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Former Honduras president is arrested as U.S. looks to extradite him on drug charges

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández answers questions on Aug. 13, 2019, as he leaves a meeting at the Organization of American States, in Washington, D.C. Police in Honduras arrested Hernández at his home on Tuesday.
Jacquelyn Martin
/
AP
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández answers questions on Aug. 13, 2019, as he leaves a meeting at the Organization of American States, in Washington, D.C. Police in Honduras arrested Hernández at his home on Tuesday.

Updated February 15, 2022 at 4:56 PM ET

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Police arrested former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández at his home on Tuesday, following a request by the United States government for his extradition on drug trafficking and weapons charges.

The arrest came less than three weeks after Hernández left office and followed years of allegations by U.S. prosecutors of his alleged links to drug traffickers.

Hernández exited his home flanked by police, shackled at the wrists and ankles, and wearing a bulletproof jacket. He got into a police vehicle and was driven away. A police helicopter waiting nearby took flight and appeared to be escorting the caravan.

The Supreme Court of Justice had designated a judge Tuesday morning to handle the case and hours later the judge signed an order for Hernández's arrest, said court spokesman Melvin Duarte. The security ministry, which had Hernández's home surrounded since Monday evening, moved quickly to take him into custody.

Honduran Security Minister Ramón Sabillón, who was fired by Hernández as head of the National Police in 2014, said that Hernández had conspired "with cartels to traffic (drugs) and corrupt many public institutions, which led to social deterioration and undermined the application of justice in Honduras."

He said the main charges Hernández faces in the U.S. are drug trafficking, using weapons for drug trafficking and conspiracy to use weapons in drug trafficking.

U.S. prosecutors have tied Hernández to drug trafficking

U.S. prosecutors in New York had repeatedly implicated Hernández as a co-conspirator during his brother's 2019 drug trafficking trial, alleging that his political rise was fueled by drug profits.

His brother, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández was sentenced to life in prison on drug and weapons charges in March 2021. At his sentencing Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Laroche characterized the crimes as "state-sponsored drug trafficking."

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined comment about the U.S. extradition request.

Hernández released an audio recording via Twitter early Tuesday saying he was "ready and prepared to cooperate and go voluntarily ... to face this situation and defend myself" if an arrest order was issued.

The identity of the judge chosen to handle the case was not immediately released. However, the court's president, Rolando Argueta, is known to be close to Hernández, and all 15 Supreme Court justices were selected by Congress in 2016 during Hernández's first presidential term. They serve seven-year terms, and most come from his National Party.

The U.S. moves were a long-awaited fall for a leader reviled in his home country who enjoyed support from the Trump administration but had been kept at arm's length by the Biden White House, which has targeted Central America's endemic corruption as a root cause of migration.

U.S. lawmakers sought to isolate Hernández using sanctions

Last year, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy was one of a dozen senators who supported a bill that sought to isolate Hernández by imposing sanctions on him and prohibiting the export of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets that Honduran security forces deployed in recent years against protesters.

"Throughout the past eight years of decay, depravity, and impunity, successive U.S. administrations sullied our reputation by treating Hernandez as a friend and partner," Leahy said in a statement Tuesday.

"By making excuse after excuse for a government that had no legitimacy and that functioned as a criminal enterprise, U.S. officials lost sight of what we stand for and that our real partners are the Honduran people."

Dana Frank, a Honduras expert and professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the U.S. wants to look heroic for finally trying to bring Hernández to justice, but that successive administrations going back to President Barack Obama enabled Hernández.

"Hernández was able to wreak havoc with Honduras, with devastating costs, in large part because the U.S. supported him up to the last minute," Frank said.

Honduran criminal lawyer Marlon Duarte said that the extradition process against Hernández would not last more than three months.

He said that at an initial hearing, Hernández would be informed of the charges and would be held on a military base. Within two months, another hearing would be held in which the U.S. evidence would be presented and the judge would make a decision on whether he should be extradited.

If the judge rules for extradition, Hernández would have three days to appeal. Then the appellate court — also named by the Supreme Court — would decide within five days whether to confirm the extradition or overturn the judge's decision. If the judge denies extradition, the U.S. government would have an opportunity to appeal.

Hernández left office Jan. 27 with the swearing in of President Xiomara Castro. The same day, he was sworn in as Honduras' representative to the Central American Parliament.

One of his lawyers, Hermes Ramírez, told local media his client had immunity as a member of the regional parliament and said government forces were not following proper procedures.

Special Forces Police set up barriers near the house of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa late Monday.
Elmer Martinez / AP
/
AP
Special Forces Police set up barriers near the house of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa late Monday.

Various contingents of the National Police, including special forces as well as military police, were present around Hernández's neighborhood Monday night. Barriers at all of the entrances kept out media and residents.

Members of the security forces entered the area with weapons, wearing balaclavas and with handcuffs dangling from their ballistic vests.

As part of his defense, Hernández often pointed to the fact that Honduras began allowing the extradition of its citizens on drug trafficking charges while he was president of the Congress.

But U.S. prosecutors have alleged that he was taking bribes from drug traffickers on the promise of protecting them once he was president.

Hernández took office on Jan. 27, 2014. He used a friendly Supreme Court to overcome Honduras' constitutional ban on reelection and won a second term in 2017 in elections marred by irregularities.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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