Drug Kingpin & Transnational Crime
September 11, 2019

Cousin of Honduran President Charged in U.S.

By Samuel Rubenfeld

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (Photo: Honduran Ministry of the Interior, Justice and Decentralization)

 

 

A cousin of the Honduran president was charged last week by U.S. prosecutors for his alleged role in a scheme to import multi-ton loads of cocaine into the U.S.

Mauricio Hernandez Pineda, who previously served as a high-ranking official in the country’s national police force, participated in and supported the drug-trafficking activities of, among others, his cousin Juan Antonio Hernandez Alvarado, the younger brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, prosecutors said. 

The younger Hernandez, himself a former lawmaker also known as “Tony Hernandez,” pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial on drugs and weapons charges in the same case. His trial is scheduled to start Oct. 2, according to the court docket. 

Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was implicated in his brother’s case by U.S. prosecutors in a court filing, has “categorically denied” the allegations against him. The swirl of allegations has undermined his self-created image of a crime fighter, according to InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in Latin America. Thousands protested against him in August in the wake of the U.S. allegations, clashing with riot police.

The indictment of Hernandez Pineda marks the latest escalation in U.S. investigations of drug trafficking through Honduras, which is seen as a transit country for cocaine bound for the U.S., according to a March 2019 State Department report. The case was covered in Honduran media. A lawyer for Tony Hernandez said to El Heraldo, a Honduran news outlet, that his client denies a relation to Hernandez Pineda. Court records filed in the case say they are cousins.

Hernandez Pineda provided armed security, including individuals carrying machine guns, for multi-ton cocaine shipments sent through Honduras, U.S. prosecutors said. And he provided co-conspirators with sensitive law enforcement information concerning planned operations so they could evade detection, prosecutors said. Hernandez Pineda received hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug proceeds for his efforts, according to prosecutors.

“Honduras has long been a corridor for drug traffickers to ship their drugs to the U.S. from South America,” said Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Multiple drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Honduras and elsewhere have worked together for nearly 20 years, with support from the country’s elite, to transport multi-ton loads of cocaine from Colombia across Honduras and toward the Guatemalan border, and eventually to the U.S., according to U.S. authorities. To facilitate safe passage through Honduras, drug traffickers paid bribes to public officials, including to Honduran lawmakers, prosecutors said. 

Tony Hernandez had formed relationships with drug traffickers by about 2004 and started in 2008 to work on shipments with the Honduran Los Valles DTO, according to a motion in the case filed by prosecutors in August. 

The Los Valles DTO was sanctioned in August 2014 by the U.S. Treasury Department, which said the group is “one of the most prolific Central American narcotics trafficking organizations,” adding that it “employs a combination of brutal violence and public corruption to keep a stronghold on their base of operations.”

The relationship progressed, and members of the Los Valles DTO introduced him to Colombian suppliers; he wanted to begin receiving shipments without the cartel’s help, the motion said. 

From 2010 until about 2012, Tony Hernandez worked once or twice a month on cocaine shipments that typically consisted of several hundred kilograms, according to the court records. Some of the supply, the records say, bore a stamp with his initials: “TH.” Tony Hernandez once described a particular brand of pistol as a “cop killer” and bragged about owning a belt-fed machine gun that could penetrate armored vehicles, the motion said. 

On at least two occasions, he helped arrange murders of drug-trafficking rivals, according to the motion. In one case, he “relied on” a member of the national police force “to execute the killing,” according to the filing. The officer later became chief of police, according to the records.

“Based on the wealth and power that [Tony Hernandez’s] prolonged criminal conduct afforded him in Honduras, he believed that he could operate with total impunity. And he was right to some extent, at least in his own country,” the court document said.

The motion also laid out President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s role in the alleged conspiracy, redacting his name but identifying him as “CC-4,” throughout the document. CC-4 is identified later in the document as an individual “elected president of Honduras in late 2013.” 

Juan Orlando Hernandez asked for, and received, help in his 2013 run for office from a Honduran official and drug trafficker identified as “CW-3” in the court document. The official spent about $1.5 million in drug proceeds to support Juan Orlando Hernandez’s presidential campaign, including by paying cash bribes to other officials and providing gifts and favors to local politicians, according to the court filing. 

Attorneys for Tony Hernandez said Aug. 16, in a filing in opposition to the U.S. government’s motion, that the allegations concerning his brother’s purported campaign violations “are far afield” from the crimes charged in the case. “Despite its announced intent to introduce evidence about ‘the Honduran political system,’ the government should not be permitted to make this case a jury referendum on Honduran politics,” the opposing motion said. 

In a reply filed Aug. 28, prosecutors said the defense motion’s claim is meritless, saying that Tony Hernandez described “corruption as a ‘modus operandi’ of Honduran drug trafficking” when he was arrested. “The defendant was correct,” prosecutors said in the reply. “The government will establish that corruption was a key feature of his drug-trafficking crime.”

The U.S. government’s Aug. 2 motion said that Juan Orlando Hernandez’s appointment after his election as president of a defense minister, identified in the document as “Official-1,” led to Tony Hernandez’s elevation to the minister’s vacated seat in Congress. Around the same time, members of the Honduran National Police involved in drug trafficking set up a meeting between Tony Hernandez and Devis Leonel Maradiaga Rivera, a leader of Los Cachiros, according to the court record. 

Maradiaga Rivera was sanctioned in September 2013; Los Cachiros was designated in May 2013 under the Kingpin Act. Maradiaga Rivera began cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2013, according to the Aug. 2 filing. His cooperation, forged after he admitted to causing the deaths of 78 people, led to charges in September 2017 of seven Honduran National Police officers; a former chief pleaded guilty and was sentenced in the U.S. to 14 years in prison. 

The meeting between Maradiaga Rivera and Tony Hernandez was conducted at the direction of law enforcement with the purported purpose of using Tony Hernandez’s political power and connections to his brother to help with the recovery of funds the Honduran government owed one of the Los Cachiros money-laundering front companies, according to the Aug. 2 motion. During the meeting, Tony Hernandez reviewed relevant contracts, accepted a bribe and agreed to help Maradiaga Rivera, the filing said. Because the front company in question was sanctioned by the U.S. and under investigation in Honduras, associates of Maradiaga Rivera set up a new company, according to the filing.

“[Tony Hernandez] admitted in his post-arrest statement that he spoke to at least one Honduran official regarding Maradiaga Rivera’s request, and the Honduran government issued payments to that company after the defendant’s meeting with Maradiaga Rivera,” the filing said. 

The Aug. 28 filing by prosecutors included additional evidence they intend to present at trial, including testimony that Tony Hernandez sold a cache of machine guns to members of the Los Valles DTO so that the weapons could be sent to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Prosecutors said they also intend to offer testimony showing that a cache of machine guns was sold to members of the Sinaloa Cartel who helped distribute Tony Hernandez’s cocaine in the U.S. 

The Sinaloa Cartel used drug proceeds to pay for the weapons, prosecutors said in the filing.