NEW YORK (AP) — The former chief of the Honduran National Police faces drug and weapons charges in New York, where prosecutors claimed Thursday that he traded his law enforcement clout to protect U.S.-bound shipments of cocaine.
The charges were brought against Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, known as “El Tigre” or “The Tiger,” in Manhattan federal court. He was not in custody.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said Bonilla played a key role in a violent international drug conspiracy, working on behalf of former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández Alvarado and, his brother, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
“Bonilla Valladares oversaw the transshipment of multi-ton loads of cocaine bound for the U.S., used machineguns and other weaponry to accomplish that, and participated in extreme violence, including the murder of a rival trafficker,” Berman said in a release.
Wendy Woolcock, a Drug Enforcement Administration official, said Bonilla’s protection of politically connected drug traffickers “was a blatant and horrific violation” of his oath.
Bonilla, 60, told local press in Honduras Thursday that he’d done nothing wrong.
“I feel my dignity has been completely offended because I am not a drug trafficker,” Bonilla told Televicentro. “When I was director I didn’t take orders from any politician.”
He said he would go wherever necessary to prove the accusations untrue and suggested drug traffickers were behind the accusations. He held up his long cooperation with the U.S. State Department as proof he was someone the U.S. government trusted.
“I have not been, nor will be a conspirator with someone accused of drug trafficking,” he said. “I say it with the respect I have for the president (Hernández), everyone answers for their actions. I never have been involved with him or his family.”
Bonilla was named head of Honduras’ National Police in May 2012 by President Porfirio Lobo. Lobo said Thursday he brought Bonilla in to clean up the force, because he was known as a straight arrow.
“I never knew anything about him related to (drug trafficking),” Lobo said.
Authorities said the drug trafficking conspiracy stretched from 2003 until this year as drug peddling organizations in Honduras and elsewhere teamed up with prominent public and private individuals, including Honduran politicians and law enforcement officials.
It’s not the first time U.S. prosecutors have linked President Hernández to the drug trade.
Last August, prosecutors said he had used $1.5 million from drug traffickers to help win the presidency in 2013.
The president has not been charged and he did not immediately comment on the allegations through a spokesman Thursday, but he has repeatedly denied similar allegations before.
Prosecutors said Bonilla let drug shipments pass through police checkpoints without inspection and gave drug organizations information about police aerial and maritime interdiction operations so they could evade them.
An internal police report in Honduras once accused Bonilla of leading death squads and participating in three killings or forced disappearances between 1998 and 2002. He was prosecuted for one murder but was acquitted in 2004.
Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who has written extensively about Honduras’ corruption and the government’s relationship with the United States, said Bonilla’s death squad past was well known to U.S. officials who continued working with him as police director.
“It’s very clear that the U.S. has known all these years who they were working with. They’ve chosen to look the other way. And chosen to pour money into this government and its security forces,” Frank said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said Thursday that he and others in Congress had for years urged the U.S. to cut ties with Bonilla.
“Those warnings were ignored, and our embassy treated him as a credible partner. That was inexcusable,” he said.
If convicted of cocaine importation conspiracy and various other drug and weapons charges, Bonilla could up to life in prison.
Hernández Alvarado is scheduled to be sentenced in June on drug trafficking, weapons and false statement charges. Hernández, who first became president in 2014, won reelection in 2017 in elections plagued with irregularities.
Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City while Marlon González reported from Tegucigalpa.