CARTEL CHRONICLES is an ongoing series of dispatches from the front lines of the drug war in Latin America.
As any American familiar with Donald Trump’s Twitter account probably knows, a caravan of Central American migrants has been camped in Tijuana, Mexico near the shared border with the United States for weeks. President Trump and his administration have called them “criminals” and “bad people,” and border agents recently unleashed tear gas when migrants—including children—approached the border to protest over their bids for asylum.
Of course, the reality is that these migrants left the real “bad hombres” back home.
It’s February 2014 in Honduras, shortly after Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado took office to serve his first term as president of the small Central-American nation. For his younger brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez Alvarado, it is also an important moment in his life: He’s in a meeting with one of the country’s most powerful and violent drug traffickers.
Little did Tony know, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga was working as an informant for the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and their conversation was being recorded.
According to federal prosecutors, Tony pledged to help Rivera get government agencies to pay money owed to Rivera’s front-companies, entities the drug lord used to launder money. And Rivera said he paid Tony a $50,000 “thank-you” during that single sit down, which he described as part of a mutually beneficial relationship that lasted more than a decade.
It transformed Tony—a former congressman and member of the country's ruling National Party —into a “large-scale trafficker,” according to the US indictment against him that dropped late last month.
“Hernandez allegedly arranged machine-gun-toting security for cocaine shipments, bribed law enforcement officials for sensitive information to protect drug shipments, and solicited large bribes from major drug traffickers,” said Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman. Some of his drug shipments were stamped with his initials TH, according to investigators.
Rivera Hernandez's meeting with Tony was described in a United States court last year as part of the trial of another alleged drug trafficking elite, Fabio Porfirio Lobo. That’s the son of a different, former Honduran president, Porfirio Sosa Lobo. Both father and son, according to middleman Rivera Maradiaga, provided help and protection to a trafficking organization that moved massive shipments of cocaine to the United States.
“The president came through on his promise that we would not be touched as long as he was president—we weren't extradited," Rivera Maradiaga told the court. "And actually, he set up his son [Fabio] as a middleman who would be able to protect us, help us, the Cachiros, which was my brother and me.”
Tony and the two Lobos (which means “wolf” in Spanish) were perhaps the most high-profile of a litany of elites in Honduras recently accused of corruption and collusion. Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the world, and the United States government has estimated that as much as 90 percent of the cocaine that reached its territory passed through the Central America / Mexico corridor. Tony allegedly worked with organizations from Colombia and Mexico to ship cocaine from South America to the United States, under the protective watch of his brother, the current president.
“How is it that the government’s top security institutions where all of the intelligence and investigative apparatus are housed never discovered the illicit activities of the president’s brother?” asked Joaquín Mejía, a specialist in human rights at the Reflection, Investigation and Communication think tank in Honduras. Tony was eventually arrested in Miami last month, two years after it emerged he was a "person of interest" in a United States investigation.
Tony and his cohorts are also connected to the brutal Marasalvatrucha (“MS-13”) and Barrio 18 street gangs—both founded in Los Angeles, and routinely demonized by the Trump administration and equated by him with undocumented immigrants. The gangs are behind much of the murder in Honduras, as well as the other two nations in the region called the Northern Triangle: El Salvador and Guatemala. They control the local street sales of cocaine in all three nations, and get their supply from the bigger networks overseen by the likes of Tony. Each side scratches the other's back.
“The gangs are muscle, they use them as sicarios or enforcers, mostly in the urban areas where the gangs have most presence,” said Hector Silva Ávalos, a senior investigator at InSight Crime, a think tank focused on organized crime in the Americas. “My take would be that Honduras is among the three countries of the Northern Triangle with the clearest characteristics of a mafia or narco state,” he added.
The transnational cocaine market and its massive profits have proved irresistible for some of the most powerful players in Honduras, who stand accused of aiding and abetting the region’s drug cartels. Such collusion offers violent drug traffickers security as well as impunity for their crimes, and erodes the rule of law, feeding the violence that pushes people to flee for the United States border.
As a result, thousands of Hondurans choose to migrate each year, walking or hitching rides through blistering heat and torrential rain. They sleep in makeshift camps or shelters—thousands were moved to a new shelter from a filthy sports complex in Tijuana over the weekend—fed by the hope of finding a new life in the United States, or Mexico, rather than staying at home.
“What people like Tony Hernandez are doing instead of trying to help their country is creating a very volatile situation where his own countrymen are having to flee Honduras for Mexico and the United States because of his involvement in the drug trade,” said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the DEA and author of the recent novel Narco Queen.
“It’s like a pot roast of criminality,” he added.
Vigil suspected that Tony’s brother—the president of Honduras himself—could be in the crosshairs soon. (The president has said he told his brother to turn himself in and was determined to fight drug trafficking.) But Honduras and the United States have had close relations for a long time: the Northern Triangle nation served as a base to counter Soviet influence in Latin America during the 1980s. Officially, Honduras cooperates with anti-drug efforts, even if behind the scenes some of its leaders appeared to be aiding and abetting narcos.
Perhaps one of the stalwart phrases of US foreign policy may apply here: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch.” But tackling corruption in Honduras and the Northern Triangle could prove more effective at keeping cocaine out of the United States than extending the wall on the US/Mexico border. And bringing down graft could help reduce the waves of violence that make life in these nations so unbearable for so many.
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