Long-feared Honduran police chief now facing US extradition
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The former head of Honduras’ National Police now facing extradition to the United States on drug trafficking and weapons charges was a long-feared figure, as well as an ally of the U.S. government in its war on drugs.
Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, better known as “El Tigre” or “The Tiger,” grew up in Honduras’ military before embarking on a long career in its National Police force that culminated in a stint as its commander.
He was plagued by allegations of human rights violations, including operating death squads and being a hired killer for drug traffickers seeking to rub out the competition.
On Wednesday, Bonilla was arrested at a toll plaza on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. The U.S. government had announced charges against him in 2020 and requested his extradition last year. But it wasn’t until Xiomara Castro succeeded Juan Orlando Hernández as president that Bonilla was finally captured.
Hernández was arrested last month, also on U.S. drug trafficking charges, and is similarly in custody awaiting a decision on his extradition.
Both men have denied any wrongdoing.
On Thursday, a judge informed Bonilla of the U.S. charges — two for drug trafficking and one for weapons — and ordered him held at a military base pending a decision on his extradition, said Melvin Duarte, spokesman for the Supreme Court of Justice. He also was assigned a public defender. The judge scheduled a hearing for April 8 for the presentation of evidence supporting the charges.
U.S. prosecutors allege Bonilla assisted the movement of tons of cocaine through Honduras, working with Hernández and his brother Tony Hernández, both co-conspirators in the case in the Southern District of New York.
Much as Hernández did when facing allegations of criminal involvement, Bonilla in later years fell back on his close cooperation with the U.S. government to defend himself.
Bonilla was named head of Honduras’ National Police in May 2012 by President Porfirio Lobo and held that post through December 2013. He was removed when Hernández took over as president.
Bonilla had been prosecuted for one murder but was acquitted in 2004.
María Luisa Borjas was new in her job as head of the National Police internal affairs office in 2002 when she received reports about Bonilla and alleged extrajudicial killings. She selected a team, investigated the allegations and took their findings to the human rights prosecutor’s office, which began to build a case against Bonilla and three other police officials.
The victims were generally people involved in crime, potential competition for the drug traffickers Bonilla protected, she said.
A judge issued arrest orders for Bonilla and the others, but Borjas said Bonilla was protected by powerful figures in the government.
Borjas said her family was harassed and she lived in fear she might be killed.
Bonilla “was a person who did not feel remorse taking someone’s life,” Borjas said. “He could kill (while) laughing and it didn’t affect him.”
Six months after taking over the internal affairs unit, Borjas was removed and fired from the police after a long career. Her investigative team was scattered to new assignments across the country.
“My separation from the police and my dismissal from the internal affairs post was precisely because of Tigre Bonilla,” she said.
Borjas said Bonilla could be a treasure trove of information for U.S. prosecutors not only about Hernández, but also his predecessor, Lobo, as well as other officials, judges, lawmakers and businessmen.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a long-time critic of the U.S. government’s dealings with Bonilla, said in a statement Thursday that he had urged successive U.S. administrations to cut ties with Bonilla.
“Instead, they treated him like a legitimate partner, even though he was deeply involved in the corruption and brutality of drug trafficking,” the statement said. “The Department of Justice, in seeking his arrest and extradition, deserves praise for reaffirming that no one is above the law. It is a message that the Honduran people have long waited to hear.”
Associated Press writer Marlon González reported this story in Tegucigalpa and AP writer Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City.