By Victoria Dittmar*
October 5, 2021
In November 2021, Honduras will be electing a new president and possibly a new party to rule the Central American country for the next four years. The two main political parties –the ruling National Party (PNH) and the opposing Liberal Party (PL)– are currently plagued by allegations of corruption and organized crime.
The presidential candidate for the PL, Yani Rosenthal, served three years in a US prison after pleading guilty to laundering money for the infamous Cachiros criminal organization, a family clan that became one of Honduras’ main players in the cocaine trade during the first decade of the 21st century. Meanwhile, the current administration of PNH’s Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado has been severely shaken by his brother’s sentencing to life imprisonment in the US after being convicted on drug trafficking charges. Several testimonies used as evidence during the trial mention the current President and other government members as co-conspirators. However, the role of PNH members in transnational organized crime goes beyond these allegations.
In a recent investigation published at InSight Crime, my co-author and I went as far as proposing that the PNH resembles ‘a federation that welcomes politicians and officials involved in criminal businesses.’ Our work is based on three field trips to eight Honduran provinces and the country’s capital between 2019 and 2020, during which InSight Crime’s team interviewed Honduran and international prosecutors, former military and intelligence officers, mayors, local law enforcement authorities, human rights activists, and journalists. Moreover, we reviewed judicial documents from US courts and official investigations conducted by Honduran prosecutors and the Organization of American States Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
When analyzing criminal networks, ‘federations’ have generally been understood as umbrella organizations that bring together various semi-independent criminal cells. Examples include the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and the now-fragmented Cartel del Norte del Valle in Colombia. However, using this terminology is complex and risky when analyzing the PNH, as we are dealing with state officials – some of whom reach the highest levels of government. To be clear, not every politician associated with the PNH is involved in criminal activities, and it would be unfair to treat the party as a monolithic entity. Nevertheless, the findings of our investigation do suggest that leading figures of the PNH have created a structure that facilitates impunity and enables criminal activities. At its center were the Hernández Alvarado siblings: Juan Orlando, Juan Antonio (‘Tony’), and Hilda.
The PNH and Transnational Organized Crime
Links between high-level PNH politicians and organized crime – especially transnational drug trafficking – predate the current government. In many ways, there has long been a symbiotic relationship in which politicians and government officials benefit from drug money while traffickers obtain consent for their operations.
Porfirio Lobo was the first PNH president, taking office following the country’s coup against Manuel Zelaya in 2009. His son, Fabio Lobo, is currently serving time in the United States after pleading guilty to conspiring to import cocaine. According to a US Department of Justice statement, ‘[Fabio] used his and his father’s reputation and political network to broker corrupt connections between large-scale Honduran drug traffickers and individuals within the Honduran government, including high-level officials such as Honduran congressmen as well as customs, military, and law enforcement personnel.’
During Fabio’s trial, a vital testimony came from Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, a former leader of the Cachiros. In one of his declarations, Rivera Maradiaga claimed that he paid Fabio and current minister of Security Julián Pacheco to protect a convoy transporting a cocaine shipment to the border with Guatemala. Moreover, the Cachiros obtained several government contracts to construct highways during Lobo’s presidency, and Rivera Maradiaga even claimed that he offered Lobo money to avoid extradition to the US.
While Fabio was dealing with the Cachiros mainly in the northern part of the country, Tony Hernández was acting as a broker between the PNH and prominent drug trafficking groups in western Honduras – the Hernández’s political power base. According to US prosecutors, Tony built a sophisticated international drug trafficking ring in just over 12 years, which smuggled ‘multi-ton loads’ of cocaine into the United States.
Drug proceeds were partly used to fund Juan Orlando’s project to win the presidency. Witnesses who testified during Tony’s trial even claimed that Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel contributed financially to Hernandez’s campaign.
When Juan Orlando succeeded Lobo in 2014, he adopted a narrative in which he described his government as an important regional partner, especially for the US, in combatting drug trafficking. At the beginning of his presidency, he extradited some of the most notorious Honduran traffickers belonging to organizations like the Valles, the Atlantic Cartel, and even the Cachiros. However, US prosecutors have alleged that these extraditions were selective, as his government continued to make deals with some traffickers in return for financial support.
For example, a cocaine trafficker named Geovanny Fuentes claimed to have given the President tens of thousands of dollars in return for protection and even accused Juan Orlando of having access to a cocaine laboratory. According to US court documents, Juan Orlando told Fuentes he wanted to ‘shove cocaine right up the noses of the gringos’.
The relationship between PNH figures and organized crime is even tighter at the local level. In several instances, political power has been a vehicle to ensure access to an array of criminal enterprises.
The Urbina-Soto clan in the central Yoro department is possibly the most representative example of this dynamic. Various generations of the family have represented the PNH in local and national politics and have also directed criminal operations ranging from cattle rustling, drug trafficking, timber trafficking, and land theft. Their primary role was to secure the movement of cocaine through Yoro for groups like the Cachiros. For this purpose, members of the clan were involved in killing, stealing land, clearing forest, and building clandestine airstrips. Through their political contacts, the Urbina-Soto clan was able to exert control over local authorities and law enforcement.
Similar cases of PNH fiefdoms have been identified across the country. In western Copán, Alexander Ardón – now imprisoned in the US – used his position as mayor of El Paraíso to facilitate cocaine trafficking across the border into Guatemala and to tax traffickers who operated in the area he controlled. Tony allegedly provided Ardón with protection in exchange for financial contributions to his brother’s campaign.
In the northeastern Gracias a Dios department, the Paisano-Wood clan operated in a similar dynamic. As the epicenter of cocaine trafficking in Honduras, having political power in this department granted them connections to some of the most sophisticated traffickers. In the neighboring department of Olancho, timber trafficking networks have also branched out into local politics.
Enabling Corruption, Ensuring Impunity
The pinnacle of the PNH’s criminal structures concerns corruption at the highest level. This has allowed key party figures to ‘buy’ the loyalty of political allies and thus ensure their protection from law enforcement.
Perhaps the most notorious example was a sophisticated scheme built by the President’s late older sister Hilda. As the Social Development Minister during Lobo’s administration, Hilda created a network of hundreds of NGOs and front companies that were supposed to receive government money for social programs. Instead, as much as US$360.6 million were diverted to PNH campaigns and the pockets of as many as 360 former and serving Congress members, according to Honduran prosecutors interviewed by InSight Crime.
This scheme would not have been possible without the complicity of almost all branches of government. The money had to be requested to the Departmental Development Fund, initially controlled by the Congress – which Juan Orlando originally presided – and eventually by the Executive power. When Juan Orlando took office, Hilda continued to informally manage these operations from within the government.
As Honduran prosecutors and the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) started to investigate these schemes and were closing in on the highest spheres of the PNH, key party figures began to resist. In early 2020, Congress – now presided by PNH leader Mauricio Oliva – voted to end MACCIH’s operations in the country and severely weakened the country’s prosecuting unit, thus compromising checks and balances and preserving impunity.
Corruption and criminal interests are deeply entrenched in the Honduran system: from the municipal to the federal level. The case of the PNH illustrates how a ruling political party can become a mechanism to enable criminal businesses and protect the actors involved in them, such as the Hernández family. In other words, the PNH resembles a criminal federation.
While Juan Orlando Hernández will not run again for president, it is yet to be seen how these structures and practices will change with the forthcoming government, either with another member of the PNH or with the opposition. However, short term changes are unlikely to occur, especially if power is transferred to other political elites who have also benefited from criminal businesses, such as Yani Rosenthal. An effective democratic government should begin by prioritizing transparency and reinstating the checks and balances that have so far been neglected or eliminated.
Victoria Dittmar is a project manager and researcher at InSight Crime, an international think tank that focuses on the investigation and analysis of organized crime in the Americas. She holds a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Oxford, and has extensively collaborated with the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies. She is the co-editor of the book Accidental Power: How Non-State Actors Hijacked Legitimacy and Re-Shaped the International System, published by Simon Fraser University. You can follow her on Twitter @antjevictoria.
*This blog entry is based on an InSight Crime investigation that was coauthored with Héctor Silva Ávalos
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