Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández transformed his country into a de facto narco state, stealing elections with drug money and stacking state security services with crime lords. A Department of Justice motion against the jailed politico shows the US knew of his shocking crimes all along.
Just weeks after the 2014 inauguration of former Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernández, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) learned the country’s new leader was deeply embedded with the country’s mammoth narco trafficking network. Yet months after the ostensibly anti-drug agency obtained video evidence demonstrating that Hernández “effectively authorized drug trafficking” in Honduras, the DEA rolled out the red carpet for the Honduran president at their Northern Virginia command and control center.
“The commitment in these matters is impressive, and to see the work that this government has done in these last months—it is incredible,” declared Commander of US Southern Command, John Kelly, touting Hernández’s dubious anti-narcotics campaign during the June 2014 meeting.
As established in the first part of this series, Hernández came to power in Honduras following a US-backed coup that placed his Washington-aligned National Party at the helm of government in Tegucigalpa. The coup triggered an explosion of crime and poverty, which in turn unleashed a succession of migration waves towards the US-Mexico border. And as US officials watched, Hernández transformed Honduras into a de facto narco state.
Since then, Honduran cartel leaders have come forward to confess to US Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors that they paid bribes to install Hernández and his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo, as president. Prosecutors allege that throughout the National Party’s reign, Lobo and Hernández fueled their respective political careers with drug money, and directed the resources of the Honduran state into the service of narco lords.
Juan Orlando “wielded incredible influence and partnered with some of the most notorious narcotics traffickers in Honduras, allowing them to flourish under their control,” states a May 1, 2023 prosecutor’s motion in the case.
The DOJ case against Hernández raises serious questions about whether the DEA has played a double game in the illegal drug industry. The case reveals that while officials at the agency were well aware of Hernández’s status as a narco kingpin, Washington continued to lavish his administration with US taxpayer dollars and weapons. Eventually, US officials went so far as to rubber-stamp Hernández’s dubious reelection “victory”—despite a constitutional one term limit on the Honduran presidency.
Raul Pineda is a Honduran lawyer and analyst who worked in his country’s Council to Fight Drug Trafficking. He told The Grayzone that Hernández’s main achievement was to “create a fourth estate of drug trafficking within the republican model of governance.”
Hernández “began to replace [the old narco kingpins] with institutional trafficking, where military personnel and police were used [for protection], along with the cover of prosecutors and judges…” Pineda said. “He tried to replace narcos with elected military personnel, with police officers, with elected politicians accompanied by an entire structure of media, opinion leaders, and organized political groups.”
According to Pineda, Hernández transformed Honduras into a pivotal transit center for the drug trade: “He built six airports in a country of nine million inhabitants. And each airport, some of which have recently had three plane accidents in one year, had the sole function of being a logistical platform for drug trafficking. So instead of the plane landing on a dirt road, it landed on a paved runway and they paid for using it.”
All along, the DEA worked with Hernández to provide the illusion of an anti-narcotics policy. “The DEA has very little credibility in the world of interdiction agencies,” Pineda said. “After all, the DEA’s highest decoration was awarded to Manuel Noriega. And the head of the Southern Command repeatedly came to Honduras to praise the virtues of Don Juan Orlando Hernández.”
The story of Honduras’ “narco-state” is largely a tale of fraternal ties — Javier and Leonel Rivera of the Los Cachiros cartel; Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Antonio Valle of the Los Valles cartel; Alex and Hugo Ardon of the AA Brothers cartel; and Tony and Juan Orlando Hernández of the Honduran government, which, while not a cartel per se, effectively operated as one. The saga came to life in US court documents filed with the US Southern District of New York, where former president Hernández currently faces trial for weapons and drug trafficking charges. His brother, Tony, was convicted of nearly identical charges in October 2019 and ultimately sentenced to life in prison.
Much of the proceeding investigation is based on first hand witness testimony supplied by the Rivera, Valle, and Ardon brothers — all of whom have since surrendered to US authorities and cooperated as witnesses against Tony and Juan Orlando Hernández.
According to Pineda, Hernández’s ambition to formalize the business of drug trafficking within the country’s political structure “generated enemies among some drug traffickers who had protection, or had their agreements with the United States government and who began to denounce and inform on some clumsy activities that Mr. Hernández got involved in. But,” the Honduran lawyer maintained, “this was not just an individual case, but a system-wide problem.”
Eliminating the barriers between state, family, and the drug trade
Among the leading architects of the Honduran narco regime was Victor Hugo Diaz Morales, a cartel operative known as “El Rojo” who worked intimately with Tony Hernández until 2017, when the US authorities captured the latter in Guatemala. Now cooperating with the US government, Diaz Morales has since admitted to “committing or participating in 18 murders,” shooting his own wife in the face, ordering a hit on the three-year-old daughter of a rival trafficker, contributing $100,000 in bribes to Porfirio Lobo’s presidential campaign, and to forking over $40,000 to Juan Orlando Hernández in 2005.
According to a May 1, 2023 motion filed with the US Southern District Court of New York, “between 2004 and 2016, with the protection of Juan Orlando, Diaz Morales and Tony Hernández transported approximately 140,000 kilograms of cocaine through Honduras.”
Though US prosecutors trace Juan Orlando’s financial links with Diaz Morales as far back as 2005, they maintain it was during his time as President of the National Congress, between 2009 and 2014, that his ties with local cartels truly cemented. As explained in part one of this investigative series, Hernández’s ascent began after a US-backed coup in Honduras removed its democratically-elected government and installed the passionately pro-Washington National Party in power with the help of local drug traffickers, whom have since confessed to bribing—and even terrorizing—voters into supporting the party.
Juan Orlando was elected President of the National Congress in January 2010, after local drug boss Alex Ardon of the AA Brothers cartel paid influential lawmakers to endorse his candidacy. With their National Party ally, Porfirio Lobo, in the president’s office and Juan Orlando in place as chief of the national legislature, Tony Hernández and his ally, Diaz Morales, expanded their presence in the highly profitable underworld of the regional drug trade.
US prosecutors assert that as of January 2010, Tony began collaborating with Ardon’s AA cartel and another local drug gang called Los Valles to run narcotics through Honduras and into Mexico. There, they provided the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his Sinaloa Cartel “with mass quantities of cocaine and with heavily armed security for the transport of those shipments,” to the United States.
Having officially eliminated the barriers between state, family, and illicit business, the Hernández brothers embarked on a mission to convert Honduras into a de facto narco regime. Around the time of Juan Orlando’s January 2010 assumption of the National Congress presidency, a five-star General named Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares began rising through the ranks of Honduras’ national police force. That same year, Tony would tell Diaz Morales that he and his exceptionally powerful brother had “helped” Bonilla “advance his position within the Honduran National Police” and that in return, Bonilla “protected their drug-trafficking activities.”
According to US prosecutors, Tony also confessed “that Bonilla was very violent,” admitting that he and his brother had “entrusted Bonilla with special assignments, including murders.”
Once accused of running death squads in Honduras, Bonilla was the perfect figure to serve as liaison between local law enforcement and the Hernández brothers’ nascent criminal empire. By 2012, Juan Orlando had leveraged his influence to install Bonilla as Chief of the National Police, where he worked to ensure that law enforcement did not interfere with Tony and Diaz Morales’ narcotics operation, even offering “sensitive information about law enforcement’s aerial and maritime interdiction operations” to help them avoid seizure. Bonilla would also assist in eliminating the Hernández brothers’ industry competition, orchestrating the murder of a rival drug trafficker on behalf of Tony and his business partner, Alex Ardon, in 2011.
By 2013, Bonilla had become “the U.S. government’s go-to man in Honduras for the war on drug trafficking,” in the words of the Associated Press.
Bonilla’s elevation represented only the surface level of Juan Orlando’s corruption of the National Congress. When the Supreme Court ruled against his effort to assert more authority over the National Police force in November 2012, Juan Orlando promptly fired four judges and moved to replace them with his own allies. The powerplay succeeded that December, when Juan Orlando ordered the military into the street and surrounded Congress with dozens of police officers as lawmakers swore in four new justices that were loyal to him.
Though he had yet to officially secure the presidency, by 2013 Juan Orlando was easily the most powerful political figure in Honduras. He and his brother were so confident in their clout, in fact, that Tony and Ardon began stamping kilos of cocaine with their initials— “TH” and “AA”—a brazen act that flaunted their impunity. US prosecutors assert that between 2010 and 2012, Tony and the Ardon brothers “distributed approximately two or three cocaine shipments per month using helicopters, planes, boats, and trucks”—shipments that amounted to roughly 40,000 kilograms of cocaine bound for the United States.
El Chapo finances the Juan Orlando election campaign, US officials legitimize the “victory”
As Portofino Lobo’s term wound to a close in 2013, Juan Orlando geared up for his own presidential campaign. Court documents filed with the US Southern District Court in New York in Juan Orlando Hernández’s case detail a meeting his brother, Tony, convened in Mexico to prepare for his brother’s run that year. His primary cohort in Mexico would be none other than the notorious “El Chapo” Guzman of the Sinaloa cartel, who offered to finance Juan Orlando’s campaign to the tune of $1 million.
After Juan Orlando accepted the generous “donation,” Tony and his business partner, Alex Ardon, headed to meet one of the world’s most notorious narco traffickers — this time accompanied by a high-ranking, machine gun-toting officer in the National Police who flanked Tony. There, they counted out the massive cash sum at a table alongside El Chapo.
Having secured their Sinaloa reserve fund, the Hernández brothers turned their attention back home, appointing Alex Ardon and his brother, Hugo, to lead the National Party’s re-election campaign in the northwestern Departamento de Copán. Alex later confessed to distributing roughly $1.5 million in drug proceeds to politicians throughout Copán, bribing “nearly every mayor” in the region into supporting Juan Orlando’s campaign. Hugo, meanwhile, accompanied two other Hernández brothers—Amilcar and Marcos—as they traveled between towns with low National Party support to financially woo local election officials.
In the event their bribery scheme failed, Hugo even confessed to contracting an engineer tasked with shutting down Honduran government servers on election day “so that the vote count could be manipulated in Juan Orlando’s favor.” Juan Orlando would obtain a second million dollar cash injection from a high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel member later in his campaign, as well as a $300,000 bonus US prosecutors describe as a “final push” delivered hours before election day.
El Chapo and the AA Brothers cartel were not the only international drug kingpins who viewed Juan Orlando’s campaign as a worthwhile investment. Brothers Javier and Lionel Rivera of the Los Cachiros cartel have also since confessed to paying bribes on behalf of Hernández.
Meanwhile, Yankel Rosenthal, a Honduran lawmaker and member of one of the handful of ultrarich family dynasties that controlled the country’s economy, gifted the Hernández campaign $250,000 in drug trafficking proceeds. (Hernández subsequently appointed Yankel Rosenthal Minister of Investment Promotion in 2014, months before US authorities arrested the oligarch in Miami on money laundering and drug trafficking charges).
In addition to the corruption of Honduras’ 2013 presidential campaign documented by US prosecutors, local media recorded multiple instances of vote buying as well as voter and poll worker intimidation on election day, including an incident in which 50 individuals tasked with tallying ballots were held captive by armed and masked gunmen until the national vote count had ceased. At least 18 opposition activists were assassinated in the lead up to the vote, while two election observers were murdered the night before polls opened.
Seen in the context of this rampant electoral corruption, it’s no surprise that 59 percent of Hondurans went into the November 24 vote operating under the assumption that it would be fraudulent.
Though his challenger, a popular sportscaster named Salvador Nasralla, challenged the vote’s outcome, Hernández declared victory on November 24, the night of the election and immediately appointed a transition team.
“I recognize the announced results and what our observers saw during the process,” then-US Ambassador to Tegucigalpa, Lisa Kubiske, told local media on the morning of November 25—even as over half of Honduran ballots remained uncounted.
“There were no major incidents, so in that sense everything went well,” she added.
Then-US Secretary of State also chimed in to legitimize the “victory” by Hernández, which had been bought and paid for by narco traffickers. “The Honduran people turned out in record numbers to vote on November 24,” Kerry stated on December 12, 2013, “and we commend the Honduran Government for ensuring that the election process was generally transparent, peaceful, and reflected the will of the Honduran people.”
When Hernández was inaugurated weeks later, the region’s most vicious cartels consolidated their grip on the Honduran state.
Narco traffickers infiltrate the Honduran security services
US officials had been made aware of Hernández’s criminal activities within weeks of his swearing-in ceremony. Throughout February and March 2014, Leonel Rivera of the Los Cachiros cartel began “surreptitiously” recording conversations with Honduran officials and other drug traffickers as “part of his cooperation with the DEA.” On February 6, he rendezvoused with Tony Hernández and other business associates at a restaurant in Tegucigalpa. After Rivera forked $50,000 over to the president’s brother, “the men discussed Juan Orlando’s administration making payments to the Cachiros through government contracts issued to a front company” operated by former president, Porfirio Lobo.
Weeks following his reunion with Tony, Rivera met up with drug trafficker and former Yoro city mayor, Arnaldo Urbina Soto, to discuss tactics to avoid US sanctions on the Cachiros cartel. Soto assured Rivera that he had “discussed the issue with Juan Orlando,” who advised him to conduct his business affairs with caution.
“The problem will arise when people don’t exercise discretion,” Juan Orlando told Soto in a recorded conversation.
By the time Rivera formally surrendered to the DEA in January 2015, he had provided the agency with ample evidence of the double life President Hernández led as a narco boss.
But even as the US gathered shocking testimonies of Hernández’s transformation of Honduras into a narco state, the president enjoyed a whirlwind of meetings with high-profile Obama Administration officials and business leaders during his first year in office.
On February 11, 2014 — less than a week after Rivera recorded Tony Hernández discussing his brother’s cartel activity on behalf of the DEA — Juan Orlando met with then-Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield, and then-Commander of US Southern Command, John Kelly. According to posts on Juan Orlando’s social media accounts, their discussion focused on “cooperation we seek to strengthen the fight against” what he described as “the scourges” of “organized crime and drug trafficking.”
That April, President Hernández accompanied US Ambassador Kubiske on a US military tour of an anti-trafficking facility at the Soto Cano military base just South of Tegucigalpa. The facility would be operated by an elite unit of the Honduran police known as the “TIGRES,” formed under the directive of Juan Orlando during his time at the helm of the legislature. Trained by US Special Forces, TIGRES would ultimately answer to the Chief of the Honduras National Police – the dirty cop and Hernández drug trafficking co-conspirator, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares.
Within months of their inaugural graduation in June 2014, a TIGRES unit assigned to the US embassy in Tegucigalpa was suspended for stealing $1.3 million during a joint DEA raid on a Los Valles cartel compound. The botched operation was meant to capture the brothers that led the gang and extradite them to the United States. The missing cash was later discovered on mountainous land central to the Los Valles operation, split between 19 bags.
As explained above in this report, Los Valles had been collaborating with Tony Hernández and his business associate, Alex Ardon, to run drugs to El Chapo and his Sinaloa cartel in Mexico since 2010. That was the year that Juan Orlando’s ascent in the National Congress cemented their illicit conspiracy with Bonilla, the police commissioner.
Honduran authorities arrested the brothers at the top of the Valles operation, Miguel and Luis, in October 2014 and extradited them to the US to face drug trafficking charges two months later. Juan Orlando approved the crackdown on Los Valles “in retaliation for the Valle brothers having organized” an assassination plot on the president’s life, according to US prosecutors.
Juan Orlando prioritized his relationship with US officials throughout the months leading up to the Valle brothers’ extradition, meeting with Southcom Commander Gen. Kelly at least six times. He also continued to butter up Kubiske, the ambassador, attending a US Independence Day celebration at her official residence to deliver a rousing tribute to America’s role in the region.
Later that month, Hernández arrived in the US capital for a junket that featured summits with the US government and defense contractor-funded think tank, CSIS; Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi and a bipartisan group of lawmakers; and a tour of Chick-fil-A. Finally, he was joined by fellow leaders of Northern Triangle states to meet with then-Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama.
Kubiske retired from her post in Tegucigalpa the following month — but not before Hernández awarded her the Order of Francisco Morazán, named for Central America’s anti-colonial liberator, for her “outstanding work on behalf of the Honduran people.”
(Today, Kubiske boasts on her LinkedIn page that she “actively supported free, fair, transparent 2013 elections. Helped strengthen counternarcotics and anti-money laundering systems. Supported sustainable economic reforms.”)
Hernández’s 2014 charm offensive also included an April excursion to Panama City for a regional summit with the World Economic Forum; a bipartisan meeting with US Senators in November; and an encounter with then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that same month. He also participated in multiple gatherings convened by the Alliance for Prosperity, a failed initiative Biden launched to promote security in Latin America via neoliberal development.
Though Juan Orlando would remain in Washington’s good graces for several years, the Hernández brothers’ narco empire suffered a severe blow on November 3, 2015, when local media reported that TIGRES special forces had surrounded a compound housing their premier co-conspirators, Alex and Hugo Ardon of the AA Brothers cartel.
US prosecutors later revealed the Ardon brothers then “decided to negotiate only with representatives of the DEA” — a request US officials immediately granted.
Washington tightens embrace of Hernández following another stolen election
Hernández began distancing himself from his little brother in 2016, as local media homed in on Tony’s drug trafficking operations. Having stacked the Supreme Court with loyalists while heading the National Congress, Hernández then moved to amend the constitutional one-term limit on the Honduran presidency and set the stage for his “re-election” on November 26, 2017. According to US government prosecutors, by then Hernández and his National Party “controlled all aspects of the Honduran government.”
“Juan Orlando’s drug trafficking co-conspirators again provided millions of dollars of drug money to Juan Orlando’s campaign to ensure that Juan Orlando would remain in power and their massive cocaine operation would remain protected,” states a May 1, 2023 filing by prosecutors.
As ballots were counted on election night, the national electoral tribunal suddenly announced “technical difficulties” were preventing them from finalizing a tally. Though Hernández’s opponent was ahead at the time of the mysterious shut down, the incumbent managed to inch out a victory once government servers were up and running again. According to US court filings, cartel operative and Hernández ally, Hugo Ardon, “was told that an engineer purposely made [the] computer system fail to help Juan Orlando.”
“They shut down the system 466 times until they started winning again,” Geraldo Torres, today the county’s Vice Minister of Foreign Relations, told The Grayzone in 2019. “We went to the streets and we were on the streets for a month, fighting”
When then-US ambassador to Honduras, Heidi Fulton, appeared before the nation to in December 2017 to declare Washington’s formal recognition of Hernández’s victory, however, the movement had been crushed.
“Then [Washington] provided the support of the United States military forces and continued giving money to Hernández,” Torres recalled in 2019. “People are aware that the United States embassy is the only reason why Juan Orlando Hernández is still the president of Honduras.” The United States would give more than a half a billion USD to the government of Juan Orlando over the course of his second term, according to ForeignAssistance.gov.
At the time of Hernández’s 2017 “triumph,” some among the Western corporate Western establishment were already turning against him. An op-ed by Bloomberg’s editorial board that December urged US officials to support new elections in the country, blasting the “deeply flawed ballot-counting process that included long delays, after which Hernandez’s early deficit mysteriously disappeared.” Even so, the New York Times continued to hail Hernández as “an ally who has cooperated on issues that concern Washington in Central America — including stemming the flow of illegal drugs.”
US officials similarly maintained their embrace of Hernández. The former Southcom Commander, John Kelly, who once described Hernández as a “good friend” was by then President Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, meanwhile, thanked Hernández for “targeting drug traffickers” after an April 2018 meeting.
Back in 2019, before she replaced X as Honduras president, the leftist politician Xiomara Castro lamented to this reporter that the US “came in here and forced a president on us who won through fraudulent elections. They came in and said ‘this is the one,’ like an emperor coming down from his throne, choosing whoever he wants.”
“And who do they choose?” Castro continued. “Someone who has skeletons in his closet, because that’s how the United States works — they pick someone who has legal problems or is involved in drug trafficking so they can control them for their own interests.”
A DEA informant meets a gruesome ending
Within months of the Honduran president’s summit with Rubio, the Hernández narco empire began to crumble. In June, Honduran military police “recovered multiple firearms, grenades, a large amount of US currency, and drug ledgers” bearing Juan Orlando’s initials.
They discovered the cache while arresting a local narcotics trafficker named Nery López Sanabria.
Next, on November 23, 2018, US authorities picked up the president’s kid brother, Tony, during a visit to Miami. He was convicted on weapons and drug trafficking charges in October 2019.
Just over a week later, López Sanabria – the local trafficker connected to Tony Hernández – was savagely assaulted by knife wielding assailants inside a Honduran supermax prison, then shot multiple times as his motionless body bled out on the floor. The grisly gangland-style murder occurred shortly after López Sanabria received an unauthorized visit from Jose Amilcar Hernández, a brother of Tony and Juan Orlando.
López Sanabria’s lawyers maintained their client was preparing to cooperate with the DEA against the Hernández narco empire. Just over a month after his killing, one of his legal representatives, as well as the warden operating the prison where the killing occurred, were also assassinated.
Despite Tony’s arrest and October 2019 conviction, Juan Orlando remained in office until the official end of his term, on January 27, 2022. Nineteen days later, Honduran authorities arrested Hernández and extradited him to the United States on drug and weapons trafficking charges.
Meanwhile, back at DEA headquarters in Washington, the so-called “war on drugs” continued apace.
Read part one of this series, “Trial of Honduran ex-president reveals Washington’s protection of ‘narco-state.’”