The director of a maximum-security prison in Honduras was brazenly murdered in broad daylight, in what was just the latest in a string of killings following the conviction for drug trafficking of Tony Hernández, the president's brother, in the United States.
Armed gunmen fired at least six shots into Pedro Ildefonso Armas, the director of the El Pozo prison in northern Honduras, as he traveled in a Toyota pickup truck along the Pan-American highway near Marillal in southern Choluteca department December 12, La Prensa reported.
Though it’s unclear why Armas was targeted, he had claimed he'd recently received threats. Armas was suspended from his role as head of El Pozo, the US-style prison located in Santa Barbara department bordering Guatemala, as part of an investigation into the October 26 murder of drug trafficker Nery Orlando López, according to La Prensa.
Armas was seen speaking with López when a group of inmates stormed in and repeatedly shot and stabbed him to death in a macabre scene caught on camera.
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López, who changed his name to Magdaleno Meza to elude authorities prior to his arrest, played a prominent role in the US drug trafficking case against former Honduran congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández. Drug ledgers that authorities confiscated during his arrest -- which detailed numerous transactions for cocaine shipments received by and delivered to Tony Hernández -- were a crucial piece of evidence prosecutors used to convict the former official.
The trial captured headlines for two weeks, revealing everything from government collusion with drug traffickers to a $1 million bribe that the former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” reportedly hand-delivered to Tony Hernández in order to reach the president himself.
Following Armas’ murder and the slaying of five other inmates in the La Tolva maximum security prison, Ebal Díaz, secretary of state to the presidency, announced a state of emergency in the prison system on December 17. All prison employees were suspended and control of the prisons was temporarily transferred to the armed forces, according to La Prensa.
InSight Crime Analysis
The fallout from Tony Hernández’s conviction in the United States has left a trail of blood in Honduras.
The day before López was murdered, Marco Tulio Amador Varela was shot and killed inside La Tolva prison. Amador Varela was allegedly the "right-hand man" of former El Paraíso mayor Amilcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, according to La Tribuna. US prosecutors indicted Ardón in January 2019 on charges that he too participated in Tony Hernández's drug trafficking conspiracy.
Just two days after López’s brutal slaying inside El Pozo, authorities were quick to announce the arrest of four of the inmates believed to be involved, according to a press release from the Attorney General’s Office. However, six individuals were observed participating in the murder. It’s not clear what happened to the other two, or who may have ordered the killing. After his arrest, López was reportedly collaborating with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to Univision.
But the killings didn’t stop there.
One of López’s lawyers, José Luis Pinto -- who also defended the Valle Valle brothers, the heads of one of Honduras’ most successful organized crime groups -- was shot dead on December 9, La Prensa reported. Witnesses told La Prensa that the gunmen walked into a cafeteria in the town of La Entrada in western Copán department where Pinto was eating, shot him and walked out.
Authorities have yet to arrest anyone for Pinto’s murder. Other lawyers on López’s defense team have also said they have received death threats. “It’s unfortunate that to this day, the Honduran government and Attorney General’s Office don’t have an effective policy” in place to hold those that murder lawyers accountable, the Honduran Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados de Honduras) said in a December 11 press release.
While Tony Hernández was the one on trial in the United States, it was President Hernández in the spotlight. One of the entries in López’s ledgers identified a payment of $440,000 to “JOH and his associates.” It’s not clear that the letters signify the president, but Hondurans have long identified him by his initials.
President Hernández has repeatedly denied accusations that he accepted drug money or has ties to organized crime groups, calling such claims "absurd and ridiculous" and "less serious than Alice in Wonderland." The president's brother has also denied having connections to drug traffickers.
Shortly after López’s jailhouse murder, Honduran authorities arrested Seth and Roberto Paisano Wood, two brothers from a powerful political family thought to be the most prominent drug traffickers on the country’s Atlantic Coast. The following month, authorities in neighboring Guatemala arrested Haroldo Lorenzana, a staple of the drug trafficking world along the Guatemala-Honduras border that US authorities have had in their sights since 2010.
All three individuals were close associates of López and are thought to have intimate links to the Honduran government, suggesting that the "possible case against President Hernández keeps building,” according to Univision.
The killings also come as the mandate of the Organization of American States-backed (OAS) Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras -- MACCIH) is set to expire.
The OAS judicial body is also investigating corruption cases that could implicate the president. An OAS team that recently evaluated its work recommended that it continue, and President Hernández will decide whether to renew the MACCIH's mandate in the next month.