Ex-Honduran Police Chief ‘El Tigre’ Arrested on Drug Smuggling Charges

The U.S. says Juan Carlos Bonilla protected cocaine shipments for the former president of Honduras and has asked for the extradition of both men.
Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares pictured this week after his arrest on an extradition request from the U.S.
Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares pictured this week after his arrest on an extradition request from the U.S. (Photo by Jorge Cabrera / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A former national police chief of Honduras accused of protecting cocaine shipments to the United States for the country’s former president was arrested this week by the officers in the force he led a decade ago.

Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, also known as ‘El Tigre” (The Tiger), was charged in the southern district of New York two years ago with protecting cocaine shipments and killing a rival drug trafficker as part of a broad-ranging drug trafficking conspiracy.

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Although the United States asked for his extradition last May, Honduran authorities appeared to make no move against Bonilla during the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández, who was repeatedly named in the trials of Honduran drug traffickers in the United States as being part of their criminal enterprise. 

But Hernández left office at the end of January and less than three weeks later, he was arrested after the United States requested his extradition. He is awaiting a ruling from the Honduran Supreme Court on the extradition request. 

The former president has been charged with being part of a drug trafficking enterprise that smuggled more than 500 tons of cocaine from South America through Honduras to the Guatemalan border. He has denied the charges, arguing that they’re based on the testimony of convicted traffickers seeking leniency. He has pointed to his government’s extradition of drug traffickers to the United States as evidence of his commitment to the drug war. 

U.S. prosecutors say that Bonilla used his position to “facilitate cocaine trafficking, and used violence, including murder, to protect the particular cell of politically connected drug traffickers he aligned with,” including the former president and his brother, Tony Hernández, who is serving a life sentence in the United States on trafficking charges. 

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Prosecutors also said during that case that the former president was “at the center of years of state-sponsored drug trafficking.” 

In announcing the charges against Bonilla two years ago, authorities said the former police chief ordered law enforcement agents to let cocaine shipments pass untouched and provided police intelligence to traffickers so that they could evade interdiction.

Bonilla, who had not been seen since the extradition request, was arrested by the National Police Wednesday while stopping at a highway toll booth near the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and taken to a highly guarded police station, according to a press release from Honduras National Police. 

Images shared by local outlets showed Bonilla after his arrest wearing a tracksuit and with his hands and feet handcuffed. He was seated and surrounded by several police officers. 

Bonilla, 62, is currently under “temporary detention,” and it is still unclear if he would be immediately extradited to the US. 

The former cop had been a controversial figure from the beginning of his police career. In the early 2000's he created a “special task force” to fight violent gangs that was called “Los Magnificos,” in a nod to the Spanish title for the TV series “The A-Team,” according to InSight Crime, a think tank dedicated to research on organized crime in the Americas.

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He rose in the ranks, and was promoted to regional police chief in western Honduras along the border with Guatemala. There, prosecutors allege, he murdered a rival drug trafficker who a witness said was blocking a route used by Tony Hernández. 

In 2012, Bonilla was appointed chief of the National Police before he was fired the following year amidst accusations of having formed a death squad to murder suspected gang members. 

Before his arrest, Bonilla had denied all charges against him. 

As rumors around him swirled, he pointed to his collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration during his time as police chief as evidence of his innocence.  

But that alliance was troubling to some people who followed Honduras closely. “For years I urged successive U.S. administrations to cut ties with ‘El Tigre,’ Honduras´s feared former National Police Chief,” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said Thursday.  “Instead, they treated him like a legitimate partner, even though he was deeply involved in the corruption and brutality of drug trafficking.”