On a December morning in 2018, Javier Erazo, known as “El Huita,” took to his hammock after a horseback ride at his farm in Ocotepeque, a town on the western tip of Honduras.
He likely didn’t see what was coming. “They shot him 10 times,” said an investigator, who spoke with InSight Crime under the condition of anonymity due to security concerns.
Weeks before his murder, Erazo had stolen several trucks of cattle belonging to the Valles drug trafficking clan, the investigator said. The clan’s patriarchs, Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Alfonso Valle Valle, had moved vast amounts of cocaine through western Honduras until their capture in 2014.
*This is the third in a series of four articles on the tenure of embattled Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández. Read the first and second installments.
A horse belonging to the Valles was left tied up at Erazo’s side. The horse was “a message,” said the investigator -- a message that the Valle family’s power had not completely died out. But Honduran authorities also viewed the shooting of Erazo, who had worked under the Valles, as part of a series of vendettas resulting from the power vacuum left by the clan’s absence.
The fall of the Valles has reconfigured criminal dynamics in western Honduras, a remote mountainous region bordering El Salvador and Guatemala that counts the departments of Copán, Santa Bárbara, Ocotepeque and Lempira, and has traditionally served as a route for all types of contraband, including drugs.
It is also where President Juan Orlando Hernández and his brother Tony, who was accused this past year in a New York court of being a key link between politicians and organized crime in Honduras, got their start in national politics. The Hernández brothers were born in Gracias, a colonial city in the department of Lempira. Both represented Lempira as congressmen.
Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández -- who was always overshadowed by his siblings, Juan Orlando and Hilda -- began his career as a lawyer. Soon he was acting as a powerbroker in Honduras’ western departments. He made deals with local operators in the National Party, such as Amilcar Alexander “Chande” Ardón, the former mayor of El Paraíso in Copán department who also faces US drug trafficking charges. Hernández also got involved with the Valles clan, which allowed them to control the principal land corridor from Honduras into Guatemala where, according to calculations by InSight Crime, between 150 to 300 tons of cocaine have been trafficked through each year since at least 2015.
A Honduran army official, who was part of the special anti-drug trafficking force that has investigated and pursued large drug trafficking groups since 2013, said that Tony Hernández’s first work for the Valles was to clear out the route in Lempira department.
The investigator said he “also started doing favors for the Valles, helping them with business deals in the Bay Islands,” a department along the northern coast and an established transshipment point for cocaine.
Documents from the criminal trial against Tony Hernández -- in which Ardón also testified -- have shed light on the role Hernández played in forging a "pax mafiosa" between himself, Ardón and the Valles. In a 2008 meeting, Tony Hernández proposed that Ardón contribute to the National Party for his brother Juan Orlando’s reelection campaign in congress. In exchange, Tony offered protection for the mayor’s drug trafficking operation. Ardón allegedly continued to provide money to a variety of Hernández's campaigns, including Hernandez's initial campaign for president in 2013, according to court documents. (President Hernández and his spokespeople have denied any links to drug trafficking on several occasions.)
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With Tony Hernández, the two largest drug trafficking groups, those of the Valles and Alexander Ardón, had control of the west.
“The Valles in the north, on the way out of the country; [Ardón] with political control in Copán, and Tony in Lempira, more to the south,” said the anti-narcotics official.
Their operations included two landing strips for receiving planes loaded with drugs. One, in Lempira, opened in 2014, while the Río Amarillo airfield, close to the Copán Mayan ruins, opened in 2015.
Both strips were built for commercial flights, but few such flights have landed at either. Only private flights arrive at the Lempira airstrip, which is constantly guarded by a military unit. The Río Amarillo airfield received just one commercial flight in 2016.
Highways extend from both of these runways toward the mountains straddling Guatemala. Few formal customs points, which rarely subject cargo trucks to exhaustive revisions, are present along the border, InSight Crime found during field research. Massive blind spots also provide easy passage.
All of this made the western region perfect for smuggling drugs. And things had been going smoothly for the trafficking clans until 2013, when US authorities started to pursue them.
Top members of the Cachiros, a prominent trafficking group in the north of Honduras, turned themselves in between 2013 and 2015, while in the west, the army undertook a secret operation to capture the Valles. The October 2014 operation was so secret that President Hernández wasn't even informed until a day later. (The situation cost Ramón Sabillón, the top police chief at that time, his position.)
Agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrested Tony Hernández at the international airport in Miami in November 2018. Three months later, Ardón also turned himself in to US authorities.
“When the Valles and [Alexander] 'Chande’ Ardón fell, the killing spree started,” said a military intelligence source in the capital Tegucigalpa.
Sub-lieutenants within the Valles had been tasked with managing assets -- such as cattle -- that had not been seized by the Honduran government.
Erazo, who was shot to death while lying in his hammock, was one of them.
A hypothesis among Honduran authorities is that another trafficker and Valles sub-lieutenant -- Orlando Noé Pinto Espino, alias "El Rey del Norte" -- orchestrated Erazo’s murder.
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A few days after Erazo’s killing, Pinto was arrested in Guatemala. Edgar Joel Aguilar, a correspondent for a local television station, covered the arrest.
In late August, Aguilar was shot to death in a barbershop in La Entrada, a town which, as its name suggests, marks the beginning of the western department of Copán. For the last decade, La Entrada was the gateway to the domains of the Valles and Ardón.
The journalist knew he was in danger after covering Pinto’s arrest. “He told me that if he did not retire from the TV station, that they were going to go after him ... that is about when he met his fate,” a friend and colleague of Aguilar told InSight Crime. Aguilar was one of the few local journalists willing to report on organized crime.
Jair Meza, a spokesman for the Honduran National Police, confirmed the colleague’s account. Aguilar had already suffered three attempts on his life, along with numerous threats, Meza said.
Unlike Honduran kingpins of the past, small-time traffickers like Pinto and Erazo appear much more prone to violence -- and are even willing to gun down a journalist. They also have scores to settle among themselves. An international official based in the Honduran capital said the current massacres are related to disputes among organized drug traffickers, “and they are being resolved in the old fashioned way.”
The departures of Tony Hernández, the Valles, and Ardón from the criminal scene have allowed an already lawless region to become even more violent. Gone are the days in which everything moved under a few powerful chiefs with the best protection that a drug trafficker can hope for: political influence and power.