New Jersey public defender Raymond Colon hadn’t been following the news about Honduras closely when he got a surprise phone call in February.
Former president Juan Orlando Hernandez had just been arrested in Honduras and was facing extradition to the United States on drugs and weapons charges. His family and friends were looking to put together a defense team. A student in a law class he was teaching had recommended him to friends of the Hernandez family.
How he was chosen to represent the former president is an intriguing element in the story of Hernandez’s stunning fall from grace, one of the most dramatic reversals in fortune for a one-time US ally in Latin America.
Quite why a former head of state with considerable financial means decided to forgo using a more established and high-powered law firm, remains something of a mystery. One factor could be the freezing of many of Hernández's tainted assets in Honduras which is a frequent legal hurdle in drug-related cases, experts say. The complicated case involves dozens of potential witnesses, mountains of evidence to sift through, and possibly classified information. If found guilty, Hernandez faces life in prison.
Colon resigned last month from the Public Defenders’ office to dedicate himself full time to defending Hernandez. According to court record, Colon lists an office in Manhattan but he says he never goes there and the phone is disconnected.
Instead, Colon is relying on a Spanish-speaking rabbi and a colorful Dominican-American private detective to prepare the defense case for Hernandez, who is set to go to trial in January 2023. The rabbi, Jorge ‘Jay’ Bar-Levy, is a former DEA confidential source who briefly cooperated with agents investigating the Hernandez case but later opted to join the defense.
The detective, Angel Martinez, has had his own legal problems and has been criticized in Honduras for his often bizarre YouTube chats about the case, in which he routinely praises his own extraordinary investigative talents.
Who is Raymond Colón, Juan Orlando Hernández's lawyer?
Colon is a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican who grew up in Brooklyn and knows his way around the New York federal court system, including representing some drug trafficking cases and Salvadoran MS-13 gang members. He also worked in Central America - albeit 40 years ago – for the State Department where he said he got a close up look at CIA clandestine operations.
“I was sort of the ideal person [to represent Hernandez],” he told Univision Noticias in a wide-ranging interview at a restaurant around the corner from the Public Defender’s Office where he works in Hackensack, New Jersey.
Some have questioned his capability to undertake such a high stakes case. But Colon says such an unusual case cries out for an unorthodox defense. “It’s a unique case. We’re talking about a head of state,” he said. “We’re going to subpoena multi-agency records, the CIA, the White House, former U.S. presidents. Many former U.S. officials know that their most powerful ally in Latin America was Juan Orlando [Hernandez],” he said.
Colon, 64, an affable and laid back ‘Neyorican’ told Univision that he spent two years in El Salvador working closely with the local Treasury Police before he was transferred to Nicaragua as a consular official. He hinted at covert escapades with different government agencies, though declined to go into detail, except to say he didn’t make his ambassador at the time happy.
He showed Univision a photo from his time in El Salvador, wearing only gym shorts and holding a Galil assault rifle with a dead snake around his neck. “I ate the snake because there was a Mayan myth that if a wild animal attacks you, you have a kill its soul by eating it,” he said.
He said he also served briefly in Cuba where he was arrested and kicked out of the country for “activities not consistent with a diplomat”, before leaving the State Department in 1984 and becoming a lawyer, he said.
The former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Cris Arcos, told Univision that he met Colon during the time he was posted in Nicaragua. He recalled Colon left the State Department under a cloud after he “got in trouble for exhibiting what can be considered a serious lack of judgement.”
Arcos declined to go into details.
Two rabbis come to the defense of Juan Orlando Hernández
Colon was chosen to defend Hernandez after he came to the notice of New York Rabbi Aaron Lankry. The rabbi who has a synagogue in Monsey, New York, about an hour’s drive north of downtown Manhattan, got to know Hernandez during visits to Honduras.
Lankry has stated he is helping Hernandez in recognition for his staunch support of Israel at the United Nations, including moving the Honduran embassy to the disputed holy city of Jerusalem.
Hernandez, who is an evangelical, is taking conversion classes to Judaism and receiving kosher meals in jail, according to the defense team.
The former president developed a close relationship with Israel during his presidency, despite Honduras having the second-largest Palestinian population in Latin America. Israel reopened its embassy in Honduras last year after it was closed in 1995 for budgetary reasons.
Hernandez credited Israeli technology with helping improve agricultural production and combat drug trafficking and organized crime. “We couldn’t have done that without Israel’s help,” he told The Times of Israel, pointing at close ties between the countries’ security agencies.
In a surprise move, Lankry was appointed as ‘Chief Rabbi of Honduras’ by Hernandez in 2019, a position which had never existed before.
However, that decision was apparently made without consulting the Jewish community in Honduras. In a statement published last month in Honduran newspapers, the representatives of the Jewish community pointed out that rabbis are not appointed by heads of state.
"The State of Honduras, as a secular (non-religious) country, is not authorized to appoint the cardinal, bishops, evangelical pastors, nor rabbis," it stated. Rabbi Lankry "has no connection with us and has nothing to do with our communities," it added.
In a video message, Lankry said Hernandez’s critics had shown “disrespect” for their own country by convicting the former president in the court of public opinion. “You’ve decimated the respect and the dignity of your own country, marching your president through the streets as if we’re in the 12th century and going to the gallows,” he said.
“In America, he’s innocent until proven guilty. That’s the law. And if you make a person guilty before giving him a trial, you didn’t hurt him, because he’s not an individual, you’ve hurt your entire country,” he added.
Lankry was introduced to Honduras by a Spanish-speaking rabbi, Jorge ‘Jay’ Bar-Levy, who grew up in Yonkers, New York, the son of Dominican parents.
A Honduran connection in Ocala, Florida
Bar-Levy, 44, lives in Ocala, central Florida horse country, and had become familiar with events in Honduras thanks to a neighbor, Wilman Pineda, who was a political ally of Hernandez before moving to the United States. Bar-Levy said he and Pineda met in a T-Mobile store in Ocala in 2015 and became friends. “I heard him trying to be understood so I offered to help,” he said.
Pineda is a lifelong member of Hernandez’s National Party and was appointed as governor of the province of Santa Barbara in northern Honduras in 2018.
“President Hernandez did many good things for Honduras,” Pineda told Univision. “I don’t see how he could have done all the things he’s accused of,” he added.
Pineda said when he became governor he asked Bar-Levy to help him on some government projects. The two ended up working together on some investment projects for the Honduran government, including finding seasonal jobs for Honduran workers in Puerto Rico and sending feed to cattle farmers.
After the president’s brother, a Honduran legislator with the ruling National Party, was arrested on cocaine trafficking charges in 2018 and found guilty in New York court a year later, Pineda asked Bar-Levy if he could help him look into the case. President Hernandez was not indicted in the case at that time but was identified as a co-conspirator. Hernandez wanted to know how strong the case was and if the DEA was planning to come after him, said Bar-Levy.
A meeting with the DEA and a plan to help defend President Hernandez
In January 2020, Bar-Levy said he was invited to Honduras to meet with Hernandez and his family. Before undertaking the trip, Bar-Levy told Univision that he first contacted the DEA and met with agents in Orlando. He said he agreed to become a confidential source and was briefed on the investigation of Hernandez.
The agents asked Bar-Levy to deliver an offer to Hernandez, to cooperate now or face the consequences later, he said.
For security, Bar-Levy took a friend with him, the private detective and fellow Dominican-American, Angel Martinez.
Bar-Levy and Martinez were received by the Hernandez family, including the president, his mother and the First Lady. “I told him ‘I'm here to tell you the truth. And the truth is not even 30 days after you leave office, they're going to come pick you up,” said Bar-Levy. “That's the truth, and I heard it directly from the people that is going to come pick you up,” he added.
But Hernandez didn’t respond, according to Bar-Levy, who says he also provided documents outlining the likely case against him, “from A to Z, what was going to happen, like a movie.”
After returning to the U.S., Bar-Levy says he met again with the DEA, this time in Fairfax, Virginia, to let them know Hernandez didn’t appear interested in cooperating.
The DEA declined to comment when asked by Univision if its agents met with Bar-Levy. Univision was able to independently confirm that Bar-Levy was in close communication with DEA agents handling the Hernandez case.
Bar-Levy said he had not disclosed to DEA that he was now assisting Hernandez and that it would likely be a surprise when agents learned of his role with the defense team.
Hernandez's arrest and the search for a lawyer
Bar-Levy heard nothing more about the case until earlier this year, following Hernandez’ arrest in Honduras on February 15, barely two weeks after leaving office at the end of his second term.
“Up until the last minute they were waiting for a miracle,” said Bar-Levy. “So, now that he gets arrested, who does he call, the people that told him the truth, because he figured we have information,” said Bar-Levy.
“Now, he believes when it’s very late in the game,” he added.
Hernandez asked for help in finding a lawyer. They approached several but were unable to reach terms.
That’s when a friend, a Dominican-American school teacher in New York, reached out to Bar-Levy and suggested Colon’s name. She was taking a law class he teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack.
“Most lawyers in America, they're not into this whole international shit. So, they kind of got the right guy,” said Colon. “I think I sort of I know this stuff… I guess, they [the Hernandez family] were comfortable that I can understand the politics of what happened,” he added.
Colon says he plans to spend the next few months putting the rest of the defense team together while going through voluminous documents in the case which the government will be turning over prior to the next hearing in September.
Colon said he was grateful to Bar-Levy and Lankry for their support, as well as Martinez, the private detective who he said had been hired to handle the Hispanic media.
Who is private detective Angel Martinez?
Martinez however has come under fire for spreading wild and false accusations about the case. At Hernandez’s first court appearance last week, where he pleaded not guilty, Honduran spectators hurled insults at Martinez calling him “liar” (mentiroso) and “assassin.” (asesino).
In a series of You Tube videos Martínez has claimed the government’s evidence against Hernandez is already falling apart, often twisting and misrepresenting facts in the case.
Martinez is a self-proclaimed under-cover intelligence agent who claims to have decades of experience working with U.S. government agencies. Univision was unable to verify many aspects of Martinez’s biography and claims of professional achievements, including undercover work with multiple U.S. government agencies.
He is also the author of 34 books, some of them available on Amazon, with titles such as; The Hitman's Woman, Drug Trafficking as a Way of Life, and The International Detective Manual, and often accompanied by five-star reviews of himself.
The detective handbook author's biography states that he has "testified in federal and state courts on behalf of the United States against drug trafficking-related organizations," in addition to traveling the world in undercover operations. He also says he has lectured on drug trafficking at major universities in Latin America.
"He has been kidnapped on three occasions, emerging victorious thanks to the spectacular rescue work of the Delta Counterintelligence Force," the biography adds.
In 2018, Martinez launched his own law enforcement academy, Saint Mark's University, which he says was "founded by retired former agents from different US federal agencies, such as the FBI, CIA and DEA."
The online university also offers degrees in journalism, business administration and theology, and claims that all degrees it awards are authenticated by the State Department.
He named himself president and used the university's website to promote his detective manual as a textbook. Its website shows a sprawling campus, although the college dissolved after only two years, according to Florida records. Its corporate identity was revived May 3, listing its address as a virtual office in Miami, according to the Florida Division of Corporations.
Martinez holds a 'Class C' private investigator license in Florida. Univision asked him to provide the names and telephone of some of the ex-agents he is working with, but he failed to do so, except for one agent, Ralph Garcia, who told Univision he left the DEA in the mid-1980s. Garcia said he formed his own private investigation firm, Ralph Garcia and Associates, and confirmed that he had worked with Martinez.
The legal problems of private detective Angel Martinez
During his lengthy career as a private detective court record indicate that Martinez has run into a handful of legal problems.
Martinez was arrested in 2013 for grand theft, according to Miami-Dade County court records. The charge was dropped a year later after he agreed to enter and successfully completed a pretrial intervention program for people with little or no criminal history charged with misdemeanor and non-violent offenses.
According to the arrest report, Martinez offered his private investigation services to help an acquaintance renegotiate a bank loan to avoid having her vehicle repossessed. She allegedly paid him $2,500, but complained that Martinez never contacted the bank to negotiate new payment terms.
Martinez told Univision that it was a misunderstanding over a "silly thing." (una tonteria) He said he gave the client her money back "and nothing happened." (no paso nada)
In 2018, he was also charged by the Division of Licensing with conducting business as a Private Investigation agency without a valid 'A' license. He was charged with "fraud, deceit, negligence or misconduct" for failing to provide a client with an itemized invoice or investigative report for paid investigative work. He paid a fine of $1,750.
Martinez was also fined $1,000 in 2007 for fraud after being accused of accepting money from a client he did not provide services to, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Division of Licensing.
Martinez called both fines "unfair" and added that so few complaints in a 28-year career as a private investigator was "a godsend."
He also has a gun license, which was suspended in March for failure to submit required paperwork, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Division of Licensing.
Angel Martinez criticized Juan Orlando Hernandez on YouTube
At one time, Detective Martinez was a strong critic of President Hernandez.
Martinez first appeared on the radar in Honduras after Hernandez's brother, former legislator Juan Antonio 'Tony' Hernandez, was arrested on drug trafficking and related weapons charges in November 2018. Martinez gained attention during the trial against Tony Hernandez by making wild claims in videos posted on his YouTube channel that made it clear he not only believed in his guilt, but also that of his brother, President Hernandez.
When Tony Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison, he applauded and said that "the president of Honduras is the next example to follow to give a lesson to these criminals who think this world belongs to them."
In a video in which he addressed Hernández directly, he called him a "pendejo," (jerk) accused him of belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel and even of protecting the cartel's fugitive leader, Mayo Zambada. "Your government is a murderous, drug-trafficking and corrupt government," he told Hernández.
Martinez said those recordings were made after his visit to Honduras because the Hernandez family failed to pay their travel expenses. He said he later forgave the family and now believes the president is innocent.
But since being hired by the defense team, Martinez has taken a different tone, painting himself as Hernandez' staunchest defender and the U.S. government's worst nightmare.
Colon takes over the case of ex-President Hernandez
Colon said he wasn’t worried about Martinez’s “colorful” character but that he planned to “take command” of the defense team operation soon.
“I got I got to try this case. I don't have time for bullshit. I told them, guys, don't get me involved in this Spanish soap opera. I don't think it's effective,” he said.
Many of Hernandez’s assets were frozen in Honduras so the family is struggling to find the legal fees to pay Colon. Meanwhile Bar-Levy says he is helping the defense pro bono.
Bar-Levy and Lankry are working on securing $3 million bail for Hernandez. They are hoping that judge Kevin Castel will allow Hernandez to live on a farm outside New York arranged by Lankry’s synagogue.
The rabbis say Hernandez deserves their support for his loyalty to the cause of Israel.
“That why we are doing this. We are helping whether he’s guilty or not,” said Bar-Levy. “I can’t put my hands in the fire for him. But even the devil has the right to defend himself and have his day in court,” he added.
He recognized the scale of the legal challenge ahead, taking on the mighty force of the Department of Justice and a case with numerous witnesses who are cooperating with the government.
Meanwhile, Hernandez appears to believe his strong religious faith will rescue him, said Bar-Levy. “But God’s not going to protect him if he’s guilty. You can’t ask God to cover up your crimes,” he added.