Central America / Corruption

Hernández Conviction in Manhattan Spatters National Party and Ruling Party Libre in Honduras

Stephanie Keith
Stephanie Keith

Monday, March 11, 2024
Jeff Ernst

Leer en español

Seated in the witness stand wearing the same suit he had worn for his inauguration to a second term as president of Honduras in 2018, Juan Orlando Hernández attempted on March 5 to make the case that he was innocent of the drug trafficking charges against him.

“The narcos don’t have a political party,” said Hernández, responding to questions about bribes paid by drug traffickers.

“They support everyone,” he said, pausing for a moment before adding, “Or at least they try.”

“Just like you, Mr. Hernández?” responded the prosecutor.

Moments later, the trial ended for the day. As Hernández waited in the stand for the jury to exit, he stared ahead blankly with a look of defeat. A lawyer before he entered politics, he appeared to know that instead of supporting his innocence, he’d confirmed the central thesis of the U.S. prosecution — that accepting drug money has been for the last 20 years, including two Hernández administrations, the way of doing politics in Honduras.

Three days later, on Friday, March 8, a New York jury found Hernández, 55, guilty of three counts of drug trafficking and weapons conspiracy. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years, to be determined in the next few months.

The latest of a series of cases against Honduran narco-traffickers and high level officials, the three-week trial against Hernández, once the most powerful man in the country, made plain that collusion with drug traffickers was not the exception, but the norm in local politics. Witnesses not only stated that the former president received millions in bribes from drug traffickers, but also that politicians from every major political party had received bribes, too.

In a press conference at Casa Presidencial on Mar. 24, 2021, in Tegucigalpa, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said that audio recordings by the DEA in 2013, in which drug trafficking capos accused him of having ties to narcos, are “false testimony.” Photo Orlando Sierra/AFP
In a press conference at Casa Presidencial on Mar. 24, 2021, in Tegucigalpa, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said that audio recordings by the DEA in 2013, in which drug trafficking capos accused him of having ties to narcos, are “false testimony.” Photo Orlando Sierra/AFP

After the conviction, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams expressed hope that it “sends a message to all corrupt politicians [in Central America] who would consider a similar path: choose differently.” The reactions to the guilty verdict among the Honduran political elite made just as clear that a paradigm shift will not be forthcoming.

End of an era

Juan Orlando Hernández was arrested outside his Tegucigalpa home on February 15, 2022, just a couple of weeks after finishing his second consecutive term as president. When he was extradited to the United States two weeks later, seemingly the entire nation watched on as the plane sent for him by the DEA lifted off from the airport as though it were the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

For Hernández, one of the most prominent politicians in Honduras for almost twenty years and a longtime U.S. ally, it might have well been another world he was taken to — one where his name and status had finally lost privilege, or the ability to grant him impunity.

Under Hernández, Honduras became the most dangerous country in the world for human rights activists and environmentalists. He co-opted the Supreme Court of Justice to permit his reelection despite a constitutional prohibition, and even still turned to electoral fraud at the end of 2017 to renew his mandate. The United States government, despite the fact that it was already investigating his ties to drug traffickers, publicly backed both Hernández governments and kept the faucet open for cooperation funds.

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

Following numerous delays in recent months due to problems with Hernández’s defense lawyer obtaining the requisite security clearance, the trial finally began on February 20 to great expectation among Hondurans, who were eager to see the man who had come to symbolize the country’s endemic corruption brought to justice. A swarm of Honduran media traveled to Manhattan to follow the trial on site.

The conspiracy at the heart of the case revolved around Hernández and the conservative National Party that he represented since first becoming a legislator in 1998. The most crucial witness for the prosecution was a former National Party mayor named Alexander Ardón, who is famous, among other things, for installing a helipad on the roof of the Mayor’s Office in El Paraíso, Copán. Ardón turned himself into the DEA in March 2019 after being indicted on drug trafficking charges. He has since pleaded guilty.

In October of that same year, Ardón was the prosecution’s star witness in a trial held in New York’s Southern District, this one against a brother of Juan Orlando, former Honduran legislator Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who was arrested on drug trafficking charges in November 2018. Tony was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

It wasn’t until Ardón began cooperating that prosecutors realized they not only had a case against Tony, but also Juan Orlando, who had been since at least 2013 suspected of complicity with drug traffickers. In the trials of both brothers, Ardón recounted with remarkable consistency millions of dollars in bribes paid to Juan Orlando by him and others, including the notorious former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

The most anticipated witness by many was Fabio Lobo, son of Hernández’s political godfather and predecessor as president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo. Fabio was arrested for drug trafficking in 2015 in Haiti after becoming caught up in a DEA sting operation. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Decisive witness

Fabio was a late addition by the prosecution and had never served before as a cooperating witness. In an interview done before he had entered into negotiations to become a witness against Hernández, Fabio defended his father against allegations that he had taken bribes from narcos. But when he took the stand, he sang a different tune.

Fabio entered the courtroom February 29 wearing a yellow button-up prison uniform, and strolling past a death stare from Hernández. Prosecutors wasted little time before asking questions that struck at the heart.

“Was your father [Pepe Lobo] involved in conversations about the Cachiros’ money laundering?” “Yes.” “Did your father receive campaign contributions from the Cachiros?” “Yes.” “Did your father provide the Cachiros with protection?” “Yes.” “Did that include protection from extradition?” “Yes.”

With four yeses, Fabio burned his own father —now a retired politician and businessman in Honduras— and fortified the prosecution’s case against Hernández. He confirmed that the allegations against Pepe were true, and that Pepe knew of his son’s involvement with the Cachiros drug clan. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a stretch for the jury to conclude that the allegations against his successor Juan Orlando were true as well, and that he knew what his convicted brother Tony was up to — the latter being sufficient in its own right to be found guilty on conspiracy charges.

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

Adding even greater weight to Fabio’s testimony was the fact that many of his conversations with another one of the cooperating witnesses, Devis Rivera Maradiaga, of the Cachiros, were recorded and turned over to the DEA. In one text message exchange between Fabio Lobo and Rivera that dated from 2014 and was presented in court, the two talked about a meeting Fabio had with Juan Orlando Hernández during which Fabio acknowledged his own drug trafficking activities with the Cachiros and encouraged the then-president to support them.

Rivera and his brother Javier were heads of the Cachiros. In late 2013, when U.S. authorities were on their tail, they struck a cooperation deal with the DEA that had them working as double agents throughout 2014 in Honduras, before ultimately turning themselves in.

On February 28, Rivera testified that in 2012 his brother had attended a birthday party for an uncle of Fabio’s, a former legislator, that was also attended by a who’s-who of Honduran narcos and politicians. At the meeting, he said, Javier and other narcos agreed to contribute to Hernández’s campaign. Devis recounted to the jury that one narco even made a video call to him during the party, appearing with his arm around the shoulder of Hernández.

“I had bribed Pepe Lobo, so I was going to continue bribing the candidate that he selected,” said Rivera on the stand.

Although no proof was presented in court that those alleged payments really happened, if the jury wasn’t fully convinced by the barrage of the bribery accusations from witnesses called by the government, then those called by the defense —including Hernández— might have helped.

The defense called three Honduran military officials for brief testimony. The most consequential testimony of the three came from General Tulio Romero, who was involved in providing security for Hernández and family for over a decade. While being interrogated by prosecutors, Romero said that he had learned that Tony was meeting with narcos and informed Juan Orlando of that fact before he became president. No action was taken on this matter after Hernández came to power.

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

When former president Hernández took the stand, he was asked about what Romero said about Tony. “I never found out that [Tony] was participating in drug trafficking,” he said. He claimed that he had warned Tony about keeping company with narcos two or three times and asked the Honduran attorney general to investigate him. But as prosecutors asked more and more questions about his relationship with Tony, he withered and became evasive.

“Based on my information, [Tony] wasn’t a drug trafficker,” he said.

Boomerang effect

During the trial, prosecutors presented videos and transcripts of traffickers who in contemporaneous conversations recounted their own discussions with Hernández about their drug trafficking activities. There were also drug ledgers that contained Hernández’s initials and common nickname, “JOH”, along with the full name of his brother Tony, and a slew of other circumstantial evidence, such as photos of Hernández posing with narcos or members of their families in otherwise innocent situations.

But the majority of the evidence was the testimony from the traffickers who paid the bribes, leaving a door open to critics and those who wish to cast doubt, including many in the Honduran political class who themselves have been implicated.

Witnesses said that they paid bribes to members of all three major political parties in Honduras. That includes Carlos Zelaya, secretary of Congress and brother-in-law of President Xiomara Castro, of the Libre Party.

“In Honduras it is common for politicians to accept bribes relating to drugs and then deny it,” said Devis Rivera Maradiaga on the eighth day of the Hernández trial. “Did you bribe Carlos Zelaya, of the Libre Party?” asked Raymond Colón, one of Hernández’s defense attorneys. “Yes, between 100,000 and 200,000 dollars.”

Carlos Zelaya had previously been mentioned in relation to the use of an airstrip for drug trafficking during a 2017 hearing held to help determine Fabio Lobo’s sentence. In an interview published at the start of the trial. Fabio expanded further upon that accusation, stating that he had been told by other narcos of Carlos’s involvement with the use of at least two airstrips for receiving planes filled with cocaine.

“I flatly deny the false accusations against me, used as distractions in the trial against JOH, who is accused by the US, and accused of being a drug trafficker, who organized a cartel taking advantage of his public positions and State institutions,” said Carlos Zelaya on Twitter/X, in response to the latest allegation against him.

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

In a statement following the verdict, President Castro said that a “gangster elite” had taken power in Honduras under Hernández and that it is “imperative to dismantle the criminal organization that continues operating and was mounted by the heads condemned abroad.” In her press release, Castro refers to the Hernández administration as a “narco-dictatorship,” and calls the sentence proof of the “failure of the Honduran justice system and its complicity with organized crime.”

She also wields it to attack those who overthrew her husband, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, in a coup d'état in June 2009, and accuses Hernández’s National Party of “with blood and fire they assaulted us with fraudulent electoral processes in 2013 and 2017, supported by the European Union and the United States.”

But Castro glossed over the fact that one of the same witnesses who testified against Juan Orlando Hernández in Manhattan has also said in a previous trial that he paid bribes not only to her brother-in-law, but also to her husband when he campaigned for president in 2005.

Currently the two biggest political forces in Honduras, the National Party and Libre have repeatedly clashed as they vie for singlehanded control of state institutions, but reached minimal accords over the past year, together with the Liberal Party, on the election of a new Supreme Court and attorney general. Distrust nevertheless persists regarding the possible politicization of the justice system. The continued use of blinders when it comes to allegations against members of one’s own party suggests that Hondurans will likely continue having to look abroad for members of the political elite to be brought to justice.

The National Party, which during the trial against former president Juan Orlando Hernández was portrayed at the center of this drug trafficking conspiracy, released a profane statement on Friday that invoked the names of historical figures that have been unjustly judged. “Gandhi lived it, Mandela lived it, Magdalena lived it.”

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