Usually loath to name sitting presidents in criminal cases, prosecutors in the United States have made an exception for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, painting a clear picture of him taking bribes from drug traffickers and participating firsthand in his brother’s cocaine smuggling ring.
During closing arguments in the two-week trial of drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, Assistant US Attorney Michael Lockard said the defendant met and paid bribes to Hernández as recently as 2019. But Hernández “did not only want the cash, he wanted access to the defendant’s cocaine,” Lockard said.
Fuentes Ramírez was found guilty of drug conspiracy and weapons charges on March 22. After the conviction, US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement that Fuentes Ramírez is a “ruthless, powerful, and murderous cocaine trafficker” who “facilitated the shipment of large loads of cocaine by bribing Juan Orlando Hernández.”
Days earlier, on March 16, US prosecutors filed documents in the case of the president’s brother, Tony Hernández, who was convicted in October 2019 of trafficking “multi-ton loads of cocaine” through Honduras by plane, boat, and helicopter and using government forces to secure drug shipments. In a sentencing document, prosecutors left no room for misinterpretation about President Hernández’s alleged role in his brother’s trafficking ring, saying that he and Tony “played a leadership role in a violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy.”
Unlike in previous court filings, in which President Hernández is identified only as co-conspirator number four (CC-4), prosecutors mentioned his name directly 58 times in the March 16 filing. Tony “distributed millions of dollars in drug-derived bribes to Juan Orlando Hernández” between 2004 and 2019, as well as to other current and former politicians from Honduras’ ruling National Party, they said.
President Hernández’s prominence in the Fuentes Ramírez trial and the recent documents related to his brother’s sentencing again forced him to deny links to drug trafficking. Hernández has consistently claimed that “dozens of vengeful Honduran narcos” have provided a “tsunami of false testimony” that cannot be trusted.
Here are four areas in which prosecutors have brought the longstanding allegations against Hernández into sharper focus in recent weeks.
Connections to Fuentes Ramírez
Evidence found on a cell phone taken from Fuentes Ramírez at the time of his arrest bolstered the prosecution’s argument that President Hernández maintained a close working relationship with the trafficker and his immediate family.
Minutes into the first witness interrogation, prosecutors displayed a phone number and email address for President Hernández that was found on Fuentes Ramírez’s phone. This data was corroborated by a number that Hernández had used for a US visa application in 2011.
No direct communications were detected between the two men, according to US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents who testified during the trial, but the discovery raised questions about why an accused drug trafficker — active since the early 2000s — would have had a direct line to the president.
Prosecutors also displayed photos, taken from the same cell phone, of President Hernández and the first lady together with the brother of Fuentes Ramírez. Another photo showed President Hernández with one of the defendant’s sons, further highlighting the ties between the president and Fuentes Ramírez’s family.
One government witness — a Honduran accountant who does not appear to have ties to drug trafficking or other criminal activity — testified to seeing Fuentes Ramírez meeting with Juan Orlando Hernández on two occasions in 2013, where the trafficker handed over a total of $25,000 in bribes to the soon-to-be president.
At least one of those meetings was recorded by security cameras at Graneros Nacionales, a rice company owned by businessman Fuad Jarufe and where the witness worked. President Hernández frequently met with Fuentes Ramírez at the company to receive campaign contributions, according to the accountant, identified in court only as “José Sánchez.”
The witness testified that he made two copies of one of the security camera videos, giving one to prosecutor Marlene Banegas, who was murdered in late 2014, and the other to an individual by the name of Cristian Ayala, who may be the son of Sub-Police Commissioner Edgardo Ayala López, murdered in mid-2015.
During one of these meetings, the witness testified that Juan Orlando Hernández boasted about deceiving US anti-drug forces. “We are going to shove the drugs up the noses of the gringos and they won’t even know it,” the president allegedly said.
During that same meeting, Fuentes Ramírez allegedly took out $15,000 in $20 bills from a black briefcase and handed it to Hernández, who then asked the accountant to exchange the cash for Honduran lempiras.
Another key witness in the case, former Cachiros drug clan leader Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, also testified that he had bribed Hernández with $250,000 in 2012 in exchange for shielding him and his brother from extradition to the United States.
Trips to the Presidential Palace
In the lead-up to Tony Hernández’s US drug trial in 2019, Fuentes Ramírez traveled to the presidential palace in Honduras after President Hernández’s name came up in court filings.
Prosecutors presented geographic location data for Fuentes Ramírez — extracted from his cell phone along with photos of large quantities of money and firearms — that showed he had been at the presidential palace in May and June 2019. Prosecutor Lockard said the evidence showed how Fuentes Ramírez and Juan Orlando Hernández were “keeping close tabs on the case against their co-conspirator.”
The defense did not provide any explanation as to why Fuentes Ramírez would have been meeting with President Hernández, whom prosecutors identified as his “partner.”
The prosecution also presented chats between two of Fuentes Ramírez’s sons, found on one of the son’s iCloud accounts, in which they discussed certain unidentified co-conspirators in the case against Tony Hernández. One of those mentioned was CC-4, or President Hernández.
JOH in the Crosshairs
Prosecutors identified Hernández more than 50 times in the March 16 sentencing submission, accusing him of prolonged involvement with prominent drug traffickers who contributed to his campaigns in exchange for protection and immunity.
In 2013, just prior to Hernández becoming president, prosecutors allege that Tony “funneled a $1 million bribe from Joaquín Guzmán Loera,” alias “El Chapo,” the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, “to Juan Orlando Hernández.” Tony later conveyed that the bribe was “urgently” needed, adding that his brother had told him to “be careful with cameras and pictures because of phones” when receiving the money.
In the document, prosecutors also allege that Hernández secured protection for Honduran traffickers — including the Valle Valle brothers and a former mayor, Amilcar Alexander Ardón Soriano — as well as for cocaine shipments being transported through Honduras, according to prosecutors.
The filing also contains information about a drug ledger Honduran authorities confiscated in June 2018 from Nery Orlando López, who was later murdered in a brutal jailhouse slaying less than a month after Tony was convicted in the United States. The ledger, which recorded details of large-scale cocaine shipments and payments made to specific individuals, “contained references to ‘JOH,’ initials used by Juan Orlando Hernández,” prosecutors wrote.