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 Paraiso 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 Paraiso, a town of about 20,000 people, these factors were personified by Alexander Ardon, 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, Ardon 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, Ardon consolidated land and power, turning El Paraiso into a cocaine corridor for partners including Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, 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, Ardon's testimony has convulsed Honduran politics and shined a rare light on alleged crimes at the highest levels of government.
Ardon was a key witness in the U.S. drug trafficking conviction of Tony Hernandez, younger brother of President Juan Orlando Hernandez 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.
Ardon, now 45 years old and in federal custody, is also expected to be central to an ongoing investigation of President Hernandez, 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 Hernandez, according to transcripts reviewed by Reuters, Ardon 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 Hernandez 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 Hernandez. 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."
Reuters couldn't independently verify the claims Ardon made in testimony against the Hernandez brothers or others mentioned in this article.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to discuss Ardon or either Hernandez case. Jeffrey Cohn, a New York-based attorney for Ardon, declined to comment on Ardon’s case, any sentence he may have received or his role in continued probes. Jesse M. Siegel, a defense attorney for Tony Hernandez, 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 Zuniga, 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 Hernandez to supporters, a charge the government denies.
The government, mirroring moves in neighboring Guatemala, has also weakened laws and agencies established to target corruption. Hernandez 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 Paraiso – 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 Paraiso, where most locals live on less than $73 a month, one of the lowest income levels in Latin America.
The career of Ardon 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 Paraiso 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. Ardon, 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, Jose, 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, Ardon ran for mayor of El Paraiso.
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.
Ardon'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 Ardon in hopes of capitalizing on his renegade cachet.
In 2006, Ardon began the first of two four-year terms.
From City Hall, he ramped up his drug trafficking business and made El Paraiso 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 Paraiso. "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. Ardon 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 Paraiso 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."
Bloodshed in the area quickly made the state of Copan 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, Copan 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 Ardon acquired territory, plantations that once blanketed the countryside disappeared. Between 2000 and 2010, land under coffee cultivation around El Paraiso 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 Ardon 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 Ardon and his allies convinced most.
Salomon Orellana, a university professor and economist in Santa Rosa de Copan, 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 Gonzalez, around this time decided to flee El Paraiso.
Gonzalez'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, Gonzalez left with the child, and was never heard from again.
"We never knew what happened," Iris said.
In 2007, as Ardon's trafficking grew, the world's most famous narcotrafficker – "El Chapo" Guzman of Mexico – came to visit. Jeffrey Lichtman, a defense attorney for Guzman, didn't respond to requests for comment.
At a meeting about an initial deal in El Paraiso, according to Ardon's testimony, Ardon agreed to deliver 2,000 kilograms of cocaine to Guzman representatives just across the border in Guatemala. From there, Ardon said, Guzman's workers would truck the cocaine into Mexico and reroute it toward the United States.
After that first haul, Ardon said, he met Guzman 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, Ardon 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, Ardon 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 Hernandez 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 Ardon 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."
Ardon told prosecutors he agreed to pay Lobo.
In exchange, he testified, he asked for a representative in a Lobo administration, protection from law enforcement, and a highway connecting El Paraiso to a nearby town.
Over the next year, Ardon 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 Hernandez, to support Hernandez's congressional effort.
Both men, Ardon said, told him his trafficking would be safe.
'He knew he had to go'
The following year, Lobo won the presidency. Hernandez secured enough support from lawmakers to soon take the helm of Congress.
Lobo appointed Hugo Ardon, the mayor's brother, head of the national highway agency. Lobo told Reuters that Hugo Ardon's nomination followed lobbying by many local party players, not any specific quid pro quo with Alexander Ardon.
Two security officials who investigated the Ardons' activities told Reuters that Hugo, upon taking the post, used government vehicles to help transport his brother's shipments. In his testimony, Ardon said Hugo helped him move drugs.
Reuters was unable to reach Hugo Ardon for comment.
To the Bautistas, El Paraiso 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 Ardon'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 Ardon. "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 Ardon's men.
Ardon grew closer to National Party figures, including Tony Hernandez. The two men forged a partnership, Ardon testified. Along with his other drug shipments, Ardon now began handling cocaine, stamped "TH," imported from Colombia by Hernandez.
In 2013, Juan Orlando Hernandez prepared a run for the presidency.
That year, Ardon told prosecutors, he met with the candidate in Tegucigalpa. Hernandez, Ardon said, asked him to finance his campaign in the state of Copan. Ardon agreed, he testified, and spent $1.6 million in drug proceeds on the campaign.
Hernandez had another request – that Ardon not seek reelection as mayor. Ardon had gotten too much attention as a rumored drug trafficker, Hernandez told him. Hernandez said he couldn't guarantee protection unless he lowered his profile, Ardon told prosecutors.
Ardon agreed not to run.
Later that year, Ardon said, he arranged a meeting in rural Copan between El Chapo Guzman and Tony Hernandez. There, Ardon testified, Guzman offered Hernandez $1 million for his brother's presidential campaign. At a followup in El Paraiso, Hernandez took delivery of the payment in cash, counted jointly by the men on Ardon's dining room table.
"Chapo Guzman handed it over to Tony Hernandez," Ardon said.
Juan Orlando Hernandez 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 Ardon, the Hernandez brothers and others, according to Honduran officials familiar with the events.
Still, Ardon continued trafficking. He told prosecutors he didn't fear arrest or extradition. "I was protected by Juan Orlando Hernandez," he said.
In 2018, Darlin Bautista, Abel's 15-year-old daughter at the time, fled Honduras. "I was so sad," recalls Levin Solis, her mother. "I couldn't sleep with her out there on those trails."
Darlin 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 Hernandez on a trip through the Miami airport.
Around this time, an aide to Juan Orlando Hernandez called Ardon and told him the president was asking about him. The man said Hernandez believed that Ardon may be cooperating with U.S. investigators, Ardon testified.
It's not clear whether Ardon was in fact already in touch with American authorities.
He soon fled Honduras.
In March 2019 Ardon turned himself into U.S. officials in Guatemala. Honduran law enforcement officials told Reuters that Ardon 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 Paraiso 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.
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 Darlin, 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 Paraiso 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."