What will be the fate of Juan Orlando Hernández now that he is no longer president of Honduras?
Juan Orlando Hernández’s eight, scandal-plagued years as president of Honduras came to an end yesterday with the inauguration of Xiomara Castro, who was propelled to a resounding victory in the November election by a wave of anti-Hernández sentiment that swept across the country.
But instead of drifting out of public eye, Hernández remains at the center of attention in Honduras as speculation runs rife that he could be the subject of a long-rumored drug trafficking indictment in the coming days.
Last night, in a series of tweets directed at U.S. representative Norma Torres, who called for Hernández to be immediately indicted and extradited to the United States, he made clear that he will not go down quietly or without a fight.
“[Norma Torres] don’t be fooled by false testimony by narcos,” said Hernández in one of a series of tweets. He went on to say U.S. government officials, including the DEA, knew he was “fully committed to stopping the use of Honduras territory for illicit activity.”
However, Hernández appears to ignore that it is the DEA, in conjunction with prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, who have made the accusations that he calls lies.
If indicted, Hernández could follow in the footsteps of the former leader of Panama, Manuel Noriega, who was praised as an ally of the DEA until he was indicted by U.S. prosecutors and later convicted on drug trafficking charges.
How and when that might happen remains unclear. The U.S. Justice Department might not want to put immediate pressure on the new Castro government by publicly announcing his indictment, experts say. Instead, the Biden administration might give Castro an opportunity to show good faith by extraditing Hernández based on a confidential extradition request.
“They may have already obtained a sealed indictment, and an indictment under seal is not required to be unsealed until the person is in custody,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.
But prosecutors also might not want to wait too long, and allow Hernández to seek refuge in another country.
Hernández and the DEA
The DEA began investigating Hernández for links to drug trafficking in approximately 2013, when he won his first campaign for president – allegedly with the help of millions of dollars in bribes from narcotraffickers, including Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. Prosecutors say that Hernandez, together with his brother, congressman Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernández, engaged in "state-sponsored drug trafficking".
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Between 2015 and 2017, the two brothers allegedly secured “large sums of drug proceeds for National Party campaigns in exchange for protecting drug traffickers,” according to prosecutors.
One trafficker, Nery López Sanabria, was murdered in jail after it became known he planned to cooperate with the DEA against the Hernández brothers. Another traffciker, Alexander Ardón turned himself in and gave some of the most damaging testimony at the trial of Tony Hernández. He would likely be one of the principal witness against Juan Orlando Hernández.
The former president has already been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in three drug trafficking cases, including that of his brother, Tony, who was convicted of drug trafficking and related weapons in October 2019, and sentenced to life in prison last year.
In search of immunity
On Thursday afternoon following the inauguration of Castro, Hernández was sworn in via zoom to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN). A seat in the parliament is automatically extended to heads of state upon leaving office.
According to the PARLACEN’s statutes, each parliamentarian is afforded any immunity that a legislator in that person’s home country would enjoy, as well as diplomatic immunity.
Honduran legislators currently only enjoy immunity from prosecution regarding “an action taken in the exercise of the legislative function.” But the accusations against Hernández have nothing to do with legislative functions and therefore he should not enjoy any form of immunity in Honduras.
That might not stop the Honduran Supreme Court, however, from issuing a dubious ruling in Hernández’s favor. The Supreme Court, which decides whether or not to grant an extradition request, has proven itself loyal to Hernández. New judges will not be elected until early 2023.
Heading south might be Hernández’s best option. Two former presidents of El Salvador were stripped of the immunity they enjoyed from PARLACEN in the last five years – Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Both sought refuge in Nicaragua, where the country’s president Daniel Ortega granted them citizenship to protect them from extradition. Nicaragua's constitution prohibits extradition of Nicaraguan nationals.
On paper, the conservative Hernandez is Ortega’s ideological opposite. But earlier this month Hernández attended Ortega’s inauguration to a fourth-consecutive term following an election denounced as a sham by independent observers. Hernández was joined by the region’s most-controversial and authoritarian leaders, including Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, who Hernández had railed against in the past but now happily shook his hand.
“It’s certain that apart from strengthening a personal relationship with Ortega and [vice-president and first lady Rosario Murillo], he wanted to guarantee that Nicaragua could become a last-minute refuge,” said Victor Meza, director of the Honduran watchdog CEDOH. “Without a doubt it’s an end that I’d classify as pathetic.”
Along with drawing attention to the praise he once received from U.S. agencies, Hernández often states his record as president as evidence of his innocence. Before he became president, he helped push through Congress a constitutional reform that allowed for the extradition of Honduran traffickers to the United States. Then, during his eight years as president, 27 traffickers were extradited and the amount of cocaine passing through the country reduced significantly.
But prosecutors accuse Hernández of attempting to protect certain traffickers from prosecution or extradition while sacrificing others to give the appearance of a commitment to fighting drug trafficking.
Hernández has also attempted to flip secretly recorded conversations between drug traffickers that have been presented in court proceedings and in which he is mentioned into part of his defense. Among his tweets on Thursday, Hernández said that the DEA’s secret recordings “prove the narcos are lying in federal court, as they recognize in private that with me they lost their impunity.”
He also published a detailed 10-page letter refuting all the accusations against him. Far from having him in their pocket, the tapes showed that “the narcos knew and recognized they had no deal with Juan Orlando Hernandez, couldn’t even get close to him, knew they would be prosecuted by him and plotted to kill him,” Hernandez said.