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Latin America & Caribbean

Former president of Honduras and U.S. ally, Juan Orlando Hernández, extradited

The 53-year-old former head of state, whose term as president from 2014 to 2022 was plagued by corruption allegations, could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted of allegedly aiding a conspiracy to smuggle 500 tons of cocaine to the United States.
Publicado 21 Abr 2022 – 05:50 PM EDT | Actualizado 5 May 2022 – 10:17 AM EDT
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Honduras' former President Juan Orlando Hernandez boards a plane of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), during his extraditaton to United State at the Air force Base, in Tegucigalpa, on April 21, 2022. Crédito: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was extradited to the United States on Thursday to face drug trafficking charges, ending a 66-day legal process that began days after the former White House ally left office in January.

Dressed in a blue jacket, wearing a mask and handcuffed, he was transferred by helicopter shortly before noon to a military base at Toncontin International Airport in Tegucigalpa. He was later escorted aboard a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plane to fly to South Florida and then to New York. The handover was broadcast live on Honduran television.

Before leaving Honduras, his wife released a parting video in which Hernández insisted: "I am innocent. I have been and am being unfairly prosected".

Once the plane took off, spectators near the airport waved Honduran flags and celebratory fireworks could be heard around the capital.

Shortly after the plane took off prosecutors in New York unveiled the indictment of Hernández which had remained sealed. "The indictment alleges that Hernandez "abused his position as the president of Honduras to operate the country as a narco- state, in order to enrich himself and corruptly gain and maintain power." As a result Honduras became "one of the largest transshipment points in the world for United States bound cocaine," it adds.

Hernández was " a central figure in one of the largest and most violent cocaine-trafficking conspiracies in the world," added DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. "This case should send a message—to all political leaders around the world that trade on positions of influence to further transnational organized crime—that the DEA will stop at nothing to investigate these cases," she added.

A stunning fall from grace

The extradition is a stunning reversal of fortune for the former president once deemed all powerful, and is almost without precedent in the annals of American justice.

“I can’t believe they pulled it off,” said Richard Gregorie, the former federal prosecutor who indicted Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega on drug trafficking charges in the 1980s. “It’s a major coup,” he added.

No other former head of state has been extradited to the United States since Noriega, who was arrested in January 1990 after the United States invaded Panama with almost 30,000 troops. Noriega was once considered an ally of the DEA, like Hernández, but was later convicted of drug trafficking in 1992 and died in jail in 2017.

Hernández was also an important ally of the White House and the DEA for most of his eight years in office, except near the end of his second term. (While he was Panama's ruler, Noriega was not legally considered to have head of state immunity).

Only two other leaders of a foreign country have been indicted in the United States, Norman Saunders of the tiny Turks and Caicos islands in 1985 for a drug trafficking conspiracy and President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in 1988 for massive money laundering. But both were already in the country when they were arrested. Saunders was convicted and sentenced to eight years in jail. Marcos died before he could be put on trial.

The last former head of state to be indicted in the U.S. was Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro in 2019 on drugs and terrorism charges, following elections whose legitimacy the US - and many other countries - do not recognize.

Hernández charged with "state-sponsored drug trafficking"

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 extradition was made in relation to three counts of drug trafficking and use of weapons, including machine guns, according to a copy obtained by Univision.

"The Hernández 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 Hernández was the dominant force for converting Honduras into a virtual narco state by creating massive corruption at all levels of government," he added.

The former president, has vehemently denied all allegations against him, calling them lies concocted by violent criminals seeking to reduce their sentences.

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The obstacles to indicting a foreign leader

Not surprisingly, indicting the leader of a foreign country is a major legal challenge, partly due to the immunity they enjoy in office, but also due to issues of the limitations of the reach of U.S. legal jurisdiction outside the United States.

In the case of Noriega and Hernández, the United States argues that the drugs – and money - were being moved through the United States, creating a criminal nexus in this country.

U.S. efforts to indict other political leaders on drug conspiracy charges, such as President Ernesto Samper of Colombia in the mid-1990s, failed because investigators were unable to find a criminal link to the United States.

Gregorie says he ran into stiff opposition from the government of George H Bush, when he told his superior he had enough evidence to indict Noriega, a former CIA asset. “You can’t imagine how many people were mad at me. Many people did not want it to happen,” said Gregorie, who filed the indictment anyway. “That was the end of my career practically,” he said.

Subsequently, the Justice Department established a procedure that all cases involving foreign politicians have to be cleared by the office of the Attorney General.

Gregorie was pushed out of the Justice Department but made a return later as head of the narcotics section in Miami, before he retired in 2018. In the process, he learned a lesson he passes on to young prosecutors.

“When you shoot a king, you better have a big bullet,” he said.

"The closer you get to the sun the more you get burned”

The Hernandez 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.

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The fact that Hernandez did not attempt to escape in order to avoid his capture at some point before his arrest took many by surprise. The drug trafficking conspiracy charges coupled with a weapons charge means he faces a potential life sentence, like his brother.

“I’m very surprised by this turn of events,” said Joaquin Perez, a Miami attorney who represents another Honduran politician in a related case. “This guy is going to get fried. The closer you get to the sun the more you get burned,” he added.

“When he gets here they are going to put him in an isolation cell, like El Chapo,” he added, referring to what is known as the SHU (Special Housing Unit) where detainees are held in isolation from the rest of the jail population.

But Perez said the extradition sends a mixed message. "It's a big legal victory, for sure. But it sends the wrong politicial message," he said. "This only encourages people like Maduro in Venezuela and [Daniel] Ortega in Nicaragua to remain in power beyond their statutory mandate. Who wants to go throgh this?" he added.

It's a remarkable surprising twist of fate for a conservative political leader once considered a key ally of Washington, especially on drug and immigration policy.

"A lot of U.S. officials really believed in him," said Adam Isacson, who follows Honduras closely at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Chief among them was Gen. John Kelly, former head of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military cooperation in Latin America. Kelly also served as head of the Department of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump and later became his White House chief of staff.

"In the meetings we had, Kelly would always say that he (Hernandez) shared our values and our goals and was a stand up guy," Isacson said, recalling how Hernandez earned special praise from the White House when he moved the Honduran embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

"They had a total love affair with him during the Trump era," Isacson added.

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