Five years after he fled Honduras under threat, former national police chief Ramón Sabillon was nominated Thursday as the country’s new Minister of Security by President-elect Xiomara Castro.
The nomination comes hours before Castro is due to to sworn in as Honduras' first female president and only a few weeks after Sabillon returned from exile in the United States, kneeling down to symbolically touch the ground outside the San Pedro Sula airport where he received a hero’s welcome.
“I left with a backpack on my back and with only the hope to live,” said Sabillon, at the airport on January 2 amid a crowd of supporters.
“Now we have a woman (president) who lived the same experience,” he added, referring to when Castro’s family was exiled following the 2009 coup that ousted her husband, former president Manuel 'Mel' Zelaya.
During his time as national police chief, Sabillon made a name for himself by capturing several of the country’s biggest drug traffickers – results that he says got him fired by President Juan Orlando Hernández.
In an ironic twist of fate, one of Sabillon’s first tasks as minister could be to coordinate the capture of Hernández, who is widely expected to be indicted on drug trafficking charges by U.S. prosecutors upon leaving office January 27.
The nomination of Sabillon is seen as a nod to the importance of cooperation between Honduras and the
United States on security issues. "Xiomara Castro won't be able to find a better man than Sabillon,” said former DEA agent Mike Vigil. “ He's a decent, honest man who been trying to do what's best for Honduras. She is going to need people like him to clean up the country. And he will help rebuild confidence with the US and bring financial assistance.”
As a sign of approval for the changes in Honduras, Vice president Kamala Harris is due to lead a high level U.S. delegation for Castro's inauguration on Thursday.
Sabillon was appointed as head of the national police in December 2013, replacing the controversial Juan Carlos 'El Tigre' Bonilla, who was not trusted by U.S. agencies at the time and has since been indicted on drug trafficking and related weapons charges by U.S. prosecutors.
The mistrust of Bonilla had stalled efforts to capture drug traffickers wanted for extradition to the U.S., former U.S. and Honduran anti-narcotics officers told Univision. “Contrast [Sabillon] with Bonilla, and it was night and day,” said a former DEA agent familiar with investigations in Honduras. Whereas Bonilla had attempted to meddle in the work of anti-narcotics officers, Sabillon left them to do their jobs and provided support when it was requested.
Over the next year, the first seven drug traffickers were captured for extradition, including major targets such as Hector 'Don H' Fernandez and Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Valle Valle. The capture of the latter two, who were the biggest drug traffickers in the country, rattled President Hernández and ultimately led to Sabillon being fired two months later in December 2014.
Drug czar murdered
In 2016, several media outlets published supposed internal police documents related to the 2009 assassination of former Honduran anti-drug czar Julián Arístides González. The documents implicated a slew of police officials in the murder. Sabillon was not implicated in the murder, but of attempting to essentially shelve the investigation. He denounced the documents as false and said that it was an attempt to tarnish his reputation by the government.
The documents have since come under greater scrutiny and are now widely believed to have been manipulated for political purposes. “I have no faith or confidence in the veracity of those documents or at least in the authenticity of their original text,” said Victor Meza, director of the watchdog CEDOH who served as coordinator of a police reform commission between 2012 and 2014.
“Many of the texts of those documents have been altered, have been manipulated or have been modified according to the interests of each police chief who arrived," he added.
Soon after, Sabillon revealed that when he spoke with the Valle Valle brothers after their capture, they said that it was political because the government didn’t go after the drug traffickers aligned with the ruling National Party, including Alexander Ardon and Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a brother of President Hernández and legislator at the time.
Time proved that it was true. In October 2019, Tony Hernández was convicted of drug trafficking and related weapons charges in a New York federal court. During the trial, prosecutors outlined what they called “state-sponsored drug trafficking,” which depended upon protection from President Hernández, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case. One of the key witnesses was Ardon, who turned himself into U.S. authorities in March 2019 and has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking.
As a result of the allegations made by Sabillon, he said he began to receive threats and accused the Honduran government of reducing the security detail he was entitled to as former head of the national police. Conscious of what had happened to Aristides and others who had spoke out against the country’s powerful drug traffickers, Sabillon made the decision to flee.
"I felt very sorry for General Sabillon,” said Mike Vigil. “He tried to bring to public attention the corruption and drug trafficking that was taking place under Hernández and he finds himself being the target of the government.”
Five years later, the election of Xiomara Castro signaled the end of a dozen years of National Party rule, opening the door for Sabillon to return to Honduras, greyed, bearded and vindicated.