In May 2013, orthopedist Mario Zelaya gave an emotional news conference alongside St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain. Zelaya’s Covington-area house had been broken into and two masked men had tied up his wife, 9-year-old son and three adult male relatives for three hours while they robbed the place of jewelry, guns, cash and a car.
The trim, professorial-looking Zelaya — who wasn’t at home at the time of the home invasion — choked up as he called the perpetrators “cowards” and boosted the reward kitty to $40,000, a record for a north shore Crimestoppers reward.
Zelaya also recounted how he and his family had left his native Honduras to escape rampant crime. According to the U.S. State Department, the Central American country has the highest murder rate in the world.
What no one could anticipate was that just months later, Zelaya would be on the run, accused of robbing Honduran taxpayers of more than $300 million.
His eventual capture became a major story in his home country, and it was hailed by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández as evidence of the success of his administration’s efforts to fight corruption. It also became the subject of a congratulatory tweet from the U.S. ambassador.
Zelaya’s rise to power began in June 2009, when former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya — no relation — was ousted in a coup after his opponents accused him of angling to change the country’s constitution, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. A de facto government took over until elections could be held later in the fall. That election was shunned by international observer groups, but it was accepted by the United States, and the winner, Porfirio Lobo, took office in 2010.
Soon after his election, Lobo appointed Mario Zelaya to a top post in the country’s national health service, known as the Honduran Institute of Social Security.
Under Lobo, crime and corruption — already well known in Honduras — mushroomed, said Dana Frank, a professor of history and a Honduran specialist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Honduras operates as a constitutional democracy, with an elected president and a single-chamber congress. But since the coup, the country’s leaders have clamped down on individual freedoms, including freedom of speech, Frank said.
“They just threw the rule of law out the door,” she said of Lobo’s administration and that of the current president, Hernández.
Moving to Covington
Beginning in 2011, Mario Zelaya is alleged to have entered into a scheme to accept $2 million in bribes from a Honduran consulting company known by the acronym COSEM.
Officials from COSEM sent more than $1 million to Covington-area banks where Zelaya’s brother, Carlos, used it to purchase several properties, including a used-car dealership and condominiums, according to documents filed by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office in federal court in New Orleans.
The following year, Mario Zelaya brought his family, including his wife and young son, to the Covington area, and they settled in the middle-class subdivision known as River Oaks. Zelaya was still executive director of the Honduran Institute for Social Security at the time.
Zelaya’s decision to locate, at least part time, in Covington, was not a surprise, Frank said. Honduran elites have long had an affinity for New Orleans due to economic ties from the banana trade.
Then, in May 2013, two masked men forced their way into the River Oaks home. Zelaya wasn’t home, but the men tied up his wife, son and three adult male relatives for three hours.
Strain, the sheriff, said at the time that he didn’t believe the break-in was a random act. The men seemed to know something about the family’s “Honduran background,” and they wouldn’t let the victims speak Spanish to one another, Strain said.
The men eventually left in Zelaya’s wife’s Mercedes with a small amount of cash, some jewelry and several guns, Strain said. The car was later found abandoned in Pearl River.
According to Zelaya, his family chose to return to Honduras after the home invasion.
Less than a year later, in early 2014, a Honduran court ordered Zelaya arrested.
The $2 million in bribes that he allegedly took from COSEM were a drop in the bucket: Zelaya was accused of having stolen more than $300 million in taxpayer money. The thefts occurred through unjustified purchases, exorbitant contracts, airline tickets, travel and hotel stays for board members and other methods, according to a November story in La Prensa, a Honduran newspaper.
A high-profile manhunt
The story detailed some of the findings of a commission charged with examining the thefts, and it cited the commission’s report in saying that Mario Zelaya was at the center of the scheme.
As soon as a court ordered him arrested, Zelaya fled, sparking a manhunt across Honduras and fueling wild speculation in Honduran media about his whereabouts, according to a September report from the wire service Agence France Press. Some in the Honduran media suggested he had left the country; others asserted he had been assassinated because he knew too much.
But after nearly eight months on the run, Zelaya was arrested during a predawn raid in Honduras’ El Paraiso region, near the Nicaraguan border, government officials said at the time. His time on the lam seemed to have taken a toll on him — he looked haggard in the first photos published after his capture.
Zelaya’s attorney claims his client actually was arrested in Nicaragua, and Frank said this is widely believed inside the country.
Nevertheless, Zelaya’s arrest was huge news in Honduras, hailed by government officials and spawning massive media coverage, including congratulations from U.S. Ambassador James Nealon.
“We congratulate the gov. of Honduras for capture of Mario Zelaya, another blow against impunity. Keep going with anti-corruption efforts!” Nealon tweeted.
The manhunt and public spectacle of Zelaya’s detention serve another key political aim for the Honduran administration, Frank said. Keeping his name and the word “corruption” in the papers acts as government propaganda, for even though Mario Zelaya and former President Zelaya — now a leader of the main opposition party and whose wife was a candidate for president in 2013 — are not related, they are easily confused. Keeping Mario Zelaya and the word “corruption” on people’s tongues helps the ruling party discredit Manuel Zelaya’s opposition party, Frank said.
Seizing Zelaya properties
Mario Zelaya remains in custody while he awaits trial. The Honduran government already has seized nearly three dozen properties, including, according to La Prensa, homes, farms, land, bank accounts and armored luxury cars.
The U.S. Justice Department has gotten in on the act, filing a motion in federal court in New Orleans to seize nine properties owned by Mario and Carlos Zelaya in Covington and Mandeville. If a judge grants the motion, filed on Jan. 13, the government plans to sell the properties and send the proceeds to the Honduran government, said Anna Christman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Carlos Zelaya still works at the car dealership — C&M Motors on U.S. 190 south of Covington — according to two employees. But he was not there twice when a reporter visited, and notes and numerous phone calls went unreturned. An employee who did not want to be identified said he believed Carlos Zelaya plans to fight the government’s attempt to seize the property.
In the meantime, four men eventually were arrested for the home invasion at Mario Zelaya’s Covington-area home. The two who actually were in the house have been convicted and received stiff sentences: Beau Ledoux got life plus 300 years for being a repeat offender, and Jonathan Hudson got 60 years. Another man, William Ledoux, got a seven-year suspended sentence for helping plan the crime, authorities said.
The fourth man, Christopher Allo, is alleged to have been the mastermind behind the home invasion, though he didn’t go to the house himself. He is set to go to trial next month.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman George Bonnett refused to elaborate on how the men — who were from Covington, Abita Springs and Slidell — knew about Zelaya, where he lived or his Honduran background. The car lot employee suggested that Zelaya and Allo had a prior business relationship, but he could not elaborate. It seems unlikely, however, that the home break-in was tied to Zelaya’s alleged Honduran crimes.
During that May 2013 press conference, Zelaya, already allegedly well into his public fund thievery, offered one moment of either great irony or prescience.
Saying the high crime in Honduras forced his family to live in a fenced-in compound, he offered his view on what that felt like. “As we say back home, a golden cage is still a cage,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.