The DEA in Honduras: Targeting Corruption in High Places
June 12, 2019
While driving home in Tegucigalpa on the evening of January 19, 2018, Edwin Espinal was suddenly pulled over by the police, handcuffed, and take away to jail. A longtime activist, Espinal had participated earlier in yet another city-wide protest against the electoral fraud that most likely had allowed Juan Orlando Hernández to become president of Honduras. Espinal is well-known in that country for his leadership in the struggle to make democracy a reality there, a struggle that goes back to 2009 when a democratically elected president was ousted in a right-wing military coup. Since then, he has been harassed, beaten, and threatened by police for his role in the National People's Resistance Front, a coalition of grassroots organizations, movements, and political parties opposed to the coup.
On this occasion, the protest had taken place about a week before Hernández, also known as JOH, was to be sworn into office for a second term. Over a thousand protestors were jailed at the time for openly protesting the multiple irregularities in the electoral process including a mysterious shutdown of the electronic counting process for over 30 hours. Prior to the shutdown, with nearly 60 percent of the votes counted, opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla held what was deemed an irreversible five-point lead. After the count resumed, Hernández quickly shot into the lead and was declared the winner by 1.5 points.1 In the aftermath, angry protesters set up highway blockades and mass marches broke out throughout the country. In an effort to restore order, Hernández declared a state of exception deploying the police and armed forces to round up the organizers.2
A UN investigation of the crackdown showed that the police and military personnel made deliberate use of lethal firearms, even as protestors were fleeing the scene. At least 36 were left dead while numerous others were injured. A majority of the killings, including several protestors who had been shot in the head, were attributed to members of the Military Police of Public Order.3 Thousands of others were arrested, Espinal among them. At his pre-trial hearing before a military tribunal, Espinal was charged with arson and property damage related to an incident at the Marriott Hotel that took place during the protests, charges he adamantly denies.
For the last year and a half, Espinal has remained in a military-run prison, still waiting for a trial, "without adequate food, water, sanitation, medical attention or access to daylight and exercise." Lack of medical attention for an ear infection has caused him to lose part of his hearing in one ear.4 The prison is also subject to periodic riots, one of which left two dead and 17 injured. Despite the presence of security cameras throughout the prison, no one is ever charged in connection to these incidents, Espinal says. He and other political prisoners believe that prison conditions are designed "with the purpose of allowing prisoners to kill each other."5
The Drug War in Honduras
Activists like Espinal are among the latest victims of a government whose level of corruption has made it incompatible with democratic development. A number of efforts are being made to combat this corruption, however, among them, surprisingly, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). DEA efforts in this regard began in 2012, a year that turned out to be a spectacular failure for the DEA.
In the early 2000s, the George W. Bush administration had initiated a military-style approach to the fight against drug trafficking based on strategies used to combat Taliban-linked opium traffickers in Afghanistan. By 2011, squads of military-trained agents were being deployed in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras in a program called Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team or "FAST." These squads were overseen by commanders who had recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Since federal law prevented agents from arresting foreign nationals on their own soil, FAST agents were instructed to work closely with local police in carrying out their objectives.6
By 2012, the FAST strategy had produced a series of blunders prompting a massive backlash against the U.S. in Honduras. In May, in the eastern department of Gracias a Dios, DEA agents had directed a Honduran police officer to fire a machine gun from a helicopter into a passenger boat. According to the DEA, the agents believed gunfire had come from the passenger boat. Four individuals, including a pregnant woman and a 14-year-old boy, were killed and three others injured as a result. DEA agents subsequently fought the release of a videotape of the event, which later indicated that no gunfire had come from the boat.7
Only two weeks later, an unarmed 15-year-old was shot and killed in Tegucigalpa by Honduran soldiers after failing to stop at a military checkpoint. The squad leader who first shot at the boy had been trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Ford truck used to chase the boy down had been paid for by the U.S. government, and all soldiers involved had been "vetted" by the U.S.8 In yet another incident, the Honduran Air Force shot down two small planes suspected of transporting drugs without following warning protocols prompting the U.S. to suspend radar intelligence sharing with Honduras.9 As one author noted, "Chasing the trade won't destroy it, but it will continue to have horrific unintended consequences..." 10
With each incident, anti-U.S. sentiment in Honduras grew more intense. There were also complaints from Honduran officers that U.S. agents cared only about the drugs while ignoring the need for murder investigations. On the U.S. side, some effort was made to atone for the tragic series of events. Senator Patrick Leahy called for a hold on millions of dollars in foreign aid to Honduras while U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske flew to Gracias a Dios to launch a special U.S.-funded educational program for children there.11
As the DEA fell into disrepute, the Obama administration shifted away from the military strategy towards a legal approach that targeted Honduran elites. Through the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, Honduran individuals and organizations would be identified as "Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers." Their assets in the U.S. would be frozen and they would be prohibited from conducting business with U.S. citizens. In May 2013, Los Cachiros, a major criminal organization in Honduras, was placed on the list and in September, the Rivera Maradiaga family was specified as the core group of the organization, including brothers Javier Eriberto Rivera Maradiaga, and Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga.12
Worth nearly a billion dollars, Los Cachiros was one of the largest criminal organizations in Honduras. With headquarters in the northern department of Colón, its operations ran from the eastern departments of Olancho and Gracias a Dios to the northwestern city of San Pedro Sula, where the organization controlled 90 percent of the clandestine airstrips in Honduras. Los Cachiros also had connections to criminal organizations in neighboring Nicaragua, Mexico, and Colombia.13 14
Around the time the Rivera brothers were placed on the Kingpin list, the Nicaraguan government charged Javier Rivera and his Nicaraguan associate, Bismarck Antonio Lira Jiron, with drug trafficking and related crimes. Lira Jirón was captured in August 2012. In September 2013, the National Commission of Banks and Insurance of Honduras initiated a financial investigation into the Rivera family and began seizing hundreds of millions of dollars in family assets.15 Fearing for their lives, the Rivera brothers approached the DEA with an offer to cooperate with its investigation in exchange for lighter sentencing.16
For crime expert Steven Dudley, this investigation would be "the most important counter-narcotics operation since 1988, when the DEA arrested and extracted Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros." At an anti-money laundering conference, Ambassador Kubiske spoke with the country's most powerful banks and financial institutions, hinting that "big names" would be involved. To support the operation, the U.S. provided a new injection of regional security funds.17
Seeing an opportunity to revive his support, the scandal-ridden Hernández threw himself into the effort. Soon after, Carlos Arnaldo Lobo was extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges and is believed to be the first Honduran national to be extradited in over 100 years. In another action, three top members of the powerful drug trafficking Valle Valle family were arrested and eventually extradited to the U.S. In December 2014, Hernández received high public praise from the U.S. Department of Justice for his role in capturing nearly half of those wanted for drug trafficking in the U.S.18 19
Drug Trafficking and the Political Class
Putting their previous disgrace behind them, DEA agents were now poised to go after some of the most prominent figures in the Honduran elite. In fact, with help from the Rivera brothers, the DEA was able to uncover critical links between numerous high-ranking figures and drug trafficking organizations in Honduras. Local mayors and national-level officials, prominent bankers, police officers, judges, congressmen, pilots, and customs officials were found to have been involved. By 2018, the DEA investigation had jailed 39 high-profile individuals.20
Among them, Fabio Lobo, son of former president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, was arrested in May 2015 for working closely with the Atlantic Cartel to traffic cocaine to the U.S. From 2009 on, the younger Lobo had connected Los Cachiros to his father, as well as police officers, sitting congressmen, customs officials, and military personnel who all agreed to facilitate drug trafficking and money laundering in exchange for bribes. Lobo was convicted in a U.S. court in 2017 and sentenced to 24 years in prison.21
In 2018, police arrested Fabio's mother and former first lady, Rosa Elena Bonilla, along with her brother-in-law, Mauricio Mora, for misappropriation of public funds. If found guilty, she will face up to 128 years in prison.22 Porfirio Lobo himself has been investigated by the Mission of Support Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MICCIH) backed by the Organization of American States (OAS), for channeling funds from drug traffickers into his political campaign and contracting with a Cachiros-owned construction firm. Lobo's response has been to fiercely accuse MICCIH of violating his constitutional rights and besmirching his reputation.23
Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, former congressman and brother of President Hernández, was arrested in Miami in November for collaborating with drug traffickers between 2004 and 2016. One of the Rivera brothers claimed to have paid him bribes while he was in Congress in return for protection of drug shipments from law enforcement agents.24 Prosecutors have stated that Hernández managed every stage of the supply chain and had had his initials "TH" stamped on many of the cocaine containers that he handled.25
Sitting congressman, Fredy Renan Najera was recently found guilty in a U.S. court for using his position to facilitate the trafficking of large amounts of cocaine from Colombia through Honduras to the U.S. He and his security teams used military-grade weapons and police intelligence to protect the operation. Najera also brought Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel together with Honduran officials who provided the cartel with access to the commercial shipping hub in Puerto Cortés. In 2009, when top anti-narcotics official General Julian Arístides Gonzalez began investigating him for cocaine trafficking, Najera worked with Los Cachiros to have him killed. In 2013 and 2014, Najera was part of a group of Honduran congressmen who tried to install an organized crime leader as head of the Honduran Congress so as to promote trafficker-friendly policies.26
In September, National Police chief, Carlos Alberto Valladares, who had held high-level positions in several major cities, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in a U.S. court for conspiring with Los Cachiros to transport cocaine to the U.S.27 In this role, Valladares also participated directly in acts of violence and drug-related murders. Six other former members of the National Police have pled guilty to charges related to drug trafficking in U.S. federal courts.28
Finally, there is the Rosenthal family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Honduras. Jaime Rosenthal Olive had been vice president of the country from 1986 to 1990 and president of the Continental Group. Son Yani directed the family businesses and nephew Yankel was at one time investment minister in the Hernández government. Accused of fraud and money laundering for Los Cachiros, son and nephew were extradited to the U.S. for trial.29 In 2017, Yani received three years in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking while Yankel received 29 months for attempting to launder drug money.
While an enthusiastic partner with the DEA, President HernándezJOHhas not been left out of the investigations. The Southern District of New York recently released an 11-page document from 2015, revealing that the president and his sister, since deceased, were involved in "large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities relating to the importation of cocaine into the United States." The president did confirm that he had been investigated but assured all that no evidence whatsoever had been found to support the allegations.30
In a separate investigation, anti-corruption prosecutors in the Attorney General's Office and the OAS-backed MACCIH accused JOH of playing a role in the diversion of millions of dollars of public money for political purposes. In 2015,government officials were found to have embezzled hundreds of millions from the Honduran Institute of Social Security, triggering an acute shortage of medical services throughout the country. Hernández acknowledged that those involved had in fact contributed to his campaign, but claimed he was unaware of this at the time.31
Many Hondurans still hope that continued investigations will weaken Hernández's hold on power. Despite President Trump's attempts to cut aid to Honduras and other Northern Triangle countries for failing to curb migration, however, Hernández remains a key U.S. ally in the region and can likely count on U.S. support for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, Edwin Espinal and other activists have now spent a year and a half in pre-trial detention. The judicial process they face, a labyrinth of delays and incorrect court assignments, is part of a deliberate strategy to break the back of the democracy movement. By keeping movement leaders behind bars for extended periods of time, the remainder of the population can more easily be controlled.32 Further, as Amnesty International notes, "Even when released from pre-trial detention, defendants must keep committing their time and resources to fighting the charges against them."33 From the public perspective, the evident misery of prison conditions serves as a dire warning to anyone who would dare stand up to Honduran authorities.
This is the mark of what is called the "narco-state" where governing institutions have been penetrated by the wealth and influence of drug trafficking. Under these conditions, the government as a whole prioritizes the protection of drug trafficking revenues over the administering of justice. Those who seek accountability and openness do so at the risk of death or imprisonment.
For now, Espinal finds some solace in teaching other prisoners to read and write. He has only one pen and there is little paper available for writing. "Jail instead of schools, weapons instead of medicine, bullets instead of books," he contends, "just makes our world more unsafe. Let's build a better world. Ask your government to stop supporting dictatorships."34
However tentatively, investigations of high-level officials in Honduras continue.
1 Dow Jones Institutional
News, "Honduran Court Declares President as Winner of Disputed Election," The
Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2017
2 Sandra Cuffe, "Hondurans Continue to Flee One Year After Post-election Crackdown," Aljazeera, November 26, 2018 (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/11/hondurans-continue-flee-year-post-election-crackdown-181126132856413.html)
3 Latin America Working Group, "LAWGEF at Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission: Protect the Space for Honduran Citizens to Defend their Rights," Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Briefing, May 18, 2018 (https://www.lawg.org/lawgef-at-tom-lantos-human-rights-commission-protect-the-space-for-honduran-citizens-to-defend-their-rights/)
4 Brent Patterson, "Canadian Groups Want Edwin Espinal Freed from Honduran Jail," Rabble, April 22, 2019 (http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/brent-patterson/2019/04/canadian-groups-want-edwin-espinal-freed-honduran-jail)
5 Erica Engel, "Political Prisoner Sends Rallying Cry from Inside Honduran Jail Cell," Orillia Matters, January 29, 2019 (https://www.orilliamatters.com/local-news/political-prisoner-sends-rallying-cry-from-inside-honduran-jail-cell-1217182)
6 Noel Brinkerhoff, "DEA Operates Its Own Special Forces Squads in Foreign Countries," AllGov, November 8, 2011 (http://www.allgov.com/news/us-and-the-world/dea-operates-its-own-special-forces-squads-in-foreign-countries?news=843548)
7 Pro Publica, "The DEA says it came under fire during a deadly drug raid—its own video suggests otherwise," Raw Story, October 23, 2017 (https://www.rawstory.com/2017/10/the-dea-says-it-came-under-fire-during-a-deadly-drug-raid-its-own-video-suggests-otherwise/)
8 Mattathias Schwartz, "A Mission Gone Wrong: Why Are We Still Fighting the Drug War," The New Yorker, December 29, 2013 (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/06/a-mission-gone-wrong)
9 Damien Cave and Ginger Thompson, "U.S. Rethinks Drug War After Deaths in Honduras," New York Times, October 12, 2012 (https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/13/world/americas/in-honduras-deaths-make-us-rethink-drug-war.html)
10 Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, "The Drug War Devolves in Honduras," The American Conservative, October 26, 2012 (https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-drug-war-devolves-in-honduras/)
11 Schwartz, "A Mission Gone Wrong"
12 "Treasury Targets Los Cachiros Drug Trafficking Organization in Honduras," U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 19, 2013 (https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl2168.aspx)
13 Brian Fonseca and Randy Pestana, Drug Trafficking: A Symptom of Crisis in Honduras," in Cooperation and Drug Policies in the Americas, Trends in the Twenty-First Century, Roberto Zepeda and Jonathan Rosen eds, Lexington Books 2014, p 121
14 InSight Crime, "The Cachiros," April 7, 2017 (https://es.insightcrime.org/honduras-crimen-organizado/cachiros-perfil/)
15 Joseph Goldstein and Benjamin Weiser, "After 78 Killings, Honduran Drug Lord Partners with the U.S." New York Times, October 6, 2017 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/06/world/americas/after-78-killings-a-honduran-drug-lord-rivera-partners-with-us.html) On September 23, 2013, the National Commission of Banks and Insurance of Honduras initiated a financial investigation against the Rivera Maradiaga family. On December 9, 2013, "Cachiro Javier" was charged in the Southern District Court of Florida, United States, for conspiracy and distribution of a controlled substance: cocaine. See Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), "Person of Interest: Javier Eriberto Rivera Maradiaga 'Don Javier'" 2014 (https://www.personadeinteres.org/personas/2163)
16 La Prensa, "El Cachiro Salió a Estados Unidos en Lancha desde Colón,"February 5, 2015 (https://www.laprensa.hn/inicio/792112-417/el-cachiro-sali%C3%B3-a-estados-unidos-en-lancha-desde-col%C3%B3n)
17 Steven Dudley, "The Dangerous Dance of the United States government with Honduras," InSight Crime, October 8, 2013(https://es.insightcrime.org/noticias/analisis/el-peligroso-baile-del-gobierno-de-estados-unidos-con-honduras/)
18 United States Department of Justice, "Leaders of Honduran Drug Cartel Face Federal Drug and Money Laundering Charges in the Eastern District of Virginia," December 19, 2014 (https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/pr/leaders-honduran-drug-cartel-face-federal-drug-and-money-laundering-charges-eastern)
19 Steven Dudley, "Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros," April 9, 2016 (https://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/honduras-elites-organized-crime-juan-matta-ballesteros/)
20 Ingrid Arnesen, "Caravan Refugees Fled HondurasWhere the President's Brother is an Alleged Cartel Kingpin," Daily Beast, November 28, 2018 (https://www.thedailybeast.com/caravan-refugees-fled-honduras-where-the-presidents-brother-is-an-alleged-cartel-kingpin)
21 United States Department of Justice, The United States Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York, "Son of the Former President of Honduras Sentenced to 24 Years in Prison for Conspiring to Import Cocaine into the United States," September 5, 2017 (https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/son-former-president-honduras-sentenced-24-years-prison-conspiring-import-cocaine) In February 2019, the National Anti-Corruption Council (CAN) submitted accusations against the elder Lobo as well as his wife and brother for misappropriation of funds during his tenure as president. See Steven Dudley, "Honduras Ex-president's Son Sentenced to 24 Years in U.S. Prison," InSight Crime, September 6, 2017.
22 Associated Press, "Honduras' Former First Lady Arrested in Graft Case," Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2018 (https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-honduras-first-lady-arrest-20180228-story.html)
23 La Prensa, "Porfirio Lobo Sosa Denuncia ante el Conadeh a Guimarães," June 4, 2019 (https://www.laprensa.hn/honduras/1290480-410/porfirio-lobo-sosa-denuncia-ante-el-conadeh-a-guimar%C3%A3es)
24 Robert Saviano, "The Migrant Caravan: Made in USA," The New York Review of Books, March 7, 2019 (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/03/07/migrant-caravan-made-in-usa/)
25 Parker Asmann, "Crime U.S. Alleges Honduras President's Brother is a Major Drug Trafficker," InSightCrime, November 26, 2018 (https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/us-alleges-honduras-president-brother-major-drug-trafficker/)
26 United States Department of Justice, The United States Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York, "Honduran Congressman Pleads Guilty to Conspiring to Import Cocaine into the United States and Possessing Machineguns and Destructive Devices," December 11, 2018. (https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/honduran-congressman-pleads-guilty-conspiring-import-cocaine-united-states-and)
27 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), "Former Honduran National Police Chief Sentenced to 14 years in Prison for Conspiring to Import Cocaine into the United States and to Possess Firearms," September 28, 2018 (https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2018/09/28/former-honduran-national-police-chief-sentenced-14-years-prison)
28 U.S. Department of Justice, "Former Honduran National Police Chief Sentenced to 14 years in Prison for Conspiring to Import Cocaine into the United States and to Possess Firearms," February 28, 2018 (https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/former-honduran-national-police-chief-sentenced-14-years-prison-conspiring-import)
29 "Los Cachiros: El Ejercito que Hundió a los Rosenthal," Confidencial, October 15, 2015 (https://confidencial.com.ni/los-cachiros-la-mafia-que-hundio-a-los-rosenthal/)
30 Natalie Gallón and Nick Paton Walsh, "Honduran President Confirms He Was Investigated by the DEA," CNN, May 31, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/31/americas/honduras-juan-orlando-hernandez-dea-intl/index.html)
31 Nina Lakhani, "How Hitmen and High Living Lifted Lid on Looting of Honduran Healthcare System," The Guardian, June 10, 2015. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/10/hit-men-high-living-honduran-corruption-scandal-president)
32 Amnesty International, "Honduras: Authorities are Denying Due Process to People Arrested During Post-Election Protests," June 13, 2018 (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/06/honduras-authorities-are-denying-due-process-to-people-arrested-during-post-election-protests/)
33 Amnesty International, "Honduras: Authorities are Denying Due Process"