In November 2016, as the world’s attention was fixated on the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro were found guilty on drug trafficking charges. The conviction was another feather in the cap of U.S. prosecutors who have been targeting the Venezuelan government with corruption and drug trafficking investigations.
But in a New York courtroom, the testimony of José Santos Peña also implicated Julián Pacheco Tinoco, a former Honduran military official with long ties to the U.S. security apparatus.
A U.S. prosecutor asked the informant about a meeting in Honduras he had participated in a few years earlier. The purpose of the meeting with Honduras’s current security minister and then-head of military intelligence Pacheco was “so that he could give me help to receive shipments from Colombia to Honduras,” the informant told the court.
“What type of shipments?” the prosecutor asked.
“Cocaine,” the informant clarified.
The informant did not testify as to whether help was later provided, and the judge in the case, citing the informant’s previous untruths, told the jury it could disregard his testimony if it so chose.
In March 2017, also in a New York courtroom, Pacheco’s name would once again come up. More details of his and other Honduran government officials’ alleged involvement in drug trafficking were revealed.
Today, Pacheco remains the minister of security, in charge of the entire Honduran national police force. With hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance pouring into Honduras’s security forces, Pacheco is one of the most important players in the country’s security and counternarcotics cooperation with the United States.
In an emailed statement, Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the senator is concerned with the allegations but that more facts are needed. Leahy “believes the State Department should be looking at this carefully because the Security Minister needs to be someone of unimpeachable integrity,” Rieser wrote.
With future funding for Honduras threatened by some members of Congress — including Leahy — Pacheco was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. It wasn’t the first time he had made a trip to protect the U.S.-Honduran relationship.
Pacheco’s connection with the United States dates back decades. As a 21-year-old cadet, Pacheco traveled to the U.S. military’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. In September 1979, he graduated from a course on counterinsurgency tactics.
With the election of Ronald Reagan the following year, Honduras took on new prominence as a U.S. ally and a staging ground for covert American support for the contra right-wing insurgency in Nicaragua. U.S. security aid to the country skyrocketed, as did allegations that the Honduran military was involved in drug trafficking and dozens of activist disappearances. U.S. diplomats largely looked the other way.
In the spring of 1986, at the height of U.S. Cold War efforts in Central America, Pacheco was once again at the School of the Americas. This time, having been promoted to lieutenant, Pacheco graduated from a course in psychological operations.
After the Berlin Wall fell, the Pentagon changed tack in Central America and began focusing more on the war on drugs.
In April 1988, the most notorious Honduran trafficker at the time, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, was arrested and sent to the United States. As a key interlocutor between the Medellín Cartel in Colombia and Mexican traffickers, Ballesteros had compromised the highest levels of the Honduran military and government. He had also been a U.S. ally and owned a CIA-linked airline that had funneled weapons to the Nicaraguan contras – while sending drugs north.
Honduras’s constitution barred extradition, but working with rogue elements in the Honduran military, U.S. Marshal agents facilitated the capture of Matta Ballesteros. He was brought to the Dominican Republic, where he was officially turned over to U.S. authorities. The Honduran military officers who participated in the rendition were eventually criminally charged in their home country.
The following year, the United States invaded Panama, turning on another erstwhile ally involved in drug trafficking, Gen. Manuel Noriega. Noriega himself was head of military intelligence before becoming president and had been “our man in Panama,” receiving regular CIA payments for decades. Anyone – no matter their criminal record – could be a U.S. ally. That is, until they weren’t.
In Honduras, shifting U.S. priorities, a decrease in funding, and the arrest of Matta Ballesteros pushed the military into the background — at least for a little while. In June 2009, a military coup d’état ousted left-leaning elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who was dropped off in Costa Rica in his pajamas.
With relations tested, and the U.S. having temporarily suspending security assistance, then-Col. Pacheco was sent to Washington, D.C. by the head of the Honduran armed forces. His mission was to convince the United States that the military acted properly, that there was no coup.
He met with senior State Department officials at the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House and with congressional offices on Capitol Hill. He also met with a retired U.S. general who headed the Pentagon’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and allegedly helped facilitate meetings for Pacheco.
A continued relationship was a geostrategic interest of both militaries.
Later that summer, when Zelaya snuck back into Honduras and took refuge at the Brazilian embassy, U.S. diplomats intervened to ensure it was Pacheco who acted as “the key point of contact.”
Zelaya was not restored to office. In November of that year, the U.S. ended up backing controversial elections that were boycotted by opposition groups and considered illegitimate by most of the region’s governments. With the election, the coup was consolidated, as was the Honduran military’s return to political prominence. The declared winner of the election was Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the National Party, which had strong, historic ties to the nation’s military. Pacheco was named director of military intelligence.
The most prominent coup leaders from within the military were removed, and “in general,” wrote the U.S. ambassador, “respected officers have been promoted to positions of importance.” The shakeup would allow “the U.S. to begin to initiate a careful process of reengagement with the Honduran military,” the ambassador wrote to a host of intelligence agencies and other government agencies in Washington.
Since then, more and more evidence has emerged linking senior Honduran officials to drug trafficking. In 2015, Pepe Lobo’s son, Fabio, was arrested in Haiti and quickly sent to the United States. To take down Fabio, U.S. prosecutors again relied on the work of Santos Peña, the Mexican DEA informant. More importantly, in late 2013 Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the infamous leader of Honduran criminal organization Cachiros, quietly reached out to the DEA and began cooperating.
In early March 2017, Maradiaga took the stand during Fabio’s ongoing trial. He told the court that he had given bribes to Pepe Lobo during his 2009 presidential campaign. He also described a meeting with Pepe, Fabio, and others at the president’s residence.
“[Pepe Lobo] said not to worry,” Maradiaga testified, “that if anything were to happen that we should talk to Juan Gómez, that Juan Gómez in turn would talk to [Fabio Lobo], and then [Fabio Lobo] would get in touch with General Pacheco Tinoco.”
Before his assassination in 2015, Gómez was governor of Colón, a rural Honduran department at the heart of the Cachiros’s drug trafficking enterprise. During the mid-2000s, when the enterprise began to boom, Pacheco led a military battalion stationed there. He and Gómez met nearly every week. The day of one of their meetings, Fabio called Pacheco from his father’s house and told him he would come by later that day, according to Maradiaga.
Maradiaga and Fabio became close. Maradiaga told prosecutors that he considered Fabio a member of the Cachiros. In the fall of 2013, just before beginning his cooperation with the DEA, Maradiaga told Fabio of an incoming shipment of more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine. “I knew that having him with me, everything would go well and I felt better supported if I was with the president’s son,” he testified. With his security detail of military police officers, Fabio drove to Tocoa, in Colón, to meet the shipment.
Maradiaga claims to have paid Fabio $50,000. “He asked me whether I could pay him a little bit more because he needed to give him — give more money to the boss, and I knew who that was,” Maradiaga testified. The boss was “General Pacheco,” he said.
In June 2014, Fabio and Maradiaga met at a body shop in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second city. A white Hummer was in the shop, and Maradiaga suggested that this would be a perfect gift for one of their friends in the police. Fabio allegedly called Pacheco and sent him a photo of the car.
It was just weeks later when Fabio and the Mexican DEA informant visited Pacheco. The meeting was recorded. “We wanted to come here with something illegal. You know?” the informant began, after exchanging pleasantries, “Of course, we just want your, your authorization and consent.”
“What type of work?” Pacheco asked.
“Um, we want to come here with merchandise, with drugs.”
The minister of security, a licensed attorney, did not fall for the absurdly obvious ruse. “No, it’s not much,” Fabio tried to reassure him. Pacheco excused himself and exited the room.
Less than six months later, the recently elected Juan Orlando Hernández, also of the National Party, named Pacheco as security minister. He was the first active-duty military officer to be named to the post. At the request of the U.S. Embassy, and following a strong outcry by human rights groups, Pacheco retired from the military.
Pacheco categorically rejected the “ill-intentioned” and “unfounded” allegations when Maradiaga’s testimony went public. The drug trafficker was attempting to secure favorable treatment from the United States and undermine the Honduran government’s efforts to crack down on criminal activity, Pacheco said.
In September, Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in prison. “I want to apologize to the government of the United States,” he said, “and especially to my father, who has nothing to do with this.” Now, it may be the current Honduran president, controversially standing for re-election on November 26, whose family is in legal trouble.
Maradiaga has turned over to the DEA a recorded conversation he had with Honduran lawmaker Tony Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández. According to Maradiaga’s testimony, the two discussed funneling government monies to a Cachiro-controlled front company in return for bribes.
Last month, the allegations reached the president himself. The New York Times reported that Maradiaga had given U.S. authorities another recording from 2013 in which a drug trafficker said he “made a $250,000 payment intended for Juan Orlando Hernández.” A Hernández representative denied the charges to the Times, and in what was either an incredibly honest or naive response to a local paper, the president’s chief of staff said:
If we’re going to look at how organized crime has permeated society in general and funneled money, placed deputies, placed judges, various offices, within the attorney general’s office and everywhere, hold on to your seats, because we’re talking about all colors here.
The takeover of the Honduran government hasn’t stopped the United States from continuing its support for Honduras. Earlier this year, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly referred to Hernández as a “great guy” and a “good friend.” Kelly was the head of the Pentagon’s Latin American subsidiary U.S. Southern Command under the Obama administration. Hernández told the press that relations were now “probably better than ever.”
Eager to try to improve its international image, the Honduran government has initiated a police reform process with financial support from the United States and other international donors. At least 14 drug trafficking suspects have recently been extradited to the United States.
But the Honduran government appears to be selective regarding which individuals involved in drug trafficking should be handed to U.S. authorities. Last month, it was reported that Ramón Matta Waldurraga had turned himself over to the DEA in August. He is the son of Ballesteros, the Honduran trafficker rendered to the U.S. in 1988.
Pacheco told the press that the government had no arrest warrant or extradition request for Matta Waldurraga, though the U.S. later unsealed a 2014 indictment on money laundering and drug trafficking charges. Like his father before him, Waldurraga’s testimony threatens to implicate military and political actors across Honduras.
And so the Honduran government remains on the defensive.
On March 3, 2016, world-renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated. A number of suspects have been arrested, including at least one U.S.-trained member of the Honduran military. But more than a year later, those who laid the groundwork remain free.
Cáceres was general coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. With Cáceres at its head, COPINH had led the struggle against a large hydroelectric project in rural Honduras. The company, COPINH has argued, failed to consult with the local population as required by Honduran law.
The concession for the dam was awarded under the post-coup government in 2010. The company building the dam, DESA, counts some of Honduras’s richest and most powerful as investors.
Blocked from accessing the vast majority of the criminal file, and in the absence of an independent investigation, relatives of Cáceres arranged for a group of international human rights lawyers to conduct their own. The report from the International Advisory Group of Experts was released on October 31 in Tegucigalpa.
The team analyzed many gigabytes of data drawn from cellphones and computers of some of those involved, though it was still just a small portion of the full case file. Still, the report found WhatsApp messages suggesting a well-orchestrated conspiracy to assassinate Cáceres that had lasted many months. The Honduran government had been sitting on the evidence for more than a year.
The authors of the report presented their findings to members of Congress in Washington, D.C., in early November.
“There is now little doubt about the identities of at least some of the intellectual authors who conceived of and paid for the assassination of Berta Cáceres,” Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted in a statement submitted to the congressional record. Yet, he added, “the Public Ministry has failed to act on this evidence, perhaps because it implicates DESA executives with ties to officials in the Honduran Government.”
The lack of accountability and unwillingness of the Honduran government to properly investigate the crime has put continued U.S. assistance “in jeopardy,” he said.
At the time of the assassination, Pacheco was security minister. Two weeks after the report was released, more recent WhatsApp messages were leaked. They are allegedly from Pacheco. (Pacheco didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.)
In the leaked messages, Pacheco complained about protective measures that have been decreed for members of COPINH and the cost to the government, though the vast majority have yet to be implemented. Pacheco referred to those whose lives have been threatened as a “mountain of moochers that take shelter behind the human rights banner.”
“This undermines peace and tranquility,” he continued, “this undermines national and international investment.”
In the coming weeks, the State Department is expected to let congressional appropriators know whether it considers that Honduras has complied with certain anticorruption and drug trafficking obligations attached to the majority of U.S. assistance to the country.
But back in early November, before the WhatsApp messages — and at the same time as Cáceres’s family was presenting its findings — Pacheco was also in Washington.
Together with members of the police reform commission, Pacheco held high-level meetings with State Department staff and key congressional offices. On November 2, the delegation participated in a public event at the partially congressionally funded Woodrow Wilson Center, housed in the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington.
At the very end of the two-hour event, an attendee, Christiam Sánchez, confronted Pacheco over his alleged role in drug trafficking. Pacheco “should be presenting his resignation and making himself available to authorities that are part of the investigation,” Sánchez said to the packed room. “How can you continue to be a part of the police reform process?” he asked Pacheco.
“I was serving the son of the ex-president,” Pacheco said about meeting with the now-jailed Fabio and the Mexican DEA informant, “and if I had to, I would do that again.”
“If I were a ‘narco’ like Christiam is saying,” he told the crowd, “I would not be seated here.”
Correction: April 13, 2018
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that evidence was presented during the trial to suggest that a defendant had deleted chat records and contact information bearing Julián Pacheco Tinoco’s name. Rather, the record shows that U.S. prosecutors agreed to redact references to Pacheco from exhibits and not make arguments related to Pacheco. The earlier version also incorrectly stated that the trial was held in federal court in south Florida. It was held in New York City.
The story has been updated to include a judge’s instruction to the jury that informant José Santos Peña had, in general, testified falsely at the trial and that the jury was free to disregard all or parts of his testimony. The story has also been updated to clarify that while Peña testified that he took part in a meeting intended to secure Pacheco’s support in shipping drugs from Colombia to Honduras, he did not testify that Pacheco had provided such support.