Culture of silence, fear and government corruption exacerbate Honduras’ drug problem

Honduras will hold elections in 10 days. While President Juan Orlando Hernandez is not on the ballot, he may soon be in the running for a U.S. federal drug trafficking indictment. As special correspondent Tania Rashid and producer-videographer Neil Brandvold report, the nation is a way station for violent drug cartels, and the first family of Honduras appears to be deeply involved.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The drug crisis touches so many parts of our world.

    Here now is a look at a related story about drug trafficking through Honduras. That country will hold its elections in 10 days. And while its current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, is not on the ballot, he may soon be in the running for something else, a U.S. federal indictment for trafficking cocaine to the United States.

    As special correspondent Tania Rashid and producer-videographer Neil Brandvold report, the Central American nation is a way station for violent drug cartels, and the first family of Honduras appears to be deeply involved.

    Tania begins her report in a section of the deadly city San Pedro Sula.

  • Tania Rashid:

    It's after dark in Rivera Hernandez, one of the most dangerous towns in Honduras, a country with the highest homicide rate in the world outside of a war zone.

    The streets are deserted. Residents cower in their homes. Ahead of our ride-along with the military police, we learned that there's been a recent spike in homicides, with 10 to 15 murders a day, much of the violence fueled by drugs.

    So, this is a heavily gang-controlled area. There are numerous gangs operating here. They all have guns and are also selling drugs. The most prominent drug that is sold in this area is cocaine.

    Despite a police show of force against MS-13 and 18th Street, the most powerful gangs here, there are allegations that the police, cartels and gangs are working together. This violence has forced tens of thousands of people to flee north toward the United States.

    Honduras has become an international transit point for cocaine trafficking to the United States. In one of the largest drug conspiracy cases ever prosecuted in U.S. federal courts, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from drug cartels to provide safe transit of cocaine through the region.

    In his most recent statement on Twitter, he denied both involvement with the cartels and allegations against him made by U.S. prosecutors and key witnesses.

    The president claims those testifying against him are cartel members seeking a deal to reduce their sentences. This March, the president's brother, former Honduran Congressman Tony Hernandez, was sentenced in the United States to life, plus 40 years in prison, after being convicted of state-sponsored drug trafficking.

    Trial evidence revealed that he had smuggled 185 tons of cocaine into the U.S.

    So, for days, we have been walking through the streets of San Pedro Sula, and we have seen signs like this that say "Fuera JOH," which basically means out with President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

    And that basically speaks to the sentiments of a lot of the people here, who are fed up with the government and its corruption and its connections to the drug trade.

    Social activist Hugo Ramon Maldonado has investigated thousands of disappearances linked to drug violence and fears he could be murdered at any moment. He says a culture of silence and fear permeates the region

  • Hugo Ramon Maldonado, Social Activist (through translator):

    Look, when we talk about drug trafficking, organized crime, and violent deaths in the country, it's a critical situation in Honduras.

    The police, military, politicians, and businessmen that are involved, we have to make them accountable. But each one of them has to take responsibility for the damage caused to the country. Every single family in the country has been affected by drug trafficking, organized crime, gangs, poverty, and the misery we live in.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Samuel Madrid, a leader in the opposition against President Hernandez, says the government structures with direct ties to the cartels aren't going anywhere.

  • Samuel Madrid, Opposition Leader (through translator):

    The entire state structure is on the cartels side. That is why this criminal structure that governs the country is more dangerous than the gangs.

    I believe we have a narco-state. They have used all of the state institutions for the drug trade.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Three of the most powerful cartels operate here. These cartels are responsible for the trafficking of several tons of cocaine into the United States, with Honduras serving as the main transit point between Colombia and the United States.

    After weeks of waiting, our team was granted exclusive access to an active ranking member of a Honduran cartel in the mountains of Copan.

    So, we have driven through windy roads deep in the mountains about four to five hours away into this remote area that is dominated by the cartels. There's no cell phone service here. And, just days earlier, three people were shot to death in this small rural village.

    U.S. intelligence reports confirm this is a key operational center for drug trafficking from several Honduran cartels. Here in the Honduran heart of the drug trade, the cartel has everything under their control. From the moment we arrived, our every move is being monitored. Groups of young men took pictures of our car's license plate.

    Julian Pacheco, the minister of security, says the cartels control the entire village with state-like structures in place, including intelligence, and counterintelligence security. Even Security Minister Pacheco is under investigation by the DEA for his alleged ties to the cartels.

    According to reports published by the U.S. State Department, an estimated 86 percent of the cocaine that arrives in North America goes through Central America. Most of the cocaine passes through Honduras in light aircrafts.

    This town is one of the main drug routes, housing many of Honduras' estimated 200 clandestine airstrips, established by El Chapo Guzman, a notorious Mexican drug lord who in 2019 was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years at Colorado's Supermax facility.

    After hours of waiting, we were guided to a secret location where the cartel leader agreed to meet with us, as long as his identity was concealed.

    How many years have you been working in this business?

  • Man (through translator):

    18 years.

  • Tania Rashid:

    How did you get involved?

  • Man (through translator):

    I used to work with cattle, feeding them and cleaning, also farming. And the next thing I knew, I was dealing with the high ranks. Next thing, you needed to be armed. There's distrust because this is a dangerous business.

  • Tania Rashid:

    How does this business work?

  • Man (through translator):

    We receive the orders from the high ranks. They send you on missions. And you go as an employee, drug shipments and all of that, right?

  • Tania Rashid:

    Is it an international operation?

  • Man (through translator):

    Yes, it is international, international and very dangerous. What we are doing here right now is very dangerous.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Does the police or the military help you?

  • Man (through translator):

    Yes. In Honduras, there are top-ranked police organizations. They are the ones who protect the shipments the most. They have that respect with the cartels in Mexico, the strongest ones. They did business with Chapo from Sinaloa. Chapo Joaquin Guzman, he came here.

  • Tania Rashid:

    How many cartels are there in Honduras right now?

  • Man:

    Right now, the biggest cartel is within the Hernandez family, the president, Tony, Juan Orlando, there, the two cartels, the Hernandez family.

  • Tania Rashid:

    This is the first time an active member operating within a major Honduran cartel admits the president and his family has direct ties to the drug trade.

    Samuel Madrid says he sees a difficult future ahead under the current regime.

  • Samuel Madrid (through translator):

    People are hopeful this government will change. With popular struggle on the streets, will be hard. They crush us with the military boot, with bullets, with tanks. They crush and humiliate the people.

    It will be hard. Our only option is to vote this government out during the elections in November. However, I feel this government pretends to stay longer, no matter what.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Recently, Santos Rodriguez Orellana, an independent candidate who publicly accused President Juan Orlando Hernandez's brother of connections to drug trafficking, was arrested on money laundering charges.

    Elections are currently scheduled for the end of this month. And with Hernandez ending his final term, many American officials believe that he may be indicted in New York for drug trafficking as soon as he leaves office.

    It remains unclear if he will try to circumvent the constitution and run again or will even cancel these elections.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tania Rashid with Neil Brandvold, reporting from Honduras.

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