Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez Alvarado was arrested in Miami on Nov. 23, 2018 after years in the crosshairs of the Drug Enforcement Agency. He allegedly was a major player in the notorious narcotics trafficking and terror networks that span Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, often known collectively as “The Northern Triangle.” And when President Donald Trump talks about “bad hombres” south of the U.S. border, he might have someone like Hernandez in mind.
But Hernandez is not part of the caravan of mostly Honduran asylum seekers subjected to tear gas and rubber bullets when they try to cross into the United States. Hernandez is, in fact, emblematic of what those asylum seekers are hoping to escape.
Tony Hernandez is the brother of U.S-backed Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
James Margolin, public affairs information officer for the U.S. Attorney General’s office in the Southern District of New York told The Daily Beast “he was arrested at the Miami airport” (not scaling a barbed wire fence) and was being held “until his appearance Monday at a Federal Courthouse.”
On Friday, the Honduran President acknowledged the arrest of his brother in a televised appearance, saying, “We weren’t raised like that. We were raised to respect everyone. It’s a huge blow to our family. It’s sad, it’s difficult. We don’t wish that on anyone,” adding, “I hope the justice system, as it should, will give him the space to defend himself. Our family will be there to support him.”
Tony Hernandez could face life in prison.
And this was not the first time the Honduran president had backed his brother.
Two years ago, in October 2016, rumors circulated of Tony Hernandez’s involvement in drug trafficking and an alleged plot to kill the then-U.S. ambassador to Honduras, James Nealon.
At the time, Tony Hernandez publicly denounced the accusations, stating in a letter to the Honduran National Congress, of which he was a member, “This is only to discredit my public image and my good name. I invite anyone, national or foreign, to come forward with proof to authorities and I’ll submit myself to any investigation that comes of it.”
According to local press reports, his brother urged him to meet with U.S. law enforcement officials in Florida. On Oct. 25, 2016, Tony Hernandez traveled to Miami with his lawyer. On his return, he publicly declared he had met with “agents and government authorities and thanked them for the opportunity to offer my permanent availability to clear up whatever needed to be [cleared up,” adding, “I am a respected citizen.”
The 40-year-old lawyer was charged by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in the Southern Disctrict of New York with conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, weapons offenses involving the use of machine guns and destructive devices, and making false statements to federal agents (PDF).
As Berman summed up in a tweet: “Former Honduran Congressman Tony Hernandez was allegedly involved in all stages of the trafficking through Honduras of multi-tons of cocaine that were destined for the U.S.”
The indictment describes him as a “large-scale drug trafficker who worked with other drug traffickers in, among other places, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico” from 2004 to 2016 distributing loads of cocaine that arrived in Honduras “via planes, go-fast vessels and at least on one occasion, a submarine” (PDF).
The indictment says Hernandez had “access to cocaine laboratories in Honduras and Mexico, at which some of the cocaine was stamped with the symbol ‘TH,’” i.e. “Tony Hernandez.” It goes on to state Tony Hernandez also coordinated and often participated in providing heavily armed security for cocaine shipments transported within Honduras, including by members of the National Police and drug traffickers armed with machine guns.
As part of his drug-trafficking activities, the indictment states, “Hernandez and his co-conspirators bribed law enforcement officials for sensitive information to protect drug shipments and solicited large bribes from major drug traffickers for himself and on behalf of one or more high-ranking Honduran politicians.”
As for the meeting with the DEA in Miami on Oct. 25, 2016, it was a formal request by the U.S. government, not the other way around, at which Hernandez “willfully and knowingly falsified, concealed, and covered up by a trick, scheme and device a material fact, and made materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements and representations during an interview with, among others, representatives of the U.S. Drug enforcement Administration in connection with an investigation.”
At the center of the investigation was Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, ex leader of the prolific and violent Honduran cartel, Los Cachiros. Rivera Maradiaga had strong ties to Tony Hernandez.
In 2013, in sting operation, DEA special agents captured Rivera Maradiaga, effectively dismantling the cartel, and putting their hands on the most valuable source for its investigation: Rivera Maradiaga himself. He began collaborating with DEA that year. He exposed the names of the sinister underworld of cross-cartel criminal syndicates and high-ranking politicians and security officials that ran the Central American drug trafficking corridor with impunity.
The DEA rounded them up one by one in its five-year long investigation, which eventually led to Tony Hernandez.
Among key suspects was another U.S.-backed Honduran President, Porfirio Lobo Sosa and his son, Fabio Porfirio Lobo.
In 2009, according to a pre-hearing memorandum filed in March last year in federal court, both had “joined a drug trafficking conspiracy by accepting bribes in exchange for protecting and assisting traffickers in Honduras.” Lobo Sosa became President and served from 2010 to 2013. Fabio Lobo developed his ties with Maradiaga and his notoriously violent Cachiro cartel “that relied on connections to politicians, military personnel and law enforcement to transport cocaine to, within and from Honduras.”
Without knowing Rivera Maradiaga was collaborating with agency, Fabio Lobo got into high-stakes trafficking including facilitating large maritime shipments of cocaine through Honduran ports for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. That required securing the cooperation of the highest ranking government officials, as well as the army and Honduras’ security apparatus through lucrative bribes.
Fabio Lobo, the son of a Honduran president, was getting very rich while Honduras was ravaged by drug trafficking and developed into one of the most violent places in the world.
In 2015, Rivera Maradiaga told the agency that a multi-ton cocaine deal was in the works, coming from Venezuela, going through Honduras to Mexico destined for the U.S. Fabio Sosa stood to make over $1 million on that operation alone. Part of the deal was that Lobo agree to travel to Haiti from Honduras to receive his payment. In May 2015 DEA agents were waiting for him there. He was arrested and extradited to the U.S. But even from prison, Fabio Lobo continued to communicate with Maradiaga.
In a pre-sentencing hearing in March 16, 2017, Rivera Maradiaga finally brought in Tony Hernandez. He told the DEA that while secretly working with the agency, he had met with Tony Hernandez and secretly recorded the meeting. The network of money laundering fronts that he had set up as leader of the Cachiros had received generous funds in the form of government contracts. One of them was from INRAMI, which doubled as a construction firm and which the Honduran government supposedly owed money.
At the meeting Hernandez promised Rivera Maradiaga to get the funds from the government in exchange for a sizeable payment. He had the highest connection, the President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, his brother.
This was just what the DEA needed and it led directly to Tony Hernandez’s arrest last week.
What Rivera Maradiaga gave the DEA was the full picture of a reign of terror that had gripped Honduras from 2004 to 2016, involving the Honduran elite from high officials in the national government to local mayors, from prominent bankers to paid-off police, allegedly including the head of the National Police, the Justice Ministry, countless members of congress, Venezuelan pilots, customs officials and the cartel members, all entwined in turf wars that brought in the Sinaloa cartel, and its infamous head, “El Chapo” Guzman, who is now standing trial in N.Y.
During Rivera Maradiaga’s March 2017 hearing, he also volunteered that he had told investigators he personally oversaw the killings of 79 people—from a prominent environmentalist, to ministers, and reporters, even pursuing them in Canada.
On the ground in the Northern Triangle, rivalries among the warring cartels trapped terrorized populations, especially in small towns and villages, where they were forced to do their bidding. The narcotraficantes turned people to spying on each other, forced young men to join the cartels at gunpoint, and killed anyone who got in their way.
The work of bringing drugs by road through the country was left to thousands of villagers who were forced to work by low level cartel minions. They ran the countryside like a prison colony.
No one could escape the knock at the door. Sometimes they were told they had to pay “taxes” for running a small roadside shop, other times they’d be ordered to do the cartels’ murderous dirty work. Anyone who showed the slightest sign of refusal met a gruesome end. The whole corridor through Honduras to Mexico became one long highway of death.
So far the DEA investigation has netted 39 top individuals who are now behind bars. But it comes too late in a country where the whole fabric of society has been torn apart by corruption, narcotics, and carnage.
This is what thousands of people have fled, and why they seek asylum in the U.S. at any cost, even if it means risking their lives walking 2,500 miles to face clouds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and possibly worse.
That’s how high a price they are willing to pay — even as the U.S. continues to prop up the very governments that are driving them out.