“In Olancho, you don’t talk much about the three cartels.”
—Resident of Juticalpa
It was in the mid-2000s that Honduras—and in particular Miskito and the rest of the Caribbean coast—became a major transit zone for U.S.-bound cocaine, as Mexican trafficking organizations took the place of Colombian cartels that were buckling under the pressure of crackdowns at home, and as the sea routes across the Caribbean became more dangerous due to U.S.-led counternarcotics efforts.
Juticalpa, in Olancho Department, with its three rival gangs, became a drug-trafficking hub. Our guide there showed us a number of gaudy properties residents say are used to “dry-clean” drug money. On one, Residencia Roble, small, brightly painted houses stand cheek by jowl behind a fence. “They’re sold to government workers on credit,” he said, noting that the development is technically owned by an automobile mechanic. Other such properties, warehouses, a stadium, a gym, “suddenly sprang up. From where?” he asks.
We crossed a bridge that used to be almost a no-go zone. “See those businesses, over to the right? Those belong to the Sarmientos,” who, according to our guide, “acted like the nobles of the town.” Rice, coffee, and molasses were among the commodities the family monopolized—their version, the assumption is, of dry-cleaning.
Because so much has been written about the Central American narcotics trade,378 we have chosen to emphasize other elements of Honduran state criminality in this study. Of most importance to us here are indications of interpenetration between trafficking organizations and the public- and private-sector strands of the networks we are studying. Such signs would support this report’s contention that organized crime is not a separate activity but rather woven into the very fabric of Honduras’s kleptocracy. Our presumption was that signs of such interconnections, especially at the higher echelons, might be difficult to uncover.
Instead, on the ground in the country’s eastern departments that were until recently overrun by drug traffickers, the facts seem as self-evident as they were to me in the early 2000s in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where I lived. There, local hardware stores sold the specialized tools for harvesting the sap from opium poppies in sacks on their doorsteps, and the labor market went dry each May as busses lined up to transport men to fields that were pink with acres of tulip-like flowers. Everyone knew who the top traffickers were and saw them stopping by the houses of senior political leaders for meals.
Driving through the streets of Juticalpa with the observant local who hosted us, I had a strong sense of déjà vu. He would point out the farms belonging to Fabio Lobo, son of former Honduran president Porfirio Lobo; these farms have not been expropriated, but rather are being managed by a caretaker. The former president still lives in the area. Fabio, arrested in May 2015, pled guilty to drug-trafficking charges a year later.379 His father was no longer the Honduran president. But the crimes with which Fabio was charged spanned at least from 2009 to 2014.380 They included working not just with the Cachiros but also with that gang’s Mexican allies, El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel.381
If just about every Juticalpa resident was aware of his activities, it is implausible his father was not. And it is implausible that his father is not enjoying the fruits of the traffic, as he lives quietly on his vast farm, irrigated with one of the huge revolving overhead metal irrigation systems common in the U.S. Midwest but not to be found anywhere else in Olancho. And it is his son Fabio who reputedly benefits from the dry-cleaning that Residencia Roble is known for.382
Another Olancho Department figure was Lucio Rivera.383 Rivera is the cousin of Hernández’s minister to the presidency, Reinaldo Sanchez.384 Olanchanos ascribe the arrest of their former Mayor Sarmiento, a scion of the Sarmientos cartel, to a turf war between his locally implanted family and the nationally connected Rivera and Sanchez clans. After Rivera’s arrest at the Sarmientos’ behest, “they [the national government] sent in COBRAS and TIGRES ” on a revenge raid, recounted one local. “‘Moncho’ [Sarmiento, the then mayor] was captured in his mother-in-law’s house. They took him away in a helicopter. This whole area was full of military police. They were looking for [his uncle, Sarmiento patriarch Ulises] ‘Liche,’ but they couldn’t find him. People said he escaped to Nicaragua down the Patuca River, with Mel [Manuel Zelaya]’s help.”385
Two interviewees also noted that President Hernández’s brother has served as a lawyer for narcotics suspects.386
And yet, every Honduran interviewed during the summer of 2016 concurred that the Hernández government has significantly reduced drug trafficking and its attendant violence in Honduras. Residents of former transshipment hubs described markedly improved security conditions compared to four years ago. Even critics of the Hernández government conceded, “There has been some success in the fight against organized crime.”387 Another Olanchano suspiciously framed it this way: “The government is making believe it’s against the narcos, but it’s not real. It’s under pressure from the United States. The U.S. has Hernández in their hands.”388
Indeed, in one of the earliest high-level extraditions from Honduras, two members of the Valles’ cartel were whisked to the United States in December 2014, at the end of Hernández’s first year in office.389 “The Americans didn’t tell the president when they went to arrest them,” maintained a Juticalpa resident. “They surrounded the house, then called the police chief.”390 The suggestion is that with the information that began pouring into the U.S. government with this first extradition and that has increased with each subsequent one—including information about his own brother—Hernández is now almost obligated to cooperate with U.S. counternarcotics policies.
Another way of understanding some of these developments is to relate them to both geography and rivalries within the somewhat loosely structured Honduran kleptocratic networks. Geography may play a role in the more intensive counternarcotics enforcement under Hernández for the simple reason that he grew up in the mountainous southwestern part of the country, which is not the most convenient transshipment zone. Conversely, many of the human rights violations that are sparking social conflicts under Hernández are taking place precisely in his native region.
Drug-Trafficking Routes Through Honduras
Zelaya and Lobo, by contrast, hailed from contiguous departments in the east, Olancho primarily, as well as Colón, which anchor the eastern end of narcotics trafficking routes through Honduras (see map). And both apparently became entwined with local cartels, seeming to affiliate primarily with the Sarmientos and Cachiros respectively.
It may be that Hernández’s willingness to crack down on this lucrative trade—despite his close political collaboration with Lobo over the years—derives in part from his lack of opportunity to become engaged in it himself. It was taking place too far from his home base. The sacrifice, even of cartel-members close to his political mentor, may not have done much harm to his own financial interests, while the benefits to be reaped from a grateful U.S. government may have seemed worth the cost.
Rivalry within parts of the kleptocratic network may also manifest itself in government policy by way of divisions that separate narcotics and business families roughly along the fault line between the National and Liberal Parties.
Trafficking in Other Forms of Contraband
The year 2014 was when bulk shipments to the United States of another commodity began, both from and through Honduras: unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America.391 So lucrative is the trade that it is difficult to imagine well-established trafficking rings passing it up. Other obvious forms of contraband that may be smuggled through Honduras include sex workers, weapons, and counterfeit consumer goods. Further research is required to ascertain whether the networks organizing these varieties of trade overlap with drug-trafficking networks and/or key elements of Honduras’s kleptocracy.
It goes without saying that many of the criminal activities perpetrated by members of Honduran kleptocratic networks are transnational in nature. Even the youth gangs that ravaged urban neighborhoods from Juticalpa to San Pedro Sula had their roots in urban gangs that were deported after proliferating in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.392 Drug-trafficking organizations are by definition transnational, and none more so than those in Central America, which play an intermediary role between producer and consumer countries.393 The same goes for networks that traffic other controlled cargo, such as weapons or people.
A particularly important angle for further research would be to determine whether the intersections among different strands of Honduran kleptocratic networks carry across the international borders they traverse. That is, do the Guatemalan affiliates of Honduran businesses, for example, also work in tandem with Guatemalan correspondents of Honduran drug-trafficking organizations?
Armed Groups and Assassins (Sicarios)
Most kleptocratic networks like those in Honduras rely on one or more informal instruments of force to administer violent correction when other means of intimidation fail to deter those who stand up to them. Few who saw the 2011 photographs will forget the image of the camel-riding “thugs” who bore down on Egyptian demonstrators during the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Cairo. In Nigeria, youth gangs, sometimes called “area boys,” are frequently hired to commit electoral violence.394
In Honduras, urban gangs are known to serve as police auxiliaries on occasion. Elsewhere, the choice of such muscle is more insidious. Private security companies, employed to protect dams or palm plantations, may attack protesters side-by-side with the police or armed forces, or alone. Unidentifiable masked gunmen, known locally as assassins, or sicarios,have been responsible for many killings of land-rights and other activists. In environments where life is cheap, disguising network-allied purveyors of violence behind more generalized violence, such as gangs or violent insurgents (or Internet trolls), further complicates the identification and punishment of those responsible.395
378 See, for instance, “Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border,” International Crisis Group, June 4, 2014, https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/corridor-of-violence-the-guatemala-honduras-border.pdf; “Cocaine From South America to the United States,” UNODC, September 24, 2012, https://www.unodc.org/documents/toc/Reports/TOCTASouthAmerica/English/TOCTA_CACaribb_cocaine_SAmerica_US.pdf; Steven Dudley et al., “Honduras Elites and Organized Crime,” International Development Research Centre and InSight Crime, April 9, 2016, https://www.justice.gov/eoir/file/861076/download; Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler, Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2012).
379 U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, “Son of the Former President of Honduras Pleads Guilty in Manhattan Federal Court to Conspiring to Import Cocaine Into the United States,” press release, U.S. Department of Justice, May 16, 2016, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/son-former-president-honduras-pleads-guilty-manhattan-federal-court-conspiring-import.
380 U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, “Manhattan US Attorney Announced Charges Against Members of the Honduran National Police for Drug Trafficking and Related Firearms Offenses,” press release, U.S. Department of Justice, June 29, 2016, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/manhattan-us-attorney-announces-charges-against-members-honduran-national-police-drug. See also the charges against Fabio, reaching back to 2009: U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, “Manhattan US Attorney Announces the Arrest of the Son of the Former President of Honduras for Conspiring to Import Cocaine Into the United States,” press release, U.S. Department of Justice, May 22, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/manhattan-us-attorney-announces-arrest-son-former-president-honduras-conspiring-import; see also Steven Dudley, “Ex-Honduras President Lobo Confronts Rumors About Him, Family,” InSight Crime, March 30, 2016, http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/ex-honduras-president-lobo-confronts-rumors-about-him-family.
381 Ibid.; and “Afirman Que Fabio Lobo Era El Enlace de El Chapo en Honduras” [They say that Fabio Lobo was the link to ‘El Chapo’ in Honduras], La Prensa, July 4, 2016, http://www.laprensa.hn/mundo/976520-410/afirman-que-fabio-lobo-era-el-enlace-de-el-chapo-en-honduras. This article also mentions a reported friendship with the son of Matte Ballesteros, another notorious drug kingpin, who still lives on his father’s land in Juticalpa. The most complete and most recent account of these relationships is to be found in the testimony that was emerging from the Cachiros trial as this report went to press. See the transcript here: United States of America v. Fabio Porfirio Lobo, No. 15 Cr. 0174 (LGS), http://bit.ly/2nnr0K3.
382 Several interviewees linked the Lobos brothers, especially Ramon, to drug trafficking as well. Testimony from the Cachiros trial cited above and some press reports add credence to those rumors. See “Así Terminó el Reinado del Cartel de Los Cachiros” [Thus ended the reign of the Los Cachiros Cartel], Educa Honduras, March 30, 2015, http://www.educahonduras.org/t6983-asi-termino-el-reinado-del-cartel-de-los-cachiros; Dudley, “Ex-Honduras President Lobo Confronts Rumors.”
383 Sentenced to one-hundred-and-four years in jail in 2016, see “Lucio Rivera Es Condenado a 104 Años de Cárcel [Lucio Rivera sentenced to 104 years in prison],” La Prensa, January 26, 2016, http://www.laprensa.hn/sucesos/923441-410/lucio-rivera-es-condenado-a-104-años-de-cárcel.
384 “Con C-4 Intentan Matar a Ganadero en Region Oriental de Honduras [C-4 Used in Attempted Livestock Killing in Eastern Honduras],” El Heraldo, April 7, 2014, http://www.elheraldo.hn/sucesos/618563-219/con-c-4-intentan-matar-a-ganadero-en-region-oriental-de-honduras.
385 Interview, Juticalpa, July 24, 2016.
386 “The Brother of the Man,” Honduras Culture and Politics (blog), April 22, 2016 http://hondurasculturepolitics.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-brother-of-man.html; Canal 36, “Hermano de JOH Defendio y Permitio Fuga de Peligrosos Narcos que Operaban en Honduras” [JOH’s brother defended and facilitated the escape of dangerous narcos operating in Honduras], Cholusat Sur, January 29, 2015, http://cholusatsur.com/noticias/hermano-de-joh-defendio-y-permitio-fuga-de-peligrosos-narcos-que-operaban-en-honduras/; and Darío Cálix, “Ramón Sabillón: Los Valle me revelaron que narcos financiaron a políticos del PN,” Tiempo Digital, April 21, 2016, http://tiempo.hn/ramon-sabillon-los-valle-me-revelaron-narcos-financiaron-politicos-del-pn/. On Tony Hernández’s alleged role as an intermediary between cartels and his brother’s government, see Steven Dudley, “Another Day, Another Damning Testimony of Elites by Honduras Trafficker,” InSight Crime, March 20, 2017, http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/another-damning-testimony-elites-honduras-trafficker; and “Los Cachiros Testify to Bribes Paid to Tony Hernández,” Honduras Culture and Politics (blog), March 16, 2017, http://hondurasculturepolitics.blogspot.com/2017/03/los-cachiros-testify-to-bribes-paid-to.html. Hernández was reportedly interviewed by the DEA in October 2016, see Mike LaSusa, “Honduras President’s Brother in US After Link to Drug Investigation: Reports,” InSight Crime, October 25, 2016, http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/honduras-president-s-brother-in-us-after-link-to-drug-investigation-reports.
387 Interview, August 3, 2016.
388 Interview, July 24, 2016.
389 U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Virginia, “Leaders of Honduran Drug Cartel Face Federal Drug and Money Laundering Charges in the Eastern District of Virginia,” press release, Federal Bureau of Investigation, December 19, 2014, https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/washingtondc/news/press-releases/leaders-of-honduran-drug-cartel-face-federal-drug-and-money-laundering-charges-in-the-eastern-district-of-virginia.
390 Interview, Juticalpa, July 24, 2016; Elyssa Pachio “Honduras Captures Leaders of Valles Drug Clan,” InSight Crime, October 6, 2014, http://www.insightcrime.com/news-briefs/honduras-captures-leaders-of-valles-drug-trafficking-clan.
391 Jeh Johnson, “United States Border Patrol Southwest Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2016,” U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, October 18, 2016, https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children/fy-2016.
392 See, for example, Michael Daly, “The Deported LA Gangs Behind This Border Kid Crisis,” Daily Beast, July 11, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/11/the-deported-l-a-gangs-behind-this-border-kid-crisis.html; for a view from Canada, see Robert Muggah and Geoff Burt, “Deportations Are Helping Make Honduras One of the World’s Most Violent Countries,” Security Sector Reform Resource Center, June 22, 2016.
393 “Cocaine From South America to the United States,” UNODC, September 24, 2012, https://www.unodc.org/documents/toc/Reports/TOCTASouthAmerica/English/TOCTA_CACaribb_cocaine_SAmerica_US.pdf.
394 See, for instance, Richard Spencer, “Egypt Protests: Camel and Horse Riders Who Invaded Tahrir Square Say They Are ‘Good Men,’” Telegraph, February 5, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/egypt/8306223/Egypt-protests-camel-and-horse-riders-who-invaded-Tahrir-Square-say-they-are-good-men.html; and “Criminal Politics: Violence, ‘Godfathers,’ and Corruption in Nigeria,” Human Rights Watch, October 11, 2007, https://www.hrw.org/report/2007/10/11/criminal-politics/violence-godfathers-and-corruption-nigeria; or Thomas Barrabi, “Nigeria Elections: Violent Street Gangs Increase Tensions Before March 28 Vote,” International Business Times, March 19, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/nigeria-elections-violent-street-gangs-increase-tensions-march-28-vote-1852528.
395 Phillips, Honduras in Dangerous Times, 56–58; Bird, “The Agua Zarca Dam,” 9–10; “There Are No Investigations Here,” Human Rights Watch.