Former Honduran president extradited to US to face drug and arms trafficking charges

Honduras extradited its former president Juan Orlando Hernandez to the United States on Thursday to face drug and arms trafficking charges in a dramatic turnaround for a leader once touted by US authorities as a key ally in the war. against drugs.

Just three months after leaving office, a handcuffed Hernandez boarded a plane with US Drug Enforcement Administration agents bound for the United States, where he faces charges in the Southern District of New York. .

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Hernandez “abused his position as president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022 to operate the country like a narco-state.”

In court papers, US prosecutors alleged that Hernandez was involved in a ‘corrupt and violent drug trafficking conspiracy’ that transported more than 550 tons (or more than 1.2 million pounds) of cocaine into the United States. . He was charged with participating in a drug trafficking conspiracy, possession of machine guns and destructive devices, and conspiracy to possess machine guns and destructive devices.

Prosecutors accuse Hernandez of receiving millions of dollars from drug cartels, including notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. They allege he used the money to fund his political campaigns and engaged in voter fraud in the 2013 and 2017 Honduran presidential elections.

“In return, drug traffickers in Honduras were allowed to operate with impunity,” Garland said. “We allege that Hernandez corrupted legitimate public institutions in the country, including parts of the national police, military, and the National Congress.”

In this handout provided by Honduran police, Hernandez is seen being taken from his home in February by police after receiving an extradition order from the United States. (Honduran Police/AFP/Getty Images)

Hernandez was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa in February at the request of US authorities. He was chained and paraded in front of reporters, a sight many Hondurans never expected to see.

Honduran officials said the three counts Hernandez will face in the United States are conspiracy to import and distribute drugs into the United States, use of firearms in the support of a drug trafficking conspiracy and the conspiracy to use firearms in support of drug trafficking.

‘I am innocent’

The Honduran Supreme Court rejected his appeal of a judge’s decision in favor of extradition.

US prosecutors have accused Hernandez of fueling his political rise with money from drug traffickers. The payments were made in exchange for Honduran authorities allowing them to operate or information allowing them to evade the ban.

Hernandez has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a video message released on Thursday, he said: “I am innocent; I have been and am being wrongfully prosecuted.”

He said he was a victim of drug traffickers he extradited who are now lying for revenge.

Henry Osorto Canales, a retired national police commissioner who is now an analyst, said that while the extradition was an embarrassment for Honduras, it was also a historic day.

“It’s a start because it started with the biggest political chunk the country had and logically the rest of the chunks are going to fall, at least the ones closest (to Hernandez),” Canales said.

US prosecutors have spent years building cases ranging from low-level drug traffickers and local politicians to organized crime bosses who have used their political connections and ties to drug trafficking cartels in Colombia and Mexico. to ship tons of cocaine to the United States. Many of them testified to having made payments to Hernandez or one of his brothers, also a politician.

Hernandez’s brother, Tony Hernandez, a former congressman, was sentenced to life in prison by the same US court on essentially the same charges.

Juan Orlando Hernandez took office in January 2014 and served as president until January when Xiomara Castro was sworn in as his replacement. Castro campaigned to root out corruption in Honduras and Hernandez was seen as the most important target.

Hernandez’s transport by helicopter under guard from the police base where he was being held to the airport on Thursday was covered live by local television stations.

Some Hondurans stood outside the perimeter fence of the airport to spot the former president boarding the plane with US authorities.