As his final extradition orders were being read and signed, a drug trafficker known as “El Negro” Lobo paced in his small holding cell.
He was minutes away from becoming the first Honduran citizen legally extradited to the United States in over a century. The extradition, on May 8, 2014, was about to change the course of drug trafficking history in Honduras, and not just for Lobo and his fellow traffickers sent after him.
The thick-set and jowly Carlos Arnoldo Lobo was being held on an army base near Tegucigalpa. Outside, police and soldiers manned some 50 bulletproof trucks. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Honduran authorities had reason to take extra precautions: Lobo reportedly had offered his associates a large sum to spring him from custody. Now two helicopters stood ready to transfer him to another base.
Overseeing the operation was Honduras’ new president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who’d risen to power on promises to restore the rule of law in a country under siege from drug mafias and street gangs.
*This is the last in a series of four articles on the tenure of embattled Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández. Read the first, second and third installments.
Shortly after 9:20 p.m., eight DEA agents entered Lobo’s holding cell. “Do you understand the situation?” an agent demanded. “Do you understand that you are now under our custody?”
“Si,” Lobo reportedly answered in a wavering voice.
It was a watershed moment in US-Honduras relations. Lobo’s extradition to the United States “provided a lot of confidence that this was doable,” said Lisa Kubikse, who was US ambassador to Honduras at the time.
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More extraditions followed. Hernández said that since he’s been president, more than 40 traffickers had been sent to face justice in the United States or turned themselves in to authorities in third countries. These included members of the Valles and Cachiros, feared drug clans once considered untouchable, as well as police, military officials, and politicians.
But the same traffickers, hoping for shorter prison sentences, ended up cooperating extensively with US officials. Their testimonies ultimately led to a major drug case against the president’s brother, Tony Hernández, and by extension the president, who now finds himself under scrutiny in the United States and under fire in Honduras.
In August, court documents unsealed in Tony’s case alleged that $1.5 million in drug proceeds had gone to President Hernández’s 2013 electoral campaign in a quid-pro-quo agreement to protect a political ally, a close associate of the Hernández brothers and a known trafficker. The revelation sent thousands of Hondurans into the streets, chanting: “JOH must go. The narco must go.”
‘A Mood of Fear’
A year before Hernández ran for president, Honduras was tarred as being the world’s most deadly country outside a war zone. Drug traffickers, it appeared, had thoroughly corrupted every state institution.
After the country’s drug czar detailed trafficking operations in 2009, he was gunned down on the streets of Tegucigalpa, allegedly with the participation of the entire police command. Two years later, in December 2011, politician and counter-narcotics official Alfredo Landaverde was shot dead, days after he publicly accused the government, military and police of colluding with drug traffickers.
Hondurans were tired, shaken, and losing hope.
There “was a mood of fear that nothing could be done,” said Kubiske, the US ambassador from 2011 to 2014.
The United States had pressured Honduras for some time to establish extradition, which had emerged in other countries as a powerful tool to break up high-level drug trafficking operations that can undermine rule of law.
On January 19, 2012, the National Congress, then headed by Hernández, held a session to discuss reforming part of Honduras’ 1982 constitution: article 102, which forbade the extradition of Honduran citizens.
Then-President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo had gone to Miami the previous day to meet with US officials, reassuring them that he was on board with the legislation despite his own exposure in drug cases.
At about 7 p.m., legislators entered a closed-door meeting led by Hernández. Some 100 police and soldiers stood guard outside.
Two hours later, the congress had passed a constitutional reform that gave the president power “to negotiate and subscribe to international treaties” that would allow for the extradition of Hondurans charged with drug trafficking, terrorism or organized crime.
In November 2013, Hernández won the presidency, after a campaign touting his law-and-order record, including his willingness to green light extraditions. A few months later, “El Negro” Lobo was put aboard a US government jet and flown to the United States. Hernández presided over the extradition of Lobo, telling the press that it “sent a clear message” that the Honduran government would fight organized crime and drug trafficking “head-on.”
Heads of major drug families came next. Brothers Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Alfonso Valle Valle were extradited in December 2014, followed by a third brother a month later. The Valle clan counted on a number of political allies -- including Tony Hernández and Amílcar Alexander Ardón, the mayor of El Paraíso, Copán -- to control smuggling routes in western Honduras.
Other traffickers -- seeing the writing on the wall -- began turning themselves in, in the hopes of some sort of deal. Fearing for their own lives, Devis and Javier Maradiaga Rivera, heads of the Cachiros, a family of cattle rustlers turned drug traffickers, had surrendered by 2015. As part of his cooperation with US authorities, Devis admitted to 78 murders and helped build a drug trafficking case against Fabio Lobo, the son of former president Porfirio Lobo. Fabio was extradited from Haiti in 2015 and later pleaded guilty to the charges.
It wasn’t just drug traffickers who found themselves as the target of extradition requests, but also members of Honduras’ business and political class, many of whom had longtime ties to President Hernández. Former Honduran President Rafael Leonardo Callejas, a National Party leader and mentor to President Hernández, flew to Florida on a private plane to turn himself in after being accused of bribery in a massive international soccer scandal.
An embassy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for lack of authorization, said Hernández, when presented with extradition requests, never flinched. The president had a favorite saying: “Caiga quien caiga,” or “whoever goes down, goes down.”
The extraditions became routine.
His Own Undoing
But as extraditions accelerated there were indications that Hernández was getting nervous. He feared that his brother, Tony, could become the subject of a US extradition request. According to court documents released in his brother’s case, Hernández told close associates that he “was considering eliminating extradition” for that reason.
In the charging documents, prosecutors called Tony a “large-scale drug trafficker” who protected cocaine shipments with “heavily armed security” made up of national police and traffickers with machine guns. Tony also allegedly paid off politicians, lobbied on behalf of the Cachiros, smuggled cocaine with the Valles, and orchestrated the killings of two rival traffickers, the court documents claim.
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The depictions of Tony’s activity largely come from Honduran drug traffickers and government officials who were either extradited or turned themselves in over the last five years. These include Victor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias “El Rojo,” and Wilter Neptalí Blanco Ruíz, the former head of the Atlantic Cartel.
Prominent among them, however, is a single cooperating witness: Amílcar Alexander Ardón, the former mayor of El Paraíso in Copán department. According to court documents, Ardón spent millions of dollars of drug proceeds on Hernández’s two election campaigns in exchange for protection from -- as it turns out -- extradition.
When the extradition policy was new, Tony Hernández reassured Ardón that it was merely a response to “diplomatic pressure from the United States," and “expressed confidence” that neither he nor Ardón would be extradited, according to court documents. The payments to Hernández’s campaigns protected him, at least for awhile.
But as extraditions quickly snowballed and more traffickers cooperated, neither man found himself able to escape.
In the end, US prosecutors didn’t even need to make an extradition request for either. On November 23 of last year, DEA agents arrested Tony when he landed at Miami International Airport. Ardón turned himself in to authorities in February after negotiating with US prosecutors and DEA agents.
When Tony Hernández goes to court in October, Ardón will likely be on the stand.
“Why was it that Juan Orlando set this machine in motion?” asked the embassy official. “I don’t really have a good answer.”
What is clear is that extradition may be President Hernandez’s undoing.