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Crime and Justice

Ex-Honduran president Hernandez arrested after U.S. requests his extradition on drug charges

Until he left office on January 27 after two-terms as president, Juan Orlando Hernández had been protected from prosecution by a Department of Justice policy to not indict sitting heads of state. On Tuesday he was arrested and taken from his house in chains.
Publicado 14 Feb 2022 – 10:06 PM EST | Actualizado 15 Feb 2022 – 04:36 PM EST
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El expresidente de Hinduras al ser trasladado a un cuartel esposado este martes 15 de febrero. Crédito: Honduran police handout/AFP via Getty Images

Former President Juan Orlando Hernández was arrested on Tuesday by Honduran police a day after the United States requested his extradition to face drug trafficking and weapons charges.

Hernandez was led away in handcuffs and shackles, also wearing a bullet proof vest for his protection.

He was taken in an armored caravan to the Special Forces headquarters in the mountains that surround the capital, Tegucigalpa.

A judge designated by the Honduran Supreme Court is due to begin hearing his case within the next 24 hours.

The U.S. extradition request became public on Monday after police immediately surrounded his house to prevent him espaping. Hernández issued a statement on Twitter before dawn Tuesday saying he was willing to "collaborate" and turn himself in "voluntarily" when the court-appointed judge decides his case, "to be able to face this situation and defend myself".

The extradition request refers to three counts of drug trafficking and use of weapons, including machine guns, according to a copy obtained by Univision.

In a statement outside Hernandez's home, Security Minister Ramon Sabillon told reporters that Hernandez's case was "an embarrassment (for Honduras)... but the country is showing that we can get things done, that in the future these things don't happen".

Hernández's extradition request is an extraordinary conclusion to an in-depth DEA investigation into drug trafficking in the Central American country, which prosecutors have described as "state-sponsored drug trafficking."

The existence of an extradition request means that an indictment has been filed in a U.S. court against that person. A spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.

The indictment, which has not been made public yet, had been widely expected after he was named as a co-conspirator in three cases in New York, one of which involved his younger brother, former congressman Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernández, who was convicted of drug trafficking and related weapons charges and is now serving a life sentence in prison.

The former president, who left office just a fortnight ago, has vehemently denied all allegations against him related to drug trafficking, calling them lies concocted by violent criminals seeking to reduce their sentences.

The fact that Hernandez did not attempt to escape in order to avoid his capture at some point over the past two weeks has taken many by surprise, given that the indictment appeared a matter of when, not if.

It was speculated that he might flee to Nicaragua which has already provided refuge to two former presidents of El Salvador who are wanted by the law – in order to avoid prosecution. A police officer standing guard last night outside Hernandez's home suggested that there might have been nowhere to hide given the probability that the DEA was keeping tabs on his whereabouts.

Until he left office on January 27 after two-terms as president, Hernández had been protected from prosecution by a Department of Justice policy to not indict sitting heads of state. The charge of drug trafficking conspiracy comes with a potential life sentence.

If Hernández is arrested in Honduras, he will undergo what could be a lengthy extradition process that would need to be approved by the Supreme Court, who’s members were appointed during Hernández’s eight years in office. He has not appeared in public since leaving office and his current whereabouts are unknown. He did not attend the swearing in of Honduras’s new president, Xiomara Castro, on Jan 27.

The last former head of state to be indicted in the U.S. was Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro in 2019 following elections whose legitimacy the US - and many other countries - do not recognize. The list also includes former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda.

Political career

Hernández, 53, began his political career in 1998 when he won a seat in Congress for the National Party in representation of his home department Lempira, located in the mountainous border region near Guatemala, a favorite drug corridor for traffickers.

According to testimony in the trial of his brother, by the time he ran for a third term in 2005 he was allegedly being supported by traffickers.

In 2010, Hernández became president of Congress, allegedly with the help of traffickers who financed the National Party campaign and bribed other legislators to support his candidacy for the chamber’s leadership.

In January 2012, he helped push through Congress a constitutional reform that paved the way for Honduran traffickers to be extradited to the United States, a fact he often cites in his defense. “A person who has colluded with drug traffickers would never approve extradition,” he said in February 2021 address to Congress.

In 2014, he was elected president of Honduras, allegedly aided by millions of dollars in bribes from traffickers – including $1 million from the notorious former head of the Sinaloa Cartel Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. During the campaign, prosecutors allege that he met with a trafficker, Geovanny Fuentes, to conspire to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos.” Fuentes was convicted last year on drug trafficking and related weapons charges.

It was around that time that Hernández came under investigation for his involvement in drug trafficking by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), while the U.S. government nonetheless continued to praise him publicly for his administration’s cooperation on matters such as extradition.

That apparent contradiction has often been raised by Hernández, but there is a long history of the DEA building a case against a target while publicly maintaining appearances. Such was the case of former Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was once considered an ally of the DEA but then was later convicted of drug trafficking.

"This indictment is actually bigger than the one against Panama’s Noriega given the massive corruption and widespread trafficking of drugs," said Mike Vigil, former head of operation for the DEA. "Former President Hernandez was the dominant force for converting Honduras into a virtual narco state by creating massive corruption at all levels of government," he added.

During his first term, drug trafficking accusations began to pile up against his brother Tony, who was linked to a drug lab and a helicopter that had transported cocaine as well as accused in a court proceeding of having met with one of the country’s most-wanted traffickers. In October 2016, Tony Hernández traveled to the United States to meet with DEA agents and supposedly clear his name, but agents caught him lying about his activities, fueling suspicion about him.

But the president’s brother did not appear to realize his predicament and less than a year into Hernández’s second term, he was arrested while visiting Miami again. His October 2019 arrest captivated the nation and revealed the depths of the Honduran state’s collusion with the drug traffickers who helped make the country one of the world’s most violent. Hernández maintained that his brother was innocent and the victim of traffickers who were seeking revenge against his family.

Juan Orlando Hernández was later named as an unindicted co-conspirator in two more drug trafficking cases, including that of Geovanny Fuentes and former police chief Juan Carlos ‘El Tigre’ Bonilla, who is currently a fugitive. According to prosecutors, Hernández entrusted Bonilla “with special assignments, including murder.”

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