Honduran Ex-President Juan Orlando Hernandez Declared Guilty on Drug Trafficking Charges

By Sam Woolston |  Mar 9th, 2024
Honduran ex-President Juan Orlando HernándezHonduran ex-President Juan Orlando Hernández. Image by Insight Crime.
This article by Sam Woolston originally appeared on InsightCrime and is being published by ElSalvadorINFO.net under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Honduran ex-President Juan Orlando Hernández has been convicted of drug trafficking and weapons charges by a jury in New York. He was found guilty on all three of the counts against him.

The verdict concludes three weeks marked by dramatic testimony including from former public officials, cartel members, and witnesses that described the state’s collaboration with violent criminal groups in excruciating detail.

Likely, Hernández will now spend the rest of his life in jail.

“JOH will receive the same sentence as his brother,” predicted Mike Vigil, the former Chief of International Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), using Hernández’s popular nickname.

The trial has brought elements of Honduras’ so-called narco-state into sharp focus. In its first week, grizzly testimony revealed how violent organized criminal groups bankrolled political campaigns and subverted state security forces to protect drug shipments and unleash violence on rival groups and Honduran citizens.

But it’s unlikely that the verdict will do anything to stem the flow of cocaine or change Honduras’ reputation as a narco-state.

“There are plenty of people remaining in Honduras that are engaged in this activity,” Christine J. Wade, who teaches Central American studies at Washington College, told InSight Crime. “It’s not realistic to think that prosecutions like this have chilling effects on drug trafficking, it’s just not how criminality works.”

Below, InSight Crime examines what surfaced during the second part of Hernández’s trial and what the verdict means for Honduras.

Police Collaboration with MS13

Key testimony came from Andrea Santos, who testified using a pseudonym. Santos is the former girlfriend of Alexander Mendoza, alias “El Porky,” a leader of MS13, Honduras’ dominant gang.

Santos claimed that while they were dating, Mendoza was in regular contact with Juan Carlos Bonilla, the head of the National Police of Honduras, and a key conspirator in Hernández’s crimes, according to prosecutors.

MS13 purchased drugs from two powerful Honduran cartels, the Valles and the Cachiros, according to the testimony. The gang also bribed police officials to wave drugs through checkpoints. Mendoza allegedly even received a delivery of weapons from Bonilla as compensation after police accidentally seized a drug shipment, according to a source inside the court.

The allegations offered chilling proof of what many Hondurans already suspected: that state security forces at the highest level were actively working with powerful organized crime groups.

Mendoza has been a wanted fugitive since 2020, when heavily armed gang members, dressed in the uniforms of Honduras’ anti-gang police (FNAMP), stormed a courthouse where he was being detained and freed him, leaving four dead.

SEE ALSO: Central America Homicide Rate: El Salvador Had the Lowest and Honduras the Highest Murder Rate in 2023

$4 Million in a Duffel Bag

The torrent of damning testimony describing how traffickers bribed politicians and state officials also continued. In one example, Fabio Lobo, a convicted drug trafficker and son of ex-President Porfirio Lobo, testified that he traveled to a gas station with Hernández’s brother, Tony, who received $4 million in a duffel bag. The money was a gift from The Valles, Tony told Fabio, and the cash was ultimately delivered to Hernández, according to the testimony.

Fabio also said that he met General Julián Pacheco, the former director of Honduras’ Intelligence Bureau (DNII), three times to solicit information to protect drug shipments. What’s more, Fabio brought two supposed members of the Sinaloa Cartel to meet Pacheco, who abruptly left the meeting. “It’s a trap,” Pacheco allegedly said.

The cartel members ultimately turned out to be DEA witnesses. This is not the first time Pacheco has been linked to criminal activity.

Bribes to Honduras’ main political parties also came from The Cachiros, according to testimony from Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the former leader of the drug trafficking group. Maradiaga described giving bribes of between $100,000 and $250,000 to Carlos Zelaya and Mauricio Villeda. Zelaya is Honduras’ current Vice President of Congress and the brother-in-law of President Xiomara Castro. Villeda is the Leader of the Liberal Party.

“I flatly deny the false accusations against me,” said Carlos Zelaya in a post on X. Villeda similarly claimed that Maradiaga’s allegations were “totally false.”

Juan Orlando’s Last Stand

In the trial’s final week, the defense called on two members of Honduras’ armed services, including Tulio Romero, formerly part of Hernández’s security detail, to testify in Hernández’s favor.

But Romero’s testimony backfired and managed to confirm key pieces of the prosecution’s case, including that Hernández had visited Graneros Nacionales, where prosecutors alleged that he accepted drug money, and that Hernández was aware of his brother’s links to drug traffickers.

Honduras’ Armed Forces swiftly published a communiqué that said the soldiers who testified left Honduras “without authorization” and that their actions were “illegal.”

In a climactic close to the trial, Hernández took the last stand. The visits to Graneros Naciónales were to “check the price of rice,” he claimed. He said that while he was aware of his brother’s drug trafficking activities, he had urged him to “negotiate with the DEA.”

Hernández also characterized those who accused him of criminal activity as “professional liars.”

But many saw this as the nail in the coffin for Hernández. Speaking soon after the testimony, Vigil said that Hernández was “fried” and described his last-minute decision not to remain silent as an “act of desperation.”

The Fallout

While Hernández’s guilty verdict was broadly celebrated in Honduras, the conviction will do little to impede cocaine flows or do much to restore the country’s corrupt political system.

Cocaine production is booming, and Honduras remains a crucial transit hub for traffickers. Meanwhile, the judicial system remains broken, and impunity is the norm. Just 13% of murders resulted in a conviction in 2022, according to ASJ, an NGO.

Testimony from the trial implicated all three of Honduras’ main political parties in receiving drug money, which could make meaningful reform more complicated, according to Honduran professor Lester Ramírez.

“In a certain way, because reputational damage has been shared with every political party, that makes it easier [to] continue politics as usual,” said Ramírez, speaking before the verdict. “I don’t think the shock we’re seeing [with Hernández’s trial] is enough to produce a change in our political institutions,” he added.

SEE ALSO: Living in El Salvador: Top Reasons for Moving to El Salvador

This article by Sam Woolston originally appeared on InsightCrime and is being published by ElSalvadorINFO.net under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.