A jury in a US court has found the brother of the president of Honduras guilty on drug and weapons charges, but serious questions remain about whether this will have an impact on embedded criminal structures in the Central American nation.
Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former Honduran congressman and the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández, was convicted of all four charges against him, including drug trafficking and lying to authorities, authorities announced October 18.
President Hernández reacted to the news on Twitter, saying that he felt "great sadness" and that he "rejected any false and irresponsible version that seeks to stain the name of Honduras as a result of this verdict."
Prosecutors in the trial, which began on October 2 and lasted for two weeks, largely relied on the testimony of a number of traffickers, including the heads of notorious drug clans and government officials, who said that Hernández provided them protection and handled drug shipments. The traffickers also described how Tony Hernández funneled millions of dollars in drug proceeds to his brother's campaigns.
On Twitter, President Hernández, once again, pointed the finger at them.
"What can be said about a conviction based on testimonies of confessed murderers?" he said.
The landmark trial made waves from day one. To set the stage, prosecutor Jason Richman said in his opening statement that former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” had hand-delivered $1 million to the former congressman that was meant for the sitting president of Honduras.
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Allegations of official corruption in facilitating Tony Hernández’s drug conspiracy were a constant feature throughout the trial. One witness, Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias "El Rojo," alleged the Honduran police and military played a fundamental role in safeguarding drug shipments and traffickers, including former police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, known as “El Tigre.”
Another key witness, Amilcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, the former mayor of El Paraíso in the department of Copán in Honduras’ “wild west,” claimed to have in 2009 bribed former President Porfirio Lobo and then-congressman Juan Orlando Hernández with $2 million in drug proceeds to help fund their respective campaigns in exchange for protection and security information.
Tony Hernández’s own testimony was used to show his connections to prominent Central American drug traffickers, including leaders from the infamous Valles and Cachiros criminal groups. Former Cachiros head Devis Rivera Maradiaga also testified that he provided drug money to both Tony and Juan Orlando Hernández.
Arguably the most compelling piece of evidence introduced by the prosecution was a “narcolibreta,” or ledger, that allegedly detailed cocaine shipments received and distributed by Tony Hernández. Among the other entries included inside was a $440,000 payment to “JOH y su gente,” or JOH and his associates. It was unclear whether the letters were meant to signify the president, but he has long been called by his initials, which are frequently seen on posters in support of and against him.
Tony Hernández now faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years and a possible maximum sentence of life in prison. He will be sentenced on January 17, 2020.
InSight Crime Analysis
The conviction of Tony Hernández could have only happened in the United States.
For more than a decade, the former congressman and his co-conspirators were able to use their connections to Honduras’ political elite and corrupt security forces to safeguard their drug trafficking operations. It was only after US prosecutors targeted Hernández and accused him of being a drug lord that it was made clear he would likely end up in a prison cell.
President Hernández has stressed his commitment to the fight against organized crime in part through extraditing traffickers, many of whom, ironically, ended up testifying against Tony with the hope of receiving shorter prison sentences.
But the fact that it took a high-profile trial in the United States to break up one of the most brazen criminal structures Central America has seen in recent years, which featured sitting politicians and policemen among its ranks, suggests that state institutions in Honduras have yet to achieve the autonomy or capacity needed to successfully attack criminal networks.
While Tony Hernández’s conviction is extraordinary, it's likely not enough to remove the shadow of narco-politics that still looms over the country's business elites and government, including the president himself.
These criminal structures still stand and will continue to do so as long as the United States views the sitting president -- who was named as a co-conspirator in his brother’s drug conspiracy -- as an ally worthy of US security assistance.