A document released on Friday by a U.S. district court implicates Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in a conspiracy with his brother, Antonio “Tony” Hernández, and other high-level officials – including former President Pepe Lobo – “to leverage drug trafficking to maintain and enhance their political power."
The 44-page document – which is related to the upcoming trial of Tony Hernandez in New York's Southern District on drug trafficking and other charges – summarizes some of the key evidence collected by prosecutors against the defendant, who they accuse of being a “violent, multi-ton drug trafficker” who allegedly abused his political connections for personal and political gain and at least twice “helped arrange murders of drug trafficking rivals.”
The revelations are the latest in a string of bombshells that paint an increasingly shocking picture of Honduras as a narco-state, further complicating relations with the U.S. government, which has called President Hernandez an ally in the war on drugs. It also appears to provide evidence of the Honduran government’s own complicity in the rise of violence that made Honduras one of the world’s most dangerous countries and forced countless migrants to flee north.
"Perverse and false accusations"
The Honduran presidency issued a statement on Saturday saying that "President Hernández categorically denies the perverse and false accusations" contained in the Friday's court filing.
The statement noted that "Hernandez has led an unprecedented battle to free his country from drug control, working in an effective partnership with the United States government and other allies."
It also noted that during his administration more than 40 drug dealers have been extradited to the United States, and that some now are seeking revenge. "The drug traffickers who are now in the custody of the US authorities want revenge on President Hernández, who ended the impunity they enjoyed in some previous governments," it said.
According to the evidence laid out by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, in 2004, Tony Hernandez began forging relationships with narcotraffickers, using his family’s influence in the region to provide them with, in exchange for bribes, “information about law enforcement activities and operations so that the traffickers could transport cocaine through Honduras without incident.”
In the ensuing years, Hernandez established connections to more drug traffickers, including members of the Honduran Valle Valle cartel and unnamed Colombians who had access to cocaine laboratories. At the same time, he discussed a partnership with another National Party politician, identified as Cooperating Witness – 3, who prosecutors say “was also a large-scale drug trafficker.”
Based on the information contained in the documents, Cooperating Witness – 3 appears to be Alexander Ardon, a former National Party mayor of El Paraiso, near the border with Guatemala. Ardon, who was known for having installed a helipad on top of city hall and being flanked by armed guards, was indicted by U.S. prosecutors in January.
The court document does not refer to Juan Orlando Hernandez by name, but only as CC-4, (Co-conspirator-4), who is described as having been "elected President of Honduras in late 2013." Former president Lobo is similarly identified as CC-3 (Co-consirator-3).
According to prosecutors, Tony Hernandez “told CW-3 [Ardon] that they could form a particularly successful partnership based on protection from CC-3 [Pepe Lobo] and CC-4 [Juan Orlando Hernandez] if the won in the 2009 elections, and that he believed CC-4 [Juan Orlando Hernandez] would succeed CC-3 [Pepe Lobo] as the president of Honduras and continue to protect them.”
While the allegations in the court document are potentially very serious, prosecutors have not accused President Hernandez any crime in the United States.
In 2009 – an electoral year – Ardon met with Lobo, who asked him for “financial and logistical support” for his campaign as well as that of Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was a leading congressman at the time.
Page 4 of the document refers to 'Exhibit A' a chart identifying the names of the co-conspirators according to their CC number. "The Government respectfully requests that Exhibit A be maintained under seal until after the trial," it adds.
In exchange for protection and the appointment of a relative to a political post, prosecutors allege Ardon agreed to provide $2 million in financing for the campaigns. After delivering the first half, Ardon allegedly met with Juan Orlando Hernandez and Lobo.
After the election, Juan Orlando Hernandez allegedly solicited help from Ardon in order to obtain the votes he needed in Congress to become the body’s president. “[Ardon] agreed to help and bribed the congressmen. [Juan Orlando Hernandez] later thanked [Ardon] for the assistance and told [Ardon] that as promised, [Ardon] would be protected from prosecution and law enforcement targeting.”
Over the next couple of years Ardon and Tony Hernandez allegedly worked together to traffic several hundred pounds of cocaine each month. When something, or someone, got in their way, the court document says they took whatever measure necessary to protect themselves and their operations. According to prosecutors, this included orchestrating the murder of a rival with the help of a high-ranking national police official and an employee, who after being arrested apparently posed a risk because he “knew too much about their drug-trafficking operations.”
Then, in 2012, Congress passed legislation approving the extradition of Hondurans to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. According to Ardon, Tony Hernandez told him that the legislation was passed due to pressure from the U.S. and that he was certain he wouldn’t be extradited, but less certain about the fate of his partner.
That same year, Tony Hernandez launched his own campaign for political office, running for, and ultimately winning, a seat in Congress as a deputy legislator. As the campaign ramped up, President Hernandez, then running for his first term, allegedly asked Ardon to support his latest campaign “by bribing local politicians so that they would muster support for [President Hernandez] from their constituencies.”
$1.5 Million for Presidential campaign
The prosecution document alleges that in approximately 2013, Juan Orlando Hernandez, then a member of Congress, asked Ardon to support his own campaign for the Honduran presidency "by bribing local politicians." Ardon allegedly agreed to pay the bribes in exchange for political protection and other favors.
Ardon "subsequently spent approximately $1.5 million in drug proceeds" to support Juan Orlando Hernandez's presidential campaign, according to the court document.
In 2014, extraditions began, with members of the Valle Valle Cartel among the first to be captured. The police commissioner who led the operation, General Ramon Sabillon, was later relieved from his position after accusing President Hernandez of protecting Ardon. Sabillon later left the country after receiving death threats that he attributed to the government.
The public nature of the allegations forced President Hernandez to remove Ardon’s brother, Hugo Ardon, from his government position as head of the highway authority. Still, President Hernandez allegedly asked for Ardon’s help financing his 2017 reelection campaign.
To date, nearly two dozen Hondurans have been extradited to the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges. Even more, such as Tony Hernandez, who was arrested in Miami in 2018, and Fabio Lobo, the son of Pepe Lobo who was captured in Haiti, have been arrested outside of Honduras.
Tony Hernandez has pleaded not guilty and is due to go on trial October 2. Fabio Lobo was convicted of drug trafficking in 2017 and sentenced to 24 years in jail.
With multiple ongoing judicial processes, the evidence collected by the DEA and prosecutors has steadily trickled out. On May 29, another document related to the trial of Tony Hernandez revealed that President Hernandez, his sister Hilda Hernandez, and other high-level officials were the targets of a DEA investigation in 2013.
The president's office put out a statement saying the 2015 DEA investigation cleared Hernández and that he was currently "a trusted partner" in the U.S. fight against organized crime."
"The Department of Justice of the United States, forced to investigate allegations by drug traffickers, found no evidence to support the accusation against the president and his collaborators," it said.
Just this week, a document related to the trial of another convicted Honduran drug trafficker, Héctor Emilio Fernández, commonly known as “Don H,” who was sentenced to life in prison on Friday, alleged that he had paid a bribe to former President Mel Zelaya during his 2005 campaign. Tony Hernandez is also alleged to have forged a relationship with Don H, as early as 2004, according to Friday outline of evidence by the prosecution.
If the allegations made by prosecutors are true, then at least the last three presidents all accepted bribes from narcotraffickers.