Home » Honduras Defense Official and U.S. Drug War Ally Tied to Narco-Trafficker, Notorious Mercenary Firm

Honduras Defense Official and U.S. Drug War Ally Tied to Narco-Trafficker, Notorious Mercenary Firm

Col. Elias Melgar Urbina, a top-ranking Honduran military official and U.S. partner in joint drug war operations, has been tied to a Honduran drug trafficker, according to a U.S. Justice Department filing, and a private security company accused of assassinating land rights activists, according to eyewitness testimony and documents obtained by The Intercept.

Melgar was appointed vice minister of defense by left-leaning President Xiomara Castro in 2022; he is the highest-ranking officer in the Honduran military, which is headed by Castro’s civilian nephew. Last year, Melgar met with U.S. Army Gen. Laura Richardson, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, to discuss “strengthening cooperation to support mutual security goals,” according to a press release from SOUTHCOM, which runs Joint Task Force Bravo, an airbase in Honduras. “Honduras is a valued & respected security partner,” Richardson tweeted after the meeting. U.S. training of Honduran soldiers, which tapered off as the previous administration was engulfed in drug scandals, has openly resumed under Castro.

In June, Melgar publicly announced his resignation after a riot at a women’s prison in Honduras left dozens of people dead, fueling concerns of a failing security strategy. But contrary to popular perception, he remains in his post. A human rights attaché for the Honduran military told The Intercept that Melgar is still vice minister of defense, and a high-level government minister said he continues to appear at meetings. While questions remain about what prompted his announcement, the defense official has a troubling history that has never been fully reported.

During the trial of Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez in federal district court in Manhattan, U.S. prosecutors suggested the possibility that Melgar himself had links to the drug trade. Fuentes was convicted in March 2021 of conspiring with high-ranking Honduran politicians and military officials to traffic tons of cocaine into the United States. One of Fuentes’s “military contacts,” according to prosecutors, was Melgar.

Meanwhile, a decade before becoming the de facto head of the Honduran military, Melgar was stationed as an intelligence officer in the Aguán Valley, a stretch of Caribbean coast home to industrial African palm plantations. The Aguán has been the site of protracted land disputes between farmer cooperatives and palm oil barons, whose private security guards, working alongside soldiers deployed to the region, have unleashed violence against peasant activists contesting corporate ownership claims.

While Melgar was posted in the Aguán, according to multiple sources — including local farmers, journalists, and a lawyer who worked with land rights activists — he participated in the operations of a notorious private security firm contracted by the largest palm corporation in the region. Peasant groups accused the company of waging a campaign of terror to chase farmers off plantation land — including targeted killings.

“It is not correct to write accusations of this type without the other side,” Melgar wrote in response to detailed questions from The Intercept, communicating through the Honduran military’s human rights attaché. “It is illegal and unfair since clearing my name and that of my family is not and should not be my responsibility, but rather the media should be more responsible.” Melgar repeatedly declined to elaborate, saying that he would only accept an in-person interview.

Representatives for the Castro administration did not respond to requests for comment. U.S. Southern Command declined to comment.

“I’ve always expressed my fear of returning to Honduras because of Melgar,” Gerardo Argueta, a member of the Francisco Cano cooperative who fled the Aguán and sought asylum in the U.S., told The Intercept. “Imagine, now he’s vice minister of defense. … He could order anything now with all that power.”

U.S. Army Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, greets Honduran military members on Feb. 24, 2022.

Photo: U.S. Southern Command

Building a Narco-State

For decades, the U.S. has supported Honduran governments whose security forces have violently repressed protest, protected select figures in the drug trade, and executed perceived criminals with so-called extermination squads. Since 2009, when a military coup greenlit by the State Department ousted former President Manuel Zelaya, the husband of current president Castro, the U.S. has supported sweeping security initiatives to militarize Honduran forces in the name of the war on drugs — even as they engaged in widespread human rights abuses.

From 2009 to 2020, Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez ran a high-level drug ring that trafficked South American cocaine through Honduras, relying on protection from Honduran military and police commanders, as well as former President Juan Orlando Hernández, according to testimony in U.S. federal court. The former president allegedly promised to deploy soldiers to protect a cocaine laboratory run by Fuentes. After years of close collaboration with the Obama and Trump administrations on security and anti-migrant initiatives, Hernández was arrested last February before being extradited to the U.S., where he awaits trial on drug trafficking and weapons charges.

During the period that Fuentes was trafficking cocaine, Melgar rose in the ranks of elite Honduran anti-narcotics units: first as a military intelligence officer, then as a commander of the country’s first military police battalion, and then as a Caribbean coast commander for a task force called FUSINA, where he was charged with directing military and police special forces units to combat drug traffickers and gangs.

Court documents filed in the case against Fuentes indicate a possible connection between Melgar and the drug trafficker. At Fuentes’s trial, federal prosecutors unveiled a list of contact information for various Honduran officials found on the defendant’s phone, which included a phone number under the name “Coronel Melgar Cmdte. Fusina,” or Col. Melgar, FUSINA commander. The prosecutors did not suggest that they had identified any specific communications between Melgar and Fuentes.

After Fuentes was convicted of drug trafficking and related firearms offenses, prosecutors filed a memo asking the court to impose a life sentence. In the August 2021 sentencing submission, they argued that Fuentes’s operation thrived thanks to his “corrupt contacts in the military and police.”

“The defendant received support from the highest levels of the Honduran military,” the memo read, describing a general named Rene Orlando Ponce Fonseca, who led the 105th Battalion in San Pedro Sula and later became head of the Honduran armed forces, as providing “assistance, military equipment, uniforms, and weapons” to Fuentes, including AR-15 assault weapons and bulletproof vests. The memo continued: “Other of the defendant’s military contacts include Colonel Leandro Flores, head of an anti-gang unit; and Colonel Melgar, a commander in an anti-narcotics multi-agency task force.”

Ponce Fonseca and Flores could not be reached for comment.

“The armed forces have been the key for turning Honduras into a narco-state.”

The appearance of Melgar’s name in the trial record was largely overlooked by journalists, who focused on Fuentes’s relationship with then-President Hernández, according to Cristián Sánchez, head of the Pro-Honduras Network, an nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., that investigates corruption in Honduras. Sánchez, who attended the trial, called attention to the court references to Melgar earlier this year.

“The armed forces have been the key for turning Honduras into a narco-state,” Sánchez told The Intercept. “In the most recent trial, against Geovanny Fuentes, who has been associated directly with Juan Orlando Hernández, it was talked about how a large amount of the contacts that Fuentes had on his phone were members of the armed forces.”

U.S. officials have continued to collaborate with the Honduran military. In October, two U.S. National Guard brigades deployed to Honduras to train local troops. Honduran forces participated in a training course in Guatemala organized by U.S. Southern Command, and in July, Honduras hosted a training course for the First Special Forces Battalion carried out by members of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group.

TOPSHOT - Soldiers take cover during clashes with supporters of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya at El Pedregal neigborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on September 22, 2009. Honduran soldiers surrounded Tuesday the Brazilian embassy where Zelaya is holed up seeking reinstatement, driving off protesters who had massed there overnight. AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ (Photo by YURI CORTEZ / AFP) (Photo by YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Soldiers take cover during clashes with supporters of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Sep. 22, 2009.

Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

A Pattern of Violence

Land conflicts in the Aguán Valley date back to the 1990s, when palm oil corporations began wresting control of farms from the region’s smallholders in order to plant the lucrative commodity. The corporations and the government engaged in coercive purchases, according to peasant farmers, or campesinos, who formed co-ops, occupied land, and fought in the courts to reclaim their titles. Their resistance was met with violence.

The largest landholder in the Aguán was Dinant Corporation, owned by the late Honduran business mogul Miguél Facussé. One of the most powerful men in the country and a force behind the 2009 coup, Facussé also came under suspicion for links to drug traffickers, who landed cocaine-laden planes on his heavily guarded property, according to a 2004 State Department cable leaked by WikiLeaks (no charges were ever filed). The Aguán has served as a strategic transshipment point for traffickers, and the vast palm plantations are riddled with hidden landing strips.

After the 2009 coup, long-running tensions over land boiled over into a wave of assassinations. By 2014, more than 100 members of the campesino movement in the Aguán would be dead. Peasant groups and civil society organizations attributed the violence to state security forces, including members of the military’s 15th Battalion, and palm oil private security companies, including a firm known as Orion that Dinant contracted to guard its plantations.

Melgar, who eyewitnesses say was deployed to the Aguán between approximately 2009 and 2013, played a role in the region that has yet to be brought to light. (An affidavit filed in Argueta’s asylum case also placed Melgar in the region during this period.) Seven people who lived or worked in the Aguán at the time said that while Melgar was stationed at the military’s 15th Battalion base in Rio Claro, he also participated in on-the-ground Orion operations.

In 2013, a United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights singled out Orion as the company most referenced in complaints by civil society organizations. “The working group was profoundly disturbed at the alleged involvement of private security guards in the killing, disappearance, forced eviction, and even sexual violence to which peasants have been subjected in Bajo Aguán, often acting in concert with the police and the military,” the group wrote.

A report published by Rights Action the same year, which analyzed acts of violence against the campesino movement that witnesses attributed to the military, noted, “Testimonies received in the course of documenting these abuses indicate an extremely close working relationship between the 15th Battalion and the Orion security company.” The report’s author, human rights worker and regional expert Annie Bird, concluded: “Members of the 15th Battalion and other security forces in the region collaborate in what can only be characterized as death squad activity.”

The allegations against Dinant’s security operatives were so damning that they sparked an internal audit at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, which had agreed to loan the company $30 million to develop its plantations. The resulting investigation by the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, released in December 2013, noted that specific allegations linked 40 killings to “Dinant properties, Dinant security guards, or its third party security contractor.” The report found that the investment in Dinant violated multiple IFC policies, including “failure to investigate credible accusations of abuse by security personnel,” but the oversight body did not have the authority to weigh in on the merit of the peasant groups’ allegations.

Most of the crimes carried out in the Aguán remain unsolved. “In the vast majority of cases police did not perform the most basic investigative steps necessary to identify suspects and bring them to justice,” Human Rights Watch reported in 2014, describing an atmosphere of “virtually complete impunity for crimes tied to land conflicts.”

Only one Orion operative was successfully prosecuted for murders committed in the Aguán. In 2016, Rigoberto Rodríguez Tomé, identified by the Honduran public ministry as Orion’s former security chief, was convicted of the November 2011 killings of two peasant farmers. By cross-referencing filings in the case with corporate registration records, The Intercept determined that the security firm that officially employed Rodríguez Tomé was incorporated by Melgar’s family members.

The case file at the courthouse in the city of Trujillo refers to Rodríguez Tomé as wearing an Orion uniform and driving an Orion truck when the murders were carried out. A document in the same case file lists his employer at the time as SION Private Security LLC. The articles of incorporation for SION on file with the Honduran Chamber of Commerce were signed in March 2011 by Melgar’s daughter and mother-in-law, according to the country’s National Registry of Persons. Both were listed as shareholders in the company, which the Chamber of Commerce still lists as active. Melgar’s daughter was also designated general manager, even though she was in dental school in San Pedro Sula until 2013. SION’s records were amended in 2015 to grant Melgar’s wife general power of attorney.

The vice minister of defense declined to respond to repeated requests for comment on his relationship to the security companies.

Melgar was one of the most visible connections between military forces and private security operatives as they carried out what many saw as a terror campaign, campesino activists told The Intercept. A member of the farmer cooperative MARCA recalled seeing Melgar at joint military checkpoints manned by soldiers and armed Orion operatives multiple times in 2011 and 2012. “The army and Orion worked together,” he said. “When they did operations, they went together.” The farmer and other residents asked that their names be withheld because they remain in the Aguán, where land and water defenders still face the threat of violence.

“The army and Orion worked together. When they did operations, they went together.”

Fourteen members of MARCA were assassinated or disappeared at the hands of private security operatives, police, or 15th Battalion soldiers between 2009 and 2013, according to the farmer and two other MARCA members, a number consistent with the findings of the Rights Action report.

The MARCA members, along with three journalists who covered land conflicts in the Aguán and a lawyer who worked with campesino movements, allege Melgar was frequently seen on joint patrols with Honduran soldiers and armed Orion operatives, who at times wore the uniforms of the 15th Battalion. One of the MARCA members recalled witnessing Orion guards physically receiving uniforms from the military in the lead-up to a violent eviction.

“There were lots of guards dressed as soldiers,” the MARCA member said. “A soldier has to be put together. But a lot of these ‘soldiers’ went with tennis shoes, their shirts unbuttoned.”

Two of the journalists said that they frequently saw Melgar in an Orion truck wearing an Orion patch on his military uniform. The journalists, both of whom later fled to the U.S. after receiving threats from another 15th Battalion officer, asked that their names be withheld for fear of retaliation should they return to Honduras.

In a statement to The Intercept, Dinant spokesperson Roger Pineda declined to comment on Melgar’s ties to Orion, noting that many years had passed since the period in question. “Most, if not all, of those with knowledge of events then have moved on for various reasons,” he wrote. “We have no relevant records pertaining to that period.” Pineda has been a Dinant executive since at least 2011.

Pineda categorically denied any inappropriate relationship between the company’s security operatives and military or police forces. “At no time has Dinant ever asked for, directed, or acquiesced to mixing our private security guards with military personnel on patrols or in operations,” he wrote. “Nor have we ever lent uniforms or exchanged uniforms with Honduran police or military personnel. To allege otherwise is to fabricate stories out of whole cloth.”

Argueta, the campesino activist who fled the Aguán, recalled a phone call he received in 2012, after Orion guards and 15th Battalion troops evicted members of the Francisco Cano cooperative from a plantation claimed by Dinant. Argueta was familiar with intimidation and death threats. But this was different. He said he recognized the voice on the other end of the line as Elias Melgar.

In a sworn affidavit filed in support of Argueta’s application for asylum in the United States, a human rights worker relayed the accusation that Melgar made menacing phone calls, arguing that staying in Honduras would put Argueta’s life at risk. The activist is in the asylum process. According to Argueta, the colonel said that “the order from the army wasn’t to capture me” but “to put a bullet in my head.”

“A person with the trajectory of Elias Melgar … it’s astonishing he would be taken in by a ‘leftist’ government,” one of the journalists said.

Dinant ceased contracting with Orion in 2014, but the palm oil company now has a new private security force conducting armed patrols in collaboration with the Honduran military. And the killing has resumed in the Aguán. Between December and June, seven activists who took a stand against Dinant and a mining business linked to the Facussé family were assassinated, along with two of the activists’ family members. No one has been arrested in connection with the murders.

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August 2023