Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández Alvarado is a former Honduran congressman, the brother of former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández and a convicted drug trafficker sentenced in the United States for his participation in moving cocaine.
From Honduras, Tony directed a sophisticated international drug trafficking ring that reconfigured the drug trafficking map with Central America as the main focal point, relying on political protection from the highest levels of government to succeed.
The Hernández Alvarado family is originally from the city of Gracias, the capital of western Lempira department. From there, Tony Hernández and his brother Juan Orlando began their political careers with the National Party (Partido Nacional -- PN).
Tony trained as a lawyer and was chosen as an alternate representative in 2013. He replaced congressman Samuel Reyes in 2014 and remained in Honduras’ Congress until 2018.
According to his indictment in the United States, Tony helped to traffic "multi-ton loads" of cocaine between 2004 and 2016. His proximity to the highest levels of Honduran political power and the country’s main drug trafficking groups made him one of the most influential organized crime operators of the last decade in Honduras.
Tony’s role was not as a kingpin but as a mediator between various criminal actors and those in power. According to documents from his trial in the United States, Tony offered protection to drug traffickers and facilitated their operations in exchange for their support of the National Party’s political campaigns, including those of his brother.
According to the testimony of a former Honduran army official who worked in anti-narcotics, Tony began his criminal career with the Valle Valle brothers. Based in the department of Copán on the border with Guatemala, they ran one of the most important drug trafficking operations over the last decade in Honduras.
Tony allegedly helped the Valle Valle brothers to consolidate their control of the drug route that traverses Honduras’ west, including the department of Lempira. Later on, in his role as a lawyer, Tony did favors for the Valle Valle brothers’ legitimate businesses.
Alexander “Chande” Ardón, the former mayor of the municipality of El Paraíso currently detained in the United States, also operated in Copán. Ardón headed a drug trafficking group known as the AA Cartel which often found itself in dispute with the Valle Valle brothers. According to judicial documents, including Ardón’s testimony, Tony helped Ardón form a “mafia peace” in Copán with the Valle Valle brothers.
In 2009, Tony had also offered to protect Ardón’s drug trafficking operations in exchange for a $2 million contribution to his brother Juan Orlando’s congressional campaign and to Porfirio Lobo’s presidential campaign.
According to the US Justice Department, Tony helped Ardón move many kilograms of drugs via helicopters and vehicles between 2010 and 2012. He also helped the former mayor get rid of his rivals.
Other testimonies against Tony Hernández include that of Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the Cachiros boss extradited to the United States. In his testimony to US authorities in 2017, Rivera Maradiaga admitted to meeting with Tony Hernández in 2014 to discuss debts between his brother’s government and a Cachiros-owned construction company that had been awarded various contracts under the previous administration. Furthermore, he confirmed that he gave the former congressman $50,000 as a bribe.
Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias “El Rojo” -- a Honduran drug trafficker arrested in Guatemala and extradited to the United States -- also testified against Tony in 2019 and said that he had given $100,000 in 2009 in support of the congressional campaigns of the former president Porfirio Lobo and Tony’s brother Juan Orlando. Tony also charged El Rojo $55,000 for information related to the transfer of drug shipments.
In Honduras, Tony Hernández has still yet to face any legal proceedings. However, beginning in October of 2016, authorities in the United States listed the then-congressman as a “person of interest” in an investigation against Wilter Blanco, the former leader of the Atlantic Cartel.
Hernández was arrested on November 23, 2018 at the Miami airport on drug trafficking and arms trafficking charges.
In addition to the testimonies of extradited drug traffickers, US authorities also presented as evidence the “narcolibretas,” or drug ledgers, of a trafficker Hernández worked with -- who was later brutally murdered in jail -- in which records of drug shipments going to and from Honduras and bribe payments were kept. Authorities also asserted that Hernández had received money from the Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.”
All of this contributed to a guilty verdict reached in October 2019. At the moment, he is awaiting sentencing in the United States. Hernández’s lawyers have managed to delay the sentencing several times, though it is currently set for September 16, 2020.
Tony Hernández’s punishment could range from a minimum sentence of 30 years to a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In the United States, Tony Hernández was found guilty of participating in the international trafficking of cocaine. Judicial documents indicate that he was involved in the processing, reception, transportation and distribution of cocaine shipments that arrived in Honduras by air and sea. Tony allegedly stamped these shipments with his initials, TH.
A laboratory in the Honduran department of Cortés, supposedly protected by Tony and his brother Juan Orlando, had a production capacity of between 300 and 500 kilograms of cocaine per month, according to US authorities.
US authorities have also accused him of trafficking arms, delivering bribes to local politicians and, on at least two occasions, arranging the assassinations of rival drug traffickers.
Tony Hernández is originally from the department of Lempira, in western Honduras. Authorities found a drug laboratory there in 2014 that allegedly belonged to the former congressman.
Tony’s criminal influence expanded to other departments, especially those in Honduras’ west on the border with Guatemala. His closest criminal allies -- the Valle Valle brothers and Alexander Ardón -- operated in the border departments of Santa Bárbara, Ocotepeque and Copán, the latter serving as the primary center of operations.
The drug route that traverses these departments is the most important in the country, serving as the transit route for the majority of cocaine arriving from Venezuela and Colombia. Since 2015, between 150 and 300 tons of cocaine have passed through this route annually, according to InSight Crime estimates. The route continues on to the Guatemalan department of Petén, where the drugs are then trafficked to Mexico.
According to US judicial documents, Tony Hernández also had access to a cocaine laboratory in Colombia and worked with associates in Guatemala and Mexico.
Allies and Enemies
Tony Hernández was the link between his brother’s government and Honduras’ organized crime underworld. The drug traffickers that testified against him said that Tony granted them protection and managed drug shipments.
At their peak, the Valle Valle brothers -- Tony’s most important associates -- were the principal Honduran contact for Colombian, Guatemalan, and Mexican trafficking groups. During Tony’s trial in the United States, the prosecutors asserted that former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” had personally delivered $1 million to Tony for his brother’s campaign.
Tony also had links to the Cachiros trafficking group, which operated in Honduras’ north. Other traffickers associated with Tony include Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias “El Rojo” and Héctor Emilio Fernández Rosa, alias “Don H,” an associate of the Valle Valle brothers.
Alliances with the Honduran state were absolutely critical for Tony. Under Juan Orlando’s government, Tony enlisted the help of former police chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who allegedly provided protection services for drug traffickers. Mauricio Hernández Pineda, a former police officer and an extended family member of Tony’s, also helped provide security services.
Other local politicians accused of drug trafficking who figured into Tony’s contacts included Alexander Ardón, the former mayor of El Paraíso, and Mario José Cálix Hernández, the former vice mayor of Gracias in Lempira department.
The case of Tony Hernandez illuminated just how deeply organized crime has infiltrated the National Party’s most recent governments and illustrated how drug trafficking proceeds are used to maintain power.
The sentencing of Tony Hernández eliminated him and many of his state associates from Honduras’ criminal map. This has left it unclear who sits in charge of the country’s drug trafficking business at the highest levels.
Following the captures and extraditions of Honduras’ major kingpins, drug trafficking in the country has fractured and there remains no dominant group. A few small “criminal fiefdoms” have formed in strategic areas of the country, where politicians and other important actors control drug flows through their territories.
On the other hand, Tony’s sentencing has put his brother, President Juan Orlando Hernández -- who relies on the United States’ support for his presidency -- in a precarious position. The president of Honduras has criticized that the accusations against his brother, some of which implicate him as well, are unfounded and based on the testimony of drug traffickers.
Juan Orlando Hernández’s presidential term ends in 2021, and he supposedly will not be seeking reelection. It remains to be seen if organized crime can maintain its position in the Honduran political system without the Hernández clan in power.