The arrest and possible extradition of a former Honduras police chief suspected of drug trafficking could provide explosive evidence in the case against recently-detained former president Juan Orlando Hernández – accused of drug crimes by the US government.
Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, the former director of Honduras police better known as “El Tigre,” was arrested at a toll booth outside the capital city, Tegucigalpa, on March 9. He faces extradition to the United States, where prosecutors accuse him of participating in a state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy implicating top Honduras officials, including Hernández. It comes just weeks after Honduras police arrested the former president, also wanted for extradition on drug trafficking charges.
US prosecutors first charged Bonilla with drug trafficking and related arms offenses in April 2020. The Justice Department accuses the former police chief of abusing his position within Honduras law enforcement to protect cocaine shipments on behalf of the former president and his brother, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández Alvarado – a convicted drug trafficker now serving a life sentence in the US.
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US prosecutors later submitted an extradition request for Bonilla in May 2021. But the former top cop was already in hiding, according to Univision.
The former police chief has previously denied the accusations made by US attorneys.
Hours after his arrest, Honduras police paraded Bonilla before press handcuffed at the wrist and ankles, emulating scenes from just weeks earlier when authorities detained Hernández in shackles outside his home in Tegucigalpa. Bonilla will remain in detention while he awaits an extradition hearing March 10, according to Honduras police.
Bonilla served as director of Honduras police between 2012 and 2013 but his tenure was mired in controversy amid allegations he was involved in death squads.
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Bonilla’s arrest significantly raises the stakes for former president Hernández, who stands to lose the most if his former ally is extradited and decides to cooperate with US authorities.
The charges against Bonilla are intricately linked to former president Hernández, who prosecutors accuse of using security forces to protect drug shipments. His testimony could provide a trove of evidence backing up those allegations.
“If [Bonilla] was extradited to the United States and decided to cooperate, it would be the final nail in the coffin of Hernández,” Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) former chief of international operations, told Vice News following the extradition request targeting Bonilla last year.
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US prosecutors depict Bonilla as a “highly trusted” lynchpin who operated on the orders of Hernández and his brother to shield drug shipments and conduct “special assignments, including murder,” according to Justice Department press release and the criminal complaint outlining the charges against the former police chief.
This included the murder of a rival drug trafficker who had prevented Tony Hernández from moving drugs in western Honduras and the use of violence to protect politically-connected drug traffickers, including Hernández and his brother, according to US prosecutors and witness testimony cited in the criminal complaint.
Bonilla also featured in the 2019 trial of Tony Hernández, with a former drug trafficker turned witness describing the veteran officer as a close confidant of then-president Juan Orlando Hernández who helped to shield drug shipments.
Allegations of state-sponsored drug trafficking have plagued Honduras for years, implicating an array of top politicians, the military and police – many linked to the former president’s alleged criminal activity.