US Support for Drug Trafficking in Honduras Implicated

By Karen Spring on November 28, 2019

On October 18 in a New York courtroom, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, was found guilty of drug trafficking. After nine days of trial, five collaborating witnesses, and five pieces of physical evidence, the New York Southern District court convicted Tony Hernandez for drug trafficking, use and possession of weapons to traffic drugs, and lying to U.S. federal prosecutors. In a suit and tie and in the presence of his mother, Hernandez received the news that he faces up to three life sentences in prison.

The conviction of the brother of a sitting President in many ways is historical but the most impactful element of the trial was the damning evidence and information revealed about the role of Juan Orlando Hernandez and Honduran state institutions in drug trafficking. Five confessed drug traffickers gave testimony at Tony Hernandez’s (or TH for his initials he used to stamp his cocaine) trial as part of their plea deal with federal prosecutors. All five outlined TH’s drug trafficking activities but also touched on how TH, Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH), the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Judiciary, and most importantly, the Honduran military and police protected them from prosecution, assisted in trafficking drugs, and acted as assassins to eliminate drug rivals.

One of the principal arguments of lead federal prosecutor Emil J. Bove was that since 2010, Honduras has been fully converted into a narco-state involved in “state-sponsored drug trafficking.” The level of institutional support in Honduras for drug trafficking, according to Bove, went far beyond just a few ‘bad apples’ in the system.

These powerful statements by a US federal prosecutor have consequences not just for Honduras but for US foreign policy in Honduras. Throughout the trial, a huge pink elephant sat unacknowledged in the corner of the courtroom.

The U.S. support for the construction and maintenance of a narco-state in Honduras increased after the 2009 U.S. and Canadian-backed coup d’état. U.S. support for “state-sponsored drug trafficking,” intentional or not, came in many forms – the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) that includes training and financial support to the Honduran military, police and state intelligence institutions, the Alliance for Prosperity, USAID, and more. Diplomatically and politically, the U.S. supported the two National Party governments under Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo who is named as co-conspirator 3 (CC3) in the same New York drug case and support for two (illegal) Presidential terms of co-conspirator 4 (CC4), current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH)

Under President Obama, the U.S. Congress appropriated more than $2 billion in aid through CARSI to assist the region’s law enforcement institutions and justice systems. The Trump administration has maintained Obama’s security framework for Central America but has focused more on diverting migrants away from the border and ramping up border security.

Some of that $2 billion went into supporting a Special Commission for the Cleanup and Transformation of the Honduran National Police as scandal after scandal, assassinations, and organized criminal activities linked to the police, became public in Honduras long before TH was indicted. The Special Commission is still active today but the TH trial helped illuminate the partial if not total failure of the efforts to clean up the police in Honduras.

Most importantly, the conviction of TH in New York helps North Americans make an even stronger argument for U.S. Congressional support for the H.R. 1945 or the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act in Honduras. On top of the human rights abuses against journalist, campesinos, environmentalists, and land defenders in Honduras, we can now easily argue, with evidence and names, that the US through its security aid and training, is supporting and training an essential element of the “state-sponsored drug trafficking” machine in Honduras.

Honduran Police’s Involvement in Drug Trafficking

Through testimonies of five confessed drug traffickers collaborating with the prosecution – all of whom were TH and JOH’s drug business associates – it became known that the Honduran National Police provided security to drug traffickers and drug shipments over several years. Federal prosecutors found photos on the phone that was confiscated from TH when arrested in the Miami airport. The photos show how police vehicles and state security personnel escorted drug shipments across Honduras on behalf of drug traffickers.

Federal prosecutors argued that Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, the former head of the Honduran National Police (2012 to 2013) was the go-to assassin for TH and his drug associates. In one case mentioned in the trial in the New York courtroom, TH called on Bonilla, who was appointed by CC3 or former President Porfirio Lobo, to murder drug rival Franklin Arita who refused to allow drug shipments pass through his territory. This is not surprising to Hondurans who heard in 2014, among other allegations, powerful testimony about Bonilla’s involvement in death squad extrajudicial killings and torture inside unmarked houses in Tegucigalpa.

When the Honduran government could no longer handle the public criticism of Bonilla, he was reassigned to a “Honduran diplomatic mission in Colombia.” Whether coincidence or not, TH maintained drug manufacturing labs in Colombia which he used to make cocaine, stamp them with his initials (or others of his buyers’). In fact, his ability to produce cocaine in his own labs in Colombia and Honduras turned him into a major drug supplier. His buyers were infamous Mexican cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinoloa cartel, and almost all major Honduran drug traffickers at one point or another.

Geovani Rodriguez, former Sub-Director of the National Police and confessed drug trafficker who is now in prison in the US, also testified during the TH trial. Rodriguez spoke about his strategic placement inside the National Police and the promotions he received after supplying information to TH about special operations related to national police drug trafficking efforts. He confessed that he had been accused in Honduras for stealing drugs in 2009 but individuals connected to TH paid off the judge and the charges were dropped. He remained active in the Honduran National police reaching the institution’s highest levels thanks to strategic promotions throughout his career in the police from 1991 to 2016.

Other witnesses testified how they made requests to TH about placing certain police officers in key positions and locations in Honduras in order to facilitate drug shipments and drug-related murders. This evidence shows that regardless of whether the police corruption problem comes from ‘bad apples’ or not, that police are easily manipulated, controlled, and paid to either assist drug traffickers, look the other way, or conduct simple operations like moving police check points to guarantee the safe passage of drugs and illegal weapons. Even one active sitting Congressman was named in the trial for taking requested by phone by drug cartels to help move or dismantle military and police check points to allow for drug and weapon shipments to pass through without delay.

The U.S. government through the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) paid the salaries of the two Hondurans who worked on the Special Commission created in 2016. These men worked alongside General Julian Pacheco, who is a member of the five-person Special Police Purge Commission to supposedly remove police that are corrupt or involved in organized crime.

This Commission has been criticized extensively for its lack of transparency and public accountability and the failure to prosecute and dismantle through judicial action, all police officers or organized criminal groups operating in the police force. For example, confessed drug trafficking police officer and witness in the TH case, Geovani Rodriguez was removed from the police by the Special Commission without a judicial process that investigates and prosecutes those accused of crimes. Without an accountability process, he and many other police can stay active in organized crime and utilize influence peddling to continue working with drug traffickers. Many officers who were fired like Rodriguez did similarly. They continued illicit activities and/or continue their careers as paid assassins. As ex-Defense Minister Edmundo Orellana told Honduran press, “a large quantity of assassins in this country come from elements purged from the National Police.”

But even the highest levels of the Special Commission have been linked to drug interests. General Pacheco, the current Minister of Security, met with drug traffickers and, according to testimony in TH’s trial, received bribes and payments from drug traffickers. This is not surprising since JOH or CC4 nominated Pacheco as Security Ministry who was the official that swore in the members of the Police Purge Commission. Of course CC4 (JOH) would not place anyone on the Commission that could threat his or his brother TH’s interests in maintaining key allies in the National Police that promoted their drug cartel interests.

U.S. aid to Honduras over the last 10 years has not made Honduras a safer place for its citizens despite this being one of CARSI’s main objectives. Until the Honduran police and military act in the interests of Hondurans and not drug cartels, all U.S. security to the Honduran government should be suspended. All U.S. security aid to Honduras must be stopped until drug traffickers and those that promote their interests, are removed from key government positions. While CC4 remains in the Presidential palace, Hondurans will not see an end to impunity and corruption. Despite Trump’s border security efforts, U.S. supported “state-sponsored drug trafficking” in Honduras that terrorizes the population, will mean that Hondurans will continue to flee to the U.S. southern borders.

By Karen Spring is a researcher and human rights activist and is currently the Honduras-based Coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network (HSN).