The former mayor who may bring down Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández first appears on page eight of what can only be described as one of the most jaw-dropping condemnations of a political party ever produced by the US Justice Department.
In the document -- an in limine, latin for “at the threshold,” a summary of the evidence supporting the trial of the president’s brother in the Southern District of New York -- prosecutors say the ex-mayor, whom they identify only as CW-3, met with the defendant, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, in 2008.
By then, Tony was deep into the drug trade, using his brother’s rising status in the National Party to protect and advance his own drug trafficking enterprise, the Justice Department (DOJ) says. The meeting marked the beginning of the mayor’s own foray into national politics as well.
Amilcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, himself a rising member of the National Party, was running for re-election as mayor of El Paraíso, Copán, a small town along the border with Guatemala and a key trafficking corridor. It was from there that he’d gone from cattle rustler to milk farmer to drug capo, serving as a bridge between Colombian and Mexican traffickers.
According to a Honduran police intelligence official who spoke to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity, Ardón had set up cameras at the entrances of the town as well as placed private armed guards at checkpoints to ensure he could control who entered and when.
During the meeting in 2008, Tony had a proposal for the mayor: give money to the National Party campaign for his brother, who was running for re-election in Congress, and the then-candidate for president, Porfirio Lobo. In return, Tony would provide protection for Ardón and his trafficking network, which was referred to as the “Alex Cartel” and the “AA Cartel,” and name his relatives to a high-level post in the government.
Ardón agreed, and the two began a years-long relationship that may end a presidency. Even if the DOJ retains its traditional policy of refraining from indicting a sitting president, Hondurans may demand that Hernández step down.
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That is in part because following the meeting, the DOJ document says, Ardón sent $1 million from his drug proceeds to Lobo’s residence in Tegucigalpa. He then met with Juan Orlando Hernández, identified in the DOJ document as CC-4, and Porfirio Lobo, CC-3, where he confirmed they had gotten the money and received further assurances about the deal he’d brokered with Tony.
“Based on these assurances, in the presence of CC-4, CW-3 sent another $1 million in drug proceeds to CC-3’s residence,” the DOJ document says.
In November 2009, Lobo won 1,213,695 votes, 56 percent, and with them the presidency. Hernández got 49,653 votes, or nearly half the votes cast in his state of Lempira, and was re-elected as a congressman. And Ardón got 8,480, or 94.7 percent, of the votes to be re-elected mayor.
Following the election, Juan Orlando Hernández allegedly met with Ardón again and asked him to help bribe other congressmen, so he could become elected president of the legislative body. Ardón did, the DOJ says, and Hernández was elected president of the congress, setting the stage for his eventual run for the presidency.
In the meantime, the parties also made good on their promises. Ardón and Tony began operating more in concert. With Ardón’s help, Tony went from facilitator to trafficker, stamping his cocaine with his initials. Tony protected the operations using his connections in the military and police.
Between 2010 and 2012, the DOJ says, Ardón and Tony moved several hundred kilograms of cocaine from eastern to western Honduras “once or twice a month” using helicopters or “cocaine-laden vehicles.” Tony told Ardón not to worry, that he had access to police and radar information, so their shipments would not get interdicted. And they didn’t.
Lobo also named Ardón’s brother, Hugo, as the head of the Fondo Vial, the highway regulatory, maintenance and contracting body, which began issuing state contracts to Ardón and other drug trafficking allies across the country, including to the famed Cachiros drug trafficking organization, which operated from northeastern Honduras.
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Throughout, Ardón’s fame grew, as did his power. In 2010, he had a heliport built on top of a newly constructed city hall, which looked suspiciously like the White House (and was supposedly a way to thumb his nose at US authorities). Honduras officials told InSight Crime he used his near-complete control of the area to host some of the most infamous names in narco lore, including Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo," who allegedly flew into town with a famous Norteño band in tow.
“I am the king of the town,” he bragged in an interview to La Prensa.
The relationship with Tony deepened further. Ardón asked Tony to kill a nosy police official; Tony had the police official transferred. Ardón later requested he help him murder a rival who was blocking their route into Guatemala; Tony talked to a “high-ranking member of the Honduran National Police” who had the rival monitored and assassinated, the DOJ document says. In 2013, Ardón returned the favor by having a drug trafficking ally arrange the murder of a trafficker in custody, and whom Tony suspected could be a liability.
In 2013, worried Ardón was becoming a liability himself, then-presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernández told Ardón not to run for mayor again. By then, the United States had pressured Honduras into re-establishing extradition with the United States as a means of going after drug traffickers, and Hernández warned Ardón he could no longer protect him if he remained a public figure.
Ardón agreed and retired from politics. He also provided Hernández’s campaign with $1.5 million in drug proceeds, the DOJ says, “including by paying cash bribes to other officials and providing gifts and favors to local politicians.”
But the United States continued to apply pressure, and several of Ardón’s key allies either handed themselves in to US authorities -- as the Cachiros did -- or were captured and extradited. In 2016, Hernández had one of his ministers meet with Ardón to tell him that he was removing his brother, Hugo Ardón, from the Fondo Vial. Ardón again asked and received assurances he would not be extradited, then he provided one million lempiras (around $40,000) to Hernández’s re-election campaign.
Nonetheless, the ties were fraying. The tide of traffickers to the United States encircled the Ardón brothers, in particular, Alexander. Some of the Cachiros had also shown how handing yourself in -- rather than waiting until you were arrested -- could knock years off your sentence once you testified against others, as they had in the case against Porfirio Lobo’s son, Fabio.
In 2018, a policeman and relative of Tony called Ardón and asked if the rumors about his alleged handover to the United States were true. Ardón, who by then was already negotiating to become what the DOJ would call CW-3, replied that “he was still in Honduras.”
On January 23, 2019, the DOJ announced Ardón had been indicted, and, on August 2, the US revealed its detailed summary of the case against Hernández's brother, Tony.