A REUTERS SPECIAL REPORT

How a drug-trafficking mayor in Honduras fueled the U.S. migration crisis

A REUTERS SPECIAL REPORT

How a drug-trafficking mayor in Honduras fueled the U.S. migration crisis

CITY HALL: With drug money, Alexander Ardón built a rose-colored mayor's office from which he conducted his narcotics business and transformed land around El Paraíso into a cocaine corridor. REUTERS/Yoseph Amaya

A drug-trafficking mayor ravaged a local economy, fueling the flight from Honduras

Alexander Ardón ruled one corner of Honduras like a fiefdom. Reuters shows how his murders, drug-trafficking, and other confessed crimes have implicated the pinnacle of Honduran politics and worsened the migration crisis from Central America.

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Abel Bautista looked out at the vast pastures around him and frowned. “Once,” he said, “there were lines of people here for the harvest.”

Now, instead of coffee, these verdant hills near the Honduran border with Guatemala boast few trees and almost none of the eager workers, like him, who once picked them.

Times are so hard here in his hometown that Bautista, a 40-year-old farm worker, recently made the long, perilous trek with a 15-year-old son across two national borders in a failed attempt to enter the United States. More than a dozen others from his extended family, including a teenage daughter, have made similar journeys in recent years, most successfully crossing the Rio Grande. One nephew and his infant son, family members say, disappeared along the way.

It’s not just that cattle have replaced the more labor-intensive coffee crop in this highland corner of the third-poorest country in the Americas. Worse, drug trafficking and violence have overtaken the streets of El Paraíso and nearby towns and converted surrounding farms into passageways for cocaine headed north. Officials meant to safeguard stability and development, meanwhile, are increasingly involved in the very crimes now pushing many locals to flee to the United States.

In El Paraíso, a town of about 20,000 people, these factors were personified by Alexander Ardón, a cattle rustler turned narcotrafficker turned mayor who ruled this corner of Honduras like a fiefdom until he fled and surrendered to U.S. authorities two years ago. Striking a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Ardón confessed to participation in 56 murders, torture and trafficking as much as 250 tons of cocaine into the United States. With the help of senior officials from the ruling National Party, according to transcripts of testimony he gave a U.S. court, Ardón consolidated land and power, turning El Paraíso into a cocaine corridor for partners including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the convicted Mexican kingpin.

Official complicity in the narco trade, a trend echoed elsewhere across Honduras and Central America, has exacerbated an already long history of inequality in the region, further impoverishing much of the working class while enriching corrupt officials and wealthy elites who control most of the land, capital and government. Public officials are so involved in the drug trade and other corrosive rackets, say local human rights groups, migration researchers and foreign diplomats, that the elite’s criminality is a principal reason for the renewed exodus of people from Central America.

“It is a major contributor to the violence, the corruption and the impunity that have polarized the country and caused many Hondurans to become migrants,” U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a longtime advocate of immigration reform and human rights issues related to Latin America, told Reuters.

Since his arrest, Ardón’s testimony has convulsed Honduran politics and shined a rare light on alleged crimes at the highest levels of government. Ardón was a key witness in the U.S. drug trafficking conviction of Tony Hernández, younger brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández and a former congressman, who was sentenced this year to life in prison for his “role in a violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy,” according to prosecutors.

Ardón, now 45 years old and in federal custody, is also expected to be central to an ongoing investigation of President Hernández, himself a target of a separate federal narcotics probe, according to a court filing by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In the trial against Tony Hernández, according to transcripts reviewed by Reuters, Ardón said the president and his predecessor allowed him to traffic cocaine in exchange for millions of dollars in campaign contributions. In their February filing, prosecutors alleged President Hernández sought “to use drug trafficking to help assert power and control Honduras.” They didn’t detail specific crimes.

Government spokespeople in Tegucigalpa, the capital, didn’t respond to Reuters’ requests for comment from President Hernández. In numerous public statements, the president has denied wrongdoing or that he ever enabled or struck deals with drug traffickers. He told local lawmakers earlier this year that U.S. prosecutors jeopardize cooperation between the two countries on counternarcotics, migration and other issues if they persist in believing testimony implicating him. “If certain offices in the United States make the mistake of rewarding drug traffickers who give false testimony,” he said, “effective cooperation systems will inevitably collapse.”

“No one talks about the crimes, the pain, the blackmail, the intimidation.”

Rolando Arturo Milla, a member of Honduras’ national human rights commission

Reuters couldn’t independently verify the claims Ardón made in testimony against the Hernández brothers or others mentioned in this article. A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to discuss Ardón or either Hernández case. Jeffrey Cohn, a New York-based attorney for Ardón, declined to comment on Ardón’s case, any sentence he may have received or his role in continued probes. Jesse M. Siegel, a defense attorney for Tony Hernández, didn’t respond to Reuters’ requests for comment. 

For people like the Bautistas, who have seen a legitimate local economy destroyed by crime and complicity of those in power, the lack of prospects has left little choice but to seek opportunity elsewhere. In August, U.S. authorities apprehended more than 39,000 Hondurans attempting to cross the southern border without permission, one of the highest monthly figures on record, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Honduras recently overtook Guatemala as the second-leading source of unauthorized migrants to the United States, behind Mexico. More than half a million Hondurans, over 5% of the country’s population, have been caught at the U.S. border since January 2019. 

Faced with the swell in arrivals, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to send as much as $4 billion to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The aid, meant to address “root causes” of migration, will be targeted in large part toward programs to fight graft. “This connection between organized crime and irregular migration is one that is growing,” said Ricardo Zúñiga, the senior U.S. diplomat focusing on Central America, during a recent conference.

In addition to graft tied to drug trafficking, other corruption scandals have roiled Honduras in recent years. Last year, two government officials were charged with stealing funds for the purchase of nearly $50 million in mobile health clinics; both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Separately, poor residents who support opposition parties say they have been excluded from relief packages distributed by Hernández to supporters, a charge the government denies.

The government, mirroring moves in neighboring Guatemala, has also weakened laws and agencies established to target corruption. Hernández last year refused to reauthorize the presence of a group of foreign investigators, backed by the Organization of American States, who had successfully unearthed high-level graft schemes.

Around El Paraíso – where Ardon built a rose-colored City Hall, with a helipad, loosely modeled on the White House – the mayor was all but untouchable. He and associates bought up so much land, and forced those unwilling to sell to leave their property anyway, that farms, families, and livelihoods disappeared. As he amassed wealth and power, the rate of extreme poverty, by one measure of government data, doubled in El Paraíso, where most locals live on less than $73 a month, one of the lowest income levels in Latin America.

The career of Ardón illustrates the links between corruption, impunity, and the surge of migration from Honduras and elsewhere in Central America. To better understand his rise, and its lasting impact on families like the Bautistas, Reuters spoke with dozens of residents, emigres, human rights activists, and foreign and local security and government officials.

“The story that’s told is one of power, houses, women, horses,” says Rolando Arturo Milla, a veteran member of Honduras’ national human rights commission. “No one talks about the crimes, the pain, the blackmail, the intimidation.”

“I am the king”

Bautista, his sister Iris, and others in their extended family have lived near El Paraíso for generations. The entire family worked on nearby coffee fields until the early 2000s. Although pay was meager, about $8 a day at harvest, they supplemented their income with crops from small plots of family land and caught food in a nearby river.

“We fished, we grew beans, we swam,” Iris Bautista, now 43, recalled.

Their simple, if hardscrabble, life changed with the turn of the century.

U.S.-bound cocaine from South America, mostly flown or ferried across the Caribbean before law enforcement successfully thwarted some of those routes, was increasingly being smuggled by land. The shift empowered the Mexican drug cartels that have since come to dominate the trade and created lucrative criminal opportunities across Central America, too.

Among those poised to take advantage were rustlers who had a long history of stealing and smuggling livestock. Ardón, then a young smuggler with a fifth-grade education, branched into narcotics starting in 2002, according to testimony he gave prosecutors.

He quickly grew rich.

The influx of drugs and money sparked turf wars, rivalries and related violence. In 2004, Iris Bautista’s husband, José, was shot dead in the street. She never learned who killed him, or why. Police, she said, never found out, either. Spokespeople for local police didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Scared for her two young children, and a third on the way, Iris fled to San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-biggest city. There, she washed clothes to earn money.

In 2005, at the age of 30, Ardón ran for mayor of El Paraíso.

Although he called himself a cattle rancher, many locals knew the source of his prosperity. His rags-to-riches ascent even made him a folk hero to some, local officials and residents said. Ardón’s wealth, he told prosecutors, enabled him to bribe officials and buy votes – a tactic he would later use to help National Party allies at the national level. Ahead of a mayoral election later this year, some local politicians are still claiming ties to Ardón in hopes of capitalizing on his renegade cachet.

In 2006, Ardón began the first of two four-year terms.

From City Hall, he ramped up his drug trafficking business and made El Paraíso a fortress. By the town’s main entrance, he installed a gate and armed guards who forced drivers to lower their windows and identify themselves. He moved around town with a retinue of as many as 20 assistants and bodyguards, a security detail more typical of a head of state than a provincial mayor.

“I am the king,” he told La Prensa, a Honduran newspaper. In the rare interview, in 2011, he dismissed rumors that he was involved in crime and equated his prosperity with that of El Paraíso. “I can’t understand why people criticize a town in full bloom.”

With associates including a brother and other family members, he purchased large tracts of farmland. Ostensibly, the land was bought to graze cattle; in practice, it was used for hassle-free transit of cocaine. When a financial incentive wasn’t enough to convince reluctant landowners, they used force, local officials said. Ardón told prosecutors he ultimately acquired 10 houses and 15 ranches, one with an airstrip.

Soon, he controlled a large swath of the border with Guatemala.

“El Paraíso was like private property between two countries,” Leandro Osorio, a former chief of intelligence for Honduras’ National Police, told Reuters. “Those who challenged him were dead.”

“IN FULL BLOOM”: Ardón in 2011 told La Prensa, a Honduran newspaper, that his and El Paraíso’s prosperity were not tied to crime. SCREENSHOT via laprensa.hn

Bloodshed in the area quickly made the state of Copán one of the most violent corners of Honduras, which itself over the next decade would become the most murderous country in the world. By 2011, according to the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Copán had a homicide rate of 114 killings per 100,000 residents. The figure was a third higher than the national average at the time and 25 times the rate in the United States.

As Ardón acquired territory, plantations that once blanketed the countryside disappeared. Between 2000 and 2010, land under coffee cultivation around El Paraíso was slashed in half, according to data from the Honduran Coffee Institute, an industry group.

Abel Bautista found himself increasingly idle.

He and another sibling, Edgar, had inherited small plots they used for subsistence. But they relied on work from bigger farms to make a living. Although their personal plots were too tiny to be of interest to smugglers, family members said, buyers close to Ardón acquired the land where they labored. The new owners razed those properties and planted pastures.

“Just grass and grass,” Abel said, speaking at his small wooden shack.

Initially, some landowners held out. But threats by Ardón and his allies convinced most. Salomon Orellana, a university professor and economist in Santa Rosa de Copán, the state capital, described a common reply when a landowner declined to sell: “No problem, tomorrow I’ll negotiate with your widow.”

The Bautista nephew, Licho González, around this time decided to flee El Paraíso.

González’s wife, like Iris’ husband, was murdered by unknown killers, family members told Reuters. Local police didn’t respond to a request for comment on the case. Fearing for his life and that of their one-year-old boy, González left with the child, and was never heard from again.

“We never knew what happened,” Iris said.

In 2007, as Ardón’s trafficking grew, the world’s most famous narcotrafficker – “El Chapo” Guzmán of Mexico – came to visit. Jeffrey Lichtman, a defense attorney for Guzmán, didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

REROUTED TRAFFIC: Andean cocaine since the turn of the century has increasingly been smuggled by land across Central America. Source: Natural Earth

At a meeting about an initial deal in El Paraíso, according to Ardón’s testimony, Ardón agreed to deliver 2,000 kilograms of cocaine to Guzmán representatives just across the border in Guatemala. From there, Ardón said, Guzmán’s workers would truck the cocaine into Mexico and reroute it toward the United States. After that first haul, Ardón said, he met Guzmán five more times and sent him 500 kg shipments, among other deliveries, in cattle trucks as often as twice a month through 2013.

Influential politicians also came calling.

In 2008, Ardón testified, he met Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, a veteran politician who had nearly won the presidency for the National Party in the previous election. At a heliport in San Pedro Sula, Ardón said, Lobo asked for $2 million to help party candidates the following year. In addition to his own renewed run for the presidency, Lobo allegedly said, the money would help Juan Orlando Hernández in a bid to preside over Congress.

Last July, the U.S. State Department banned Lobo from entering the United States, saying in a statement that he had accepted bribes from drug traffickers. 

Lobo, in a telephone interview, denied meeting with Ardón to ask for money or to negotiate anything. He said he never received financing from any drug trafficker and called the State Department claim “false.”

Ardón told prosecutors he agreed to pay Lobo.

“I was protected by Juan Orlando Hernández.”

Alexander Ardón, confessed murderer, cocaine trafficker and former mayor of El Paraíso

In exchange, he testified, he asked for a representative in a Lobo administration, protection from law enforcement, and a highway connecting El Paraíso to a nearby town. Over the next year, Ardón said, he sent Lobo two payments of $1 million in cash. He also bribed three lawmakers, unidentified in his testimony, after a request by phone from Juan Orlando Hernández, to support Hernández’s congressional effort.

Both men, Ardón said, told him his trafficking would be safe.

“He knew he had to go”

The following year, Lobo won the presidency. Hernández secured enough support from lawmakers to soon take the helm of Congress.

Lobo appointed Hugo Ardón, the mayor’s brother, head of the national highway agency. Lobo told Reuters that Hugo Ardón’s nomination followed lobbying by many local party players, not any specific quid pro quo with Alexander Ardón.

Two security officials who investigated the Ardóns’ activities told Reuters that Hugo, upon taking the post, used government vehicles to help transport his brother’s shipments. In his testimony, Ardón said Hugo helped him move drugs.

Reuters was unable to reach Hugo Ardón for comment.

To the Bautistas, El Paraíso grew unrecognizable.

Iris, tired of meager wages washing clothes in the big city, decided to try her luck back home. Upon her return, she was surprised to see Ardón’s ornate new City Hall, a building he told prosecutors he paid for with drug money and from which he ran his rackets. She also saw palatial new houses built around town.

“There were mansions,” she said, “ but most people were still poor.”

In 2010, Iris’s son Milton, then only 13, left home to look for work, first in Honduras, then in Guatemala and northern Mexico. He tried repeatedly to enter the United States, but failed. Iris so feared for Lurbin, an adolescent daughter, that she rarely let her leave home, worried she could fall victim to rampant sexual predation growing along with drug crime.

When young girls disappeared, often turning up dead, townspeople suspected men working for Ardón. “They pulled their trucks alongside girls and picked them up,” said Nelson Guevara, a local priest at the time. He said he heard many girls, seeking solace in confession, recount rapes and other abuses.

Cohn, the former mayor’s U.S. lawyer, didn’t respond to a followup question about the allegations involving Ardón’s men. 

Ardón grew closer to National Party figures, including Tony Hernández. The two men forged a partnership, Ardón testified. Along with his other drug shipments, Ardón now began handling cocaine, stamped “TH,” imported from Colombia by Hernández.

In 2013, Juan Orlando Hernández prepared a run for the presidency.

That year, Ardón told prosecutors, he met with the candidate in Tegucigalpa. Hernández, Ardón said, asked him to finance his campaign in the state of Copán. Ardón agreed, he testified, and spent $1.6 million in drug proceeds on the campaign.

Hernández had another request – that Ardón not seek reelection as mayor. Ardón had gotten too much attention as a rumored drug trafficker, Hérnandez told him. Hernández said he couldn’t guarantee protection unless he lowered his profile, Ardón told prosecutors.

Ardón agreed not to run.

Later that year, Ardón said, he arranged a meeting in rural Copán between El Chapo Guzmán and Tony Hernández. There, Ardón testified, Guzmán offered Hernández $1 million for his brother’s presidential campaign. At a followup in El Paraíso, Hernández took delivery of the payment in cash, counted jointly by the men on Ardón’s dining room table.

“Chapo Guzmán handed it over to Tony Hernández,” Ardón said.

Juan Orlando Hernández won the presidency, taking office in 2014.

U.S. drug investigators at the time were making headway with some of the organized crime groups in the region. In 2015, the head of a trafficking ring known as “Los Cachiros,” dominant in other corners of Honduras, surrendered at an undisclosed location to American authorities. His testimony fueled further investigating that implicated Ardón, the Hernández brothers and others, according to Honduran officials familiar with the events.

Still, Ardón continued trafficking. He told prosecutors he didn’t fear arrest or extradition. “I was protected by Juan Orlando Hernández,” he said.

In 2018, Darlín Bautista, Abel’s 15-year-old daughter at the time, fled Honduras. “I was so sad,” recalls Levin Solís, her mother. “I couldn’t sleep with her out there on those trails.” Darlín made it safely to the United States and began working in restaurants. She now wires money home from Indiana. Reuters couldn’t reach her for comment or determine her immigration status.

That November, police arrested Tony Hernández on a trip through the Miami airport.

Around this time, an aide to Juan Orlando Hernández called Ardón and told him the president was asking about him. The man said Hernández believed that Ardón may be cooperating with U.S. investigators, Ardón testified. It’s not clear whether Ardón was in fact already in touch with American authorities.

He soon fled Honduras. In March 2019 Ardón turned himself into U.S. officials in Guatemala. Honduran law enforcement officials told Reuters that Ardón likely feared for his life. “He knew he had to go or he could be killed,” said Osorio, the former intelligence chief.

The Bautistas increasingly felt the need to leave, too.

Last February, Abel mortgaged his family plot. With his teenage son, Noel, he left El Paraíso and paid a series of coyotes, or human smugglers, to get them to the U.S. border. Evading authorities most of the way, Abel worried he subjected his boy to undue danger.

After about three weeks, they arrived at a safe house used by coyotes across the border from McAllen, Texas. There, the coyotes told Bautista that Noel, who could apply for U.S. asylum as an unaccompanied minor, would have a better chance of getting across without him. U.S. law seeks to protect underage migrants, and policy changes implemented during the pandemic authorize agents to expel most others almost immediately.

Bautista decided to let Noel take the risk.

“If I can’t be here any longer, I’ll travel, too.”

Iris Bautista, an El Paraíso resident whose son, brothers, and other relatives left Honduras

When he got word that Noel had safely been taken into U.S. custody, Bautista tried to sneak across himself. U.S. agents caught him and expelled him back into Mexico, he said. Spokespeople for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection – and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees shelters for unaccompanied minors – declined to comment on Abel, Noel or any other Bautista family members.

As Abel made his way back to Honduras, his brother, Edgar, decided to try his own luck with Leo, a three-year-old son. In July, they successfully made it into the United States, according to three family members. Reuters couldn’t reach Edgar for comment or determine his immigration status.

In August, U.S. authorities released Noel from a shelter, family members said. He is now reunited with Darlín, the sister who left in 2018, and other family members nearby. Under U.S. law, he can now begin seeking asylum.

Milton, the young Bautista who had failed repeatedly to enter the United States since leaving El Paraíso a decade ago, crossed the border illegally in early August, he told Reuters. Through cousins in Alabama, he found construction work and has already begun sending Iris, his mother, money for food and long-needed kidney surgery.

Iris welcomes the remittances. But she still fears for her future and that of what family remains in Honduras. “The insecurity is tremendous,” she said. “If I can’t be here any longer, I’ll travel, too.”

Pushed Out

By Laura Gottesdiener

Photo editing: Tomás Bravo

Art direction and graphics: John Emerson

Edited by Paulo Prada