With new accusations that Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández directly brokered deals to protect traffickers in exchange for drug money, the president himself has emerged as a lynchpin in Honduras’ descent into a narco-state.
US prosecutors said in a January 8 court filing that accused drug trafficker Geovanny Daniel Fuentes Ramírez met with Hernández and gave him tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for protection from law enforcement -- along with military support for his trafficking activities.
President Hernández also allegedly asked Fuentes Ramírez for access to a drug laboratory to move “massive quantities of cocaine to the United States," telling him that he "wanted to shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos," according to the court document filed in the Southern District of New York.
The document is an in limine motion that provides a summary of evidence supporting the trial of Fuentes Ramírez, who was arrested in Miami in March 2020 on drug and weapons charges. He is alleged to have run a drug lab on Honduras’ Caribbean coast that produced hundreds of kilograms of cocaine per month.
Prosecutors do not identify President Hernández by name in the document, referring to him only as CC-4, or co-conspirator number four. But he is clearly identifiable, described as the president and brother of convicted drug trafficker Tony Hernández. President Hernández denied the accusation that he accepted money from Fuentes Ramírez in a tweet from the presidential account, calling it "100 percent false" and based on the lies of confessed criminals.
The denial echoes previous ones, as US prosecutors have described President Hernández in a number of indictments and other court documents as a co-conspirator in his brother’s drug trafficking ring. Tony Hernández was convicted in October 2019 of running tons of cocaine to the United States while using his brother's political connections.
In the latest court filing, prosecutors said President Hernández boasted to a Honduran businessman about the widespread corruption by him and his National Party in the lead up to the 2013 presidential elections, including the embezzlement of US aid money through fraudulent non-governmental organizations and stealing money from the country’s social security system.
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The evidence gathered by the Justice Department in this and other cases leaves fresh questions about the government’s highest-ranking officials, including the sitting president, who is an important US ally. Prosecutors have detailed how these officials receive millions of dollars from traffickers to finance campaigns and cement their power.
From the time of his ascent through the National Party's ranks to head congress and eventually the presidency, Hernández allegedly engaged in a quid-pro-quo with drug traffickers that guaranteed their protection from security forces and the attorney general in exchange for bribes.
In the latest case, Fuentes Ramírez allegedly contributed large sums of money to Hernández's 2013 presidential campaign. In exchange, prosecutors said, Hernández "promised to protect [Fuentes Ramírez] from arrest and extradition" and help him "transport cocaine with the assistance of Honduras’ armed forces."
But the shadow of narco-politics was cast well before Hernández became head of state. Other drug traffickers prosecuted in the United States have pointed to President Hernández’s National Party as having for years facilitated links between formidable drug trafficking groups, such as the Cachiros and the Valles, and various levels of the Honduran security forces and political system.
President Hernandez's predecessor, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa, who was in office from 2010 to 2014, has been accused of directing government funds for fraudulent business deals with a construction firm owned by the Cachiros. The criminal group relied on a close relationship with the former president’s son, Fabio Lobo, to import cocaine into the United States and launder the proceeds. Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2017 after he pleaded guilty to US drug charges.
Prosecutors said the younger Lobo “used his father’s position and his own connections to bring drug traffickers together with corrupt police and government officials.”
President Hernández's early bids for both the top seat in congress and the presidency were also allegedly funded with drug money. As far back as 2008, Tony Hernández allegedly sought bribes from Amilcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, the National Party mayor of the small town of El Paraíso, along the border with Guatemala. Ardón ran a group that bridged Colombian and Mexican traffickers, and the bribe money was to be given to Tony Hernández for his brother's congressional re-election campaign in exchange for protection.
Ardón later provided Hernandez's campaign with $1.5 million in drug proceeds for his 2013 presidential bid as well, according to US prosecutors. The new accusations reveal that President Hernández himself was also allegedly meeting with Fuentes Ramírez at that time.
President Hernández, prosecutors say, was particularly interested in Fuentes Ramírez because of the cocaine lab he operated near Puerto Cortés, a key commercial port on Honduras’ Caribbean coast.
President Hernández allegedly agreed to “use the Honduran armed forces as security” and promised that then-Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla would help protect Fuentes Ramírez’s trafficking activities, according to the court filing. The president also allegedly helped the suspected drug trafficker obtain submachine guns, military uniforms, bulletproof vests and police badges from a high-ranking military commander, which an exclusive Univision report identified as René Orlando Ponce Fonseca.
But President Hernández didn't want to be the direct intermediary. Instead, he told Fuentes Ramírez to “report directly” to his brother Tony, who was “managing drug trafficking activities in Honduras," according to the court filing.
During the trial of his brother, President Hernández's name came up frequently. In one particularly damning remark, prosecutors alleged that former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo," had handed Tony a $1 million bribe that was later accepted by the president. Prosecutors repeated this allegation in the recent court filing.
In addition, a detailed ledger documenting cocaine shipments and bribe payments also identified hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly paid to "JOH and his associates," presumably signaling the president. Anti-drug officials confiscated the ledger in 2018 from Nery Orlando López Sanabria, an alleged top drug trafficker who was brutally murdered in prison shortly after the trial against Tony Hernández ended.
US prosecutors reportedly have in their possession WhatsApp text and voice messages between Fuentes Ramírez and a Honduran military official identified as “Commissioner Martínez.” The two allegedly discussed President Hernández, corrupt military officials and the trial of the president’s brother, according to the court filing.
Fuentes Ramírez was “excited to have [President Hernández’s] protection and agreed to work with [President Hernández] and his brother to import cocaine into the United States,” prosecutors said.
For the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, the most damaging allegation in the filing -- besides the incendiary comments about shoving cocaine up the noses of the gringos -- is likely to be that Hernández said he wanted to make the US "Drug Enforcement Administration think that Honduras was fighting drug trafficking."
Hernández has long been portrayed by US officials as a key ally. As vice president, Biden even met with Hernández in 2015 to review joint efforts to "tackle corruption and target transnational criminal networks."
The new administration is unlikely to take kindly to the idea that the administration of former President Barack Obama -- and by extension then-Vice President Biden -- was being duped.
For the new administration, US prosecutors' parade of accusations of President Hernández's suspected complicity in drug trafficking could provide it leverage to implement its ambitious anti-corruption agenda in Central America. The administration could also turn its back on Hernández ahead of presidential elections slated for November 2021.