greater independence from his father – and more luxury. “We had all this land and my father and his brother ran the [agricultural] business and they looked after us, but we were never that rich,” he said. He wanted the luxury vacations in the south of France.

Lobo had previously obtained an exploratory permit for an iron-oxide mine in the coastal department of Colon. The mine – and his father’s presidency – were his opportunity to cash in.

At the time, Honduras was in the midst of a golden age for drug trafficking. Most of the cocaine that was arriving in the United States was landing there first. Crime families who a decade earlier were cattle rustlers, were now cocaine hustlers. And they had millions of dollars they needed to launder.

In Colon, one family had risen above the rest – the “Cachiros,” led by brothers Javier and Devis Rivera Maradiaga. Lobo said he needed permission from the Cachiros to operate the mine in their territory – and their money to make it happen. A brother set up a meeting with the Cachiros in the coastal town of Trujillo and then one thing became another. “That’s where I lost myself,” he said.

Lobo said he grew closest to Javier Rivera Maradiaga. He was more sophisticated, more of a businessman than his brother, Devis. The Cachiros would eventually confess to causing 78 murders. Many, including Lobo, suspect there were more victims. But the danger seemed to make it more exciting for him. And the easy money appeared addicting.

He explained that he became a fixer of sorts for drug traffickers, principally the Cachiros, trafficking his name and influence as son of the president. In the 2009 election, the National Party had achieved the tightest grip on power of any party in the country’s democratic era due to a boycott of the vote by opponents of the coup. The currency of being the president’s family was never higher.

He was the guy they would call in case something went wrong or to make an introduction. His role, he said, was mostly setting up meetings, sitting around in fancy hotels and making an occasional appearance. 

“I never got to see a single plane land. I always wanted to, but I never got to see it,” he said. He wanted action, like in a narco novela.

Fabio Lobo in December 2013, during one of his meetings with Honduran drug traffickers to broker the transfer of a cocaine shipment for the Sinaloa Cartel. In that meeting, recorded by his alleged associates and presented as court evidence, Lobo promised police protection for the shipment in exchange for $1.6 million.
Fabio Lobo in December 2013, during one of his meetings with Honduran drug traffickers to broker the transfer of a cocaine shipment for the Sinaloa Cartel. In that meeting, recorded by his alleged associates and presented as court evidence, Lobo promised police protection for the shipment in exchange for $1.6 million.

Devis Rivera Maradiaga would later recount in court how it all went down. Lobo said that the majority of the Rivera Maradiaga accusations against him were true, but his own account goes deeper, and differs on a few points.

The main point of dispute concerned allegations that included president Lobo in his son’s criminal activities. Prosecutors have accused Pepe Lobo, now retired from politics, of receiving millions of dollars from drug traffickers, much like Juan Orlando Hernández. He has been named as a member of the Hernández conspiracy, and witnesses, including Devis Rivera Maradiaga, have testified that they paid him bribes. But he has not been indicted.

Pepe Lobo has repeatedly denied the accusations. In the interview in prison, Fabio said he believed his father was unaware of his dealings with traffickers. Hernández, on the other hand, “knew everything” and was manipulating his father, Fabio said.

He mentioned a call about the plane with drugs intercepted by Honduran authorities on the island of Roatan in 2009, the one that, according to the court filing, resulted in a dinner with Juan Orlando, Tony, and another trafficker.

He said that Juan Orlando was “the brains” behind Tony’s involvement in drug trafficking. “Tony’s business card was Juan Orlando,” he said. But he held back from going into great detail, appearing uncomfortable talking too much about the Hernández family. Much of what Lobo knew about Tony he said he learned from other traffickers.

Throughout the interview, he was adamant that he did not do anything that had not already been done before. “I had a window of opportunity and I took it,” he said. “All the other presidents and their families before me had done it, so I just saw it as my turn.”

The Zelaya Brothers

During a March 2017 hearing held to help determine Fabio Lobo’s sentence, Devis Rivera Maradiaga testified that around 2010 he had discussed with Lobo using an airstrip at a military base in Olancho called El Aguacate for landing drug shipments, but they decided against it. “Work could not be done there because a lot of work [drug planes landing] had been done there during the previous administration and the airstrip ended up getting caught because Fredy Najera and the brother of former president [Mel] Zelaya had worked there,” said Rivera Maradiaga.

In a document filed by prosecutors after the hearing, the brother in question is identified as Carlos Zelaya, current vice-president of Congress and brother-in-law of President Xiomara Castro. Fabio Lobo also confirmed the same. He said that Najera and other traffickers, including Wilkin Montalván, told him about Carlos Zelaya’s involvement with the use of the El Aguacate airstrip. “Everyone in Catacamas knew what it was being used for,” said Lobo.

Carlos Zelaya Rosales,vice president fo Congress and brother of former president Manuel Zelaya, poses for a picture in the Legislative Palace in Tegucigalpa on Jan. 12, 2023. Photo Orlando Sierra/AFP
Carlos Zelaya Rosales,vice president fo Congress and brother of former president Manuel Zelaya, poses for a picture in the Legislative Palace in Tegucigalpa on Jan. 12, 2023. Photo Orlando Sierra/AFP

Fredy Najera is a former Liberal Party legislator from Olancho who pleaded guilty in the United States to drug trafficking in 2020 and has admitted to using several unspecified airstrips in the department. 

Montalván was murdered by assassins dressed as doctors in September 2021 while interned in a Tegucigalpa hospital due to COVID-19. His brother, Milton Mateo Montalván, was Carlos Zelaya’s deputy legislator when he joined Congress in 2014. The Montalván brothers have been linked by authorities, and even Tony Hernandez, to drug trafficking and money laundering.

Rivera Maradiaga also testified about traveling by helicopter with Lobo to a clandestine airstrip. Fabio said the traffickers had told him that Carlos Zelaya had been involved with using that strip as well, which was located somewhere between Catacamas and the Patuca River to the east. “Carlos Zelaya wasn’t anyone until his brother became president,” said Lobo. 

“I completely reject that rumor,” Carlos Zelaya told El Faro English via text message. He also said that Lobo was lying and that he would not speak any further about the issue. 

Devis Rivera Maradiaga has also said that he and another trafficker paid bribes to Mel Zelaya during his 2005 campaign.

Mel Zelaya has previously denied any involvement with traffickers. “Irrefutable proof that I never received a bribe is that I never appointed a minister, neither from organized crime, nor due to pressure from the American embassy,” Mel Zelaya wrote on Twitter/X in March 2021 after Devis Rivera Maradiaga said he had bribed the former president during a drug trafficking trial in New York. Rivera Maradiaga has said that the bribe had been paid so that Zelaya would appoint one of his allies as security minister, but the appointment did not come to fruition. 

“[The Zelayas] made a lot of money using those airstrips and then they retired,” said Fabio Lobo. “I saw how successful they’d been and I saw there was an opportunity, being in power, to take it.”

JOH, a Priority Target

When Fabio Lobo takes the stand against Hernández in the next few days, perhaps no one outside the courtroom will pay closer attention to what he has to say than his own father.

“I’ve been a star in those trials in New York ever since Fabio’s case,” Pepe Lobo said when reached via phone at his home in Tegucigalpa last week.

Prosecutors will want Fabio Lobo’s testimony in the trial of Juan Orlando Hernández —commonly referenced in Honduras simply as JOH— to establish that conspiring with drug traffickers was the way of doing politics in Honduras. The trial will say more about a system, than a man. Tony Hernández followed Fabio Lobo, and he claims that he followed Carlos Zelaya. But then it makes sense to assume that the same must be true about presidents.

Manuel Zelaya, former president of Honduras, attends a cultural event in June 2019 in Tegucigalpa
Manuel Zelaya, former president of Honduras, attends a cultural event in June 2019 in Tegucigalpa's central square to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the coup that overthrew him. Photo Víctor Peña

To become a cooperating witness, one must accept the general narrative of the case established by the prosecution. In this case, the narrative is that Hernández accepted millions in bribes from drug traffickers, and that the presidents before him, Pepe Lobo and Mel Zelaya, as well as other presidential candidates, did too. It was how the game was played. 

“Since at least 2000, both [the Liberal and National] parties have supported and facilitated wide-spread drug trafficking in exchange for massive bribes to support their campaigns and to enrich themselves,” stated prosecutors in a motion. 

“This symbiotic relationship, and the cycle of corruption and drug money that fueled it, was the core of the charged conspiracies.”

It’s unlikely that prosecutors would accept Fabio Lobo’s cooperation if he contradicts the testimony of other witnesses, such as something that Devis Rivera Maradiaga might say about Pepe Lobo. To do so would risk the state undermining its own case. He cannot go on the stand and say Hernández was the devil, but his father was a saint.

Pepe Lobo said he paid for his son’s defense, but hasn’t spoken with him since his guilty plea. “Not because I don't love him, but because he has no idea how many problems he has put us in due to pure nonsense.”

But the former president said that he wasn’t concerned about what his son, or anyone else might say about him.

“They can say what they want about a person, I'm used to it, but they will never, ever, but never ever, prove that I have collaborated in anything with some criminal or that I have received money in exchange for something,” said Pepe Lobo.

At 76-years-old and with a decade out of politics, Pepe Lobo is not a priority target for the DEA. A conviction of Hernández would send the message to politicians who conspire with narcos that the Department of Justice wants. And it’s likely that Fabio Lobo received some form of assurance from prosecutors that his father would not be indicted as a result of his cooperation.

Much like his son, Pepe Lobo pointed a finger at others. “President [Xiomara Castro] is out there saying 12 years of a narco-dictatorship,” he said. “But the truth is that when drug trafficking flourished here was during Mel Zelaya's time. I'm not saying he's involved, but it flourished then, they had an open door.”

Juan Orlando Hernandez, escorted by police officers at a Honduran Air Force base on April 21, 2022, the day he was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. Photo Orlando Sierra/AFP
Juan Orlando Hernandez, escorted by police officers at a Honduran Air Force base on April 21, 2022, the day he was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. Photo Orlando Sierra/AFP

It is a fact that during Zelaya’s administration so many suspected drug planes began arriving from South America that the route became known as the Venezuela air bridge. 

When it came to his former acolyte Hernández, Pepe Lobo stopped short of condemning him.

“They say that in the United States no trial is a done deal. But if they take him, I imagine they must have something, they’re not going to take him just for the sake of it,” he said.

In the interview at Coleman federal prison, Fabio Lobo described a world in which politicians and drug traffickers walked in the same halls, and were often one in the same. “The political class, not just in Honduras, but in any part of the world, the children or family members have not been perfect,” understated Fabio. They had a symbiotic relationship, each relying upon the other to achieve their objectives. His father’s presidency bridged those of Mel Zelaya and Juan Orlando Hernandez. His testimony could do the same.

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