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A Bengal tiger in its cage at the Joya Grande Zoo in Honduras, on May 14th, 2022. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

Tigers, Giraffes, and Drug Lord Mansions: Welcome to Honduras’ ‘Narco State’

For years, the Honduran government allegedly aided and abetted drug traffickers. And for a time, they both thrived.

SANTA CRUZ DE YOJOA, Honduras—Joya Grande Zoo wasn’t built for ordinary visitors.

To get there from the capital Tegucigalpa, we needed an SUV to slowly drive an hour up a bumpy, potholed dirt road with a reputation for bandits. Flanked by verdant, green trees, we didn’t pass another car for miles. And with no cell phone service, there was no indication we were on our way to anything, except for a few billboards featuring cartoon animals with enthusiastic slogans. “Let’s go to the zoo!!” read one, featuring a hippopotamus, jaws wide open, fangs out.

When we finally arrived, a half-dozen families were lined up at the ticket counter waiting to enter. Another family arrived soon after—by helicopter.

The zoo’s drug-lord founder, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, legendary leader of Honduras’ Cachiros cartel, also preferred to arrive by helicopter. That was before he confessed to participating in the murders of at least 78 people and started turning on his associates. Today, both Rivera and the man he helped bring down, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, are under the custody of U.S. authorities, and the zoo’s animals are wards of the Honduran state. 

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Joya Grande, Spanish for Big Jewel, unfolds over a winding concrete path around a mile long that features an astonishing collection of animals: 30 jaguars, 19 tigers, 18 lions, five hippopotamuses, one giraffe, plus zebras, camels, and more. The zoo boasts 48 species, as well as a zip-line, a mini-train, and a go-kart track, with one functioning go-kart. The big cats, with names like Gordo (Fatty), Flaco (Skinny), and Mañosa (Cunning), live in small, metal cages and their terrorific roars reverberate throughout the property. They consume 11,000 pounds of chicken a month, a financial burden without Rivera’s drug money to pay for it anymore.

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Big Boy, the giraffe at Joya Grande, is the zoo´s biggest draw for visitors. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

From the beginning, Rivera and his brother opened their playground to the public, at least nominally. It made it easier, apparently, to convince foreign countries to sell their exotic animals to drug traffickers. But visiting isn’t exactly an educational experience. There are no tour guides, nor signs detailing the animals’ origins, ages, or natural environments. Most of the animals haven’t left their cages in years, since the government took over in 2013. Like the rest of Honduras, they are captive to the whims of millionaire drug lords long-imprisoned, and a weak government that can’t afford to maintain them. 

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A young boy checks out the macaws at Joya Grande Zoo. Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

Leftist Xiomara Castro assumed the presidency in January pledging to end the narco state she says she inherited and eradicate its legacy of corruption. She’s already caught the biggest fish: Hernández, Castro’s predecessor, who was president from 2014 to January 2022. He is facing a life sentence in the U.S. on charges of running a "corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy.” Hernández says he’s innocent and that aggrieved drug traffickers are framing him.

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But even if Castro puts the current batch of drug traffickers out of business, what's left are empty narco mansions, a run-down zoo, unguarded borders, and the Honduran people picking up the tab. More than a tenth of Honduras’ population—around 1 million people—has fled to the U.S. over the last decade, driven by crushing poverty and rampant impunity, including more than 50,000 since Castro took office.  

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POLICE ESCORT FORMER HONDURAN PRESIDENT JUAN ORLANDO HERNÁNDEZ THE MORNING OF HIS EXTRADITION TO THE U.S., ON APRIL 21, 2022. (JORGE CABRERA/GETTY IMAGES)

“The corruption is systemic in Honduras,” said Eric Olson, a Central America expert and director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation. “I think the mistake is to overly personalize it— extradite Juan Orlando Hernández and everything will be OK. The problems are so much deeper than that. Institutions were purposefully weakened to benefit Hernández and the National Party. That doesn’t simply disappear.”

Castro comes with her own baggage: She is the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup in 2009 and has also been accused of accepting bribes from drug traffickers. Castro has appointed Zelaya as an advisor, Zelaya’s nephew as secretary of defense, and her son as “private secretary,” and she’s granted broad amnesty to people who worked for her husband's administration.  

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A visitor takes a photo of a Bengal tiger at Joya Grande Zoo. Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

The list of people accused by the U.S. of drug trafficking and related crimes is a who’s who of Honduran elites. Many trace back to Rivera, the murderous, animal-loving founder of Joya Grande. For a decade, he led the Cachiro cartel, which amassed an estimated $800 million fortune serving as the primary link between cocaine producers in South America and Mexican cartels that distribute the drugs in the U.S. In 2013, the Honduran government began seizing his and his families’ assets, including the zoo, under pressure from the U.S.

Fearing death or capture, Rivera cut a deal with U.S. prosecutors: He and his brother would turn themselves in, in exchange for leniency at sentencing. Their cooperation opened a window into the tangled nexus between Honduran politicians and drug traffickers that triggered a cascade of indictments and prosecutions by the U.S., each building on the one before, and eventually ending in Hernández’s capture. 

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It also left the zoo in the hands of the Honduran government. That has not, objectively speaking, gone well.

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VISITORS KEEN TO IMMERSE THEMSELVES IN THE NARCO EXPERIENCE CAN RENT THE CABIN ONCE FAVORED BY THE ZOO´S DRUG LORD FOUNDER. PHOTO: FRED RAMOS FOR VICE WORLD NEWS.

Under the government’s stewardship, a third of the employees were let go, said Camilo Hernández, who started working at Joya Grande in 2010 and is now its longest-serving employee. An electric fence that allowed the big cats to roam the fields fell into disrepair, as did a paintball course. Two restaurants and a bar closed. The hippopotamuses stopped reproducing because their enclosure is too small. The animals that could escape, did. Most of the peacocks fled to the mountains; just six of 24 remain.

Today, ticket sales from a meager stream of visitors keep the zoo afloat. Adults pay $10; kids under 5 get in for free. For $160 a night, visitors keen to immerse themselves in the narco experience can rent the small, wood-paneled, two-bedroom cabin that was favored by Rivera. It overlooks the pen of Big Boy, the zoo’s prized giraffe and biggest draw.

“We have no faith in the government,” Camilo told me, nonchalantly petting a tiger through the bars of its cage as we talked. His salary has risen slightly since Castro took office, to around $400 a month, but hardly enough to make a qualitative difference. “It’s all up to us,” he said. 

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CAMILO HERNÁNDEZ, JOYA GRANDE ZOO'S LONGEST-SERVING EMPLOYEE, PETS A WHITE TIGER THROUGH THE BARS OF A METAL GATE AT JOYA GRANDE ZOO. PHOTO: FRED RAMOS FOR VICE WORLD NEWS.

Narco mansions

Across Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, empty narco mansions dot the landscape. They are right there for everyone to see, but no one lives in them or is even allowed to enter.

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In the town of El Espíritu near the Guatemala-Honduras border, I found a virtual ghost town—an entire street lined with vacant houses that had been seized by the government. The mansions once belonged to members of the powerful Valle Valle drug trafficking clan, whose leaders were extradited to the U.S. in 2014. Now, a dozen or so soldiers were stationed along the street to make sure no one trespassed.

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ONE OF THE MANSIONS THE GOVERNMENT SEIZED FROM LEADERS OF THE VALLE VALLE DRUG TRAFFICKING CLAN IN EL ESPÍRITU, HONDURAS, FOLLOWING THEIR EXTRADITION TO THE U.S. IN 2014. THE MANSION HAS SINCE FALLEN INTO DISREPAIR. PHOTO: FRED RAMOS FOR VICE WORLD NEWS.

We managed to enter a few of them. Despite being ransacked and falling apart, signs of their former luxury remain.

In one, a replica of Michelangelo’s David stands in the driveway; a dolphin statue adorns the swimming pool; a miniature house for kids flanks the main house; and a picture of Al Pacino from Scarface, fists full of $100 bills, hangs on a living room wall. On the second floor, an enormous jacuzzi with two headrests sits in disrepair; the walls and ceilings covered in deep-red wallpaper. 

Another mansion, half-built, was in the process of being constructed when its owner, Digna Valle, the powerful matriarch of the Valle Cartel, was arrested in 2014. Voices echo off the exposed concrete and long hallways reveal room after room. Her builders got so far as constructing a majestic stairway and carving out spaces for bedroom windows, which look over a lawn that’s since become a weed patch.

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ONE OF THE MANSIONS SEIZED FROM THE VALLE VALLE FAMILY DRUG TRAFFICKING CLAN IN 2014 STILL SHOWS SIGNS OF ITS FORMER LUXURY, ALONG WITH THE OWNER'S cheesy TASTE. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

The reason the government spends a colossal amount of money to watch over these properties is that it is obliged to do so by law, said Jorge González, director of Honduras’s Office of Seized Assets. 

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I met González in the capital of Tegucigalpa at the mansion of Honduras’ first major international drug trafficker, which the government seized and converted into the office’s headquarters, along with its plush leather furniture and a swimming pool (it’s empty).  

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A DOLPHIN STATUE ADORNS THE SWIMMING POOL AT ONE OF THE MANSIONS SEIZED FROM THE VALLE VALLE DRUG TRAFFICKING CLAN IN EL ESPÍRITU, HONDURAS. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

In theory, the government is supposed to keep the properties it seizes in “as good or better conditions” than they were found in, González said, or sell them, with the profits going to the government. Neither happened with any regularity under former President Hernández’s administration, he said.

“The nice houses have deteriorated completely, and now we are paying for that. It’s extremely expensive.”

The government is also footing the bill for helicopters, boats, planes, and other toys favored by fallen drug lords, as well as eight houses, seven vehicles, five companies, 15 horses, 14 cows, and various bank accounts seized from the former president, González said. Many suspect that’s just a fraction of Hernández’s wealth, and that his allies in government are shielding the rest of his assets. The operation “was a joke,” González told me. 

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One mansion was in the process of being constructed when its owner, Digna Valle, the powerful matriarch of the Valle Valle cartel, was extradited to the U.S. in 2014. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

González said he took over an agency in disarray, and in some cases, managed like a personal piggy bank. Two of his predecessors have been charged with stealing the seized property they were supposed to protect—which would be shocking, anywhere, perhaps, other than Honduras, where the president was arrested just two weeks after leaving office.

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In an extraordinary scene broadcast on national television, a phalanx of Honduran police officers escorted Hernández out of his house, shackled at his hands and feet and wearing a bulletproof vest, and transported him to a Honduran military base to await his extradition.

The man once considered one of the U.S.’ closest allies—who had boasted of extraditing more than 40 drug traffickers during his presidency—was now being accused of trying to “shove drugs right up the noses of the gringos.” Witnesses have also alleged that Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán partially financed Hernández’s presidential campaign and that he regularly received bribes to protect drug traffickers.

The arrest was a long time coming, but it still shocked many who doubted the rumors long-swirling around Hernández would ever amount to charges. Even after U.S. prosecutors labeled Hernández a “co-conspirator” in his brother’s 2019 drug-trafficking conviction, the Trump administration continued to praise Honduras as a “valued and proven partner.”

“Juan Orlando was viewed by the U.S. as a hero for a while, when what he was really doing was allowing the DEA to systematically chop down folks who might be competition for him,” said Douglas Farah, head of security research firm IBI Consultants and a Central America analyst. “The president and his political party controlled the architecture of cocaine movement through Honduras.

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Police from the anti-drug unit prepare to destroy seized drugs in the capital Tegucigalpa on May 13th, 2022. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

But a childhood friend of Hernández’s who runs a small store insisted that Hernández is innocent, and if he isn’t, it’s because “the cartels made him do it.” The friend, Saúl Gómez Morales, lived for a decade in the U.S. until he was deported. He said when he migrated to the U.S., he entered walking through a tunnel from Tijuana into San Diego. Cartels are “ten times more powerful” than any president, he told me.

Criminals who wear ties

The morning that the DEA agents came to extradite Hernández, Security Minister Ramón Sabillón Pineda made a last visit to his cell. Hernández was still looking for a glimmer of hope. 

“How’s my case?” he asked Sabillón.

“You’re going to be condemned,” Sabillón responded flatly.

Hernández’s bloodshot eyes filled with tears, he said.

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Ramón Sabillón, Honduras´ Security Minister, at his office in Tegucigalpa on May 13th, 2022. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

A short, soft-spoken man with a gray beard and the softest hands I’d ever shaken, Sabillón said he wants Hondurans to “once again believe in their institutions and believe in justice.”

Shortly after extraditing Hernández, he sent packing a former Honduran police chief—nicknamed “The Tiger”—who’s accused of protecting cocaine shipments on Hernández’s behalf.

Sabillón plans on extraditing another 30, and as many as 60, people by year’s end to face charges in the U.S. And he wants to change the composition of Honduras’ prisons, to hold fewer poor people and more white-collar criminals.

“Those who wear ties,” he told me.

Sabillón doesn’t wear a tie.

But in Honduras, when they get rid of one drug trafficker, another one pops up. Ninety percent of the cocaine found in the U.S. passes through Central America or Mexico, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, with Honduras playing a key role. A number of Honduran organizations are now also growing and producing cocaine—in addition to transporting it, threatening to create another generation of drug lords even more powerful than the ones before.

And Hernández’s influence continues to loom over Honduras. No one quite believes that he won’t return. In his birthplace of Gracias, his 10-acre vacation estate is ready for him to walk through the door.

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FORMER PRESIDENT HERNÁNDEZ´S 10-ACRE VACATION HOME HAS BEEN PERFECTLY MAINTAINED SINCE HIS ARREST IN FEBRUARY. PHOTO: FRED RAMOS FOR VICE WORLD NEWS.

The house is hidden behind a tall, green, metal fence. But if you can see beyond the fence, as I was able to, you’ll find 15 horses, two Toyota Land Cruisers, a guest house, mango trees, bougainvillea trees in full bloom, and a pool and jacuzzi, both filled with fresh water.

The main house has three bedrooms and is filled with artwork, every wall covered in paintings of landscapes and birds. A painting of Hernández wearing a button-down white shirt with his sleeves rolled up, waving into the distance, hangs in the dining room. A separate guest house has another three bedrooms.  

Since Hernández was extradited, a caretaker has even been hired specifically to look after and feed 20 macaws—large, colorful parrots that live and breed on the property.

“It’s a national project,” he told me.

He wouldn’t let me see the birds, though, as the property is completely off-limits to the public. And he still hadn’t been paid the 9,000 lempiras—$365 dollars—a month the government promised him. 

Both the caretaker and a police officer who guards Hernández’s vacation estate 24 hours a day and sleeps in what used to be the guest house, told me they’d like to go to the U.S. Especially the policeman, whose wife and son fled Honduras during Hernández’s presidency and now live in the U.S. His young son already speaks English fluently, the officer told me proudly.

With endearing sincerity, the officer asked me if I could help him get a visa to the U.S. When I told him that his chances of getting a visa are slim to none, he was disappointed but undeterred. One way or another, he’ll eventually make it, he said. 

Broken-down border patrol

After leaving the narco mansions in El Espíritu, we drove toward the Guatemalan border, looking for one of the dozens of clandestine crossings that has allowed Honduras to function as a superhighway for sending cocaine north. Instead, we accidentally pulled up to the official Guatemala-Honduras border crossing in El Florido, Copán, where police officers suspiciously reviewed our passports. 

After we explained who we were, the Honduran police commander let down his guard and offered to help—with one caveat: He had to ride in our car because the unit’s patrol car was broken.

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A broken down patrol truck at the Guatemala-Honduras border crossing in El Florido, Honduras on May 17th, 2022. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

From the front seat, he directed us down a dirt road that ended in Guatemala, one of the favored routes smugglers use to evade authorities. We didn’t pass any other police officers along the route.

The roughly $100 million that the U.S. invests annually in Honduras is nowhere to be seen here. Anyone with two wheels and half a brain could transport drugs, or migrants, along this stretch.

The commander’s men, 22 in all, are responsible for patrolling about 75 miles of terrain along the porous border here. But he said they don’t have the manpower to maintain an effective presence, nor a scanner to search for hidden goods in trucks or containers.

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One of the dozens of clandestine border crossings that has allowed Honduras to function as a superhighway for sending cocaine north. Photo: Fred Ramos for VICE World News.

“We work with what we have, and the most important thing is to want to do the right thing,” said the commander, a 20-year veteran of the force. When I asked him if that was hard to do under a president accused of drug trafficking, he politely demurred, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about that. 

When we returned to the official border crossing about an hour later, our photographer walked over to the broken-down patrol car to take a shot. It wasn't just out of service—the two front wheels were missing, exposed rods jutted out, and a wooden plank propped it up. One of the officers stopped the photographer.

“It will make us look bad,” he said.

Then another officer intervened. “Maybe if people see the photo,” the second officer said, “it will finally be replaced.”

Paulo Cerrato contributed reporting for this story.