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Ex-president arrested in Honduras as US requests extradition on drugs charges

In his video grab, former presidentJuan Orlando Hernández is handcuffed as police take him out of his house.
In his video grab, former president Juan Orlando Hernández is handcuffed as police take him out of his house. Photograph: Honduras police/AFP/Getty Images

Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández has been arrested, a day after the US Department of Justice requested his extradition over drug trafficking and weapons charges, culminating a spectacular fall from grace for a man who was once considered one of Washington’s top allies in Central America.

On Tuesday afternoon Hernández left his home in a wealthy neighborhood in the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, where he was cuffed at the hands and feet and provided a bullet-proof vest before being taken away in a police caravan to a special forces base. He will appear before a judge for his first hearing within 24 hours.

According to the extradition request submitted to Honduras, Hernández was part of a “violent drug-trafficking” conspiracy that trafficked roughly 500,000 kilos of cocaine since 2004.

The long-rumored indictment comes just over two weeks after Hernández, 53, left office and strikes a critical blow to the reputation of a former president who had been praised early in his presidency by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for his government’s efforts to extradite drug traffickers.

About 100 police officers had surrounded Hernández’s home late on Monday, pending the decision by the supreme court to issue an arrest warrant.

Hernández has previously described the allegations against him as lies made up by violent drug traffickers who are seeking revenge and to reduce their sentences. “They found the magic key to go unpunished, surrender and negotiate and accuse the institutions for putting them behind bars,” said Hernández in a February 2021 address.

He has also pointed to a constitutional reform allowing Hondurans to be extradited to the US – passed while president of Congress in 2012 – as evidence of his innocence. “A person who has colluded with drug traffickers would never approve extradition,” he said.

But evidence presented by US prosecutors in recent trials of Honduran drug traffickers suggests that Hernández believed he could control who was extradited –and therefore avoid repercussions for him and close allies.

Formal accusations of Hernández’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking first came to light in August 2019 when he was named in a court filing as a co-conspirator of his brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who was arrested while visiting the United States. During the subsequent trial, prosecutors accused the brothers of overseeing a scheme that they described as “state-sponsored drug trafficking”.

Tony Hernández was convicted on drug trafficking conspiracy and related weapons charges. He was sentenced last year to life in prison.

In April 2020, Hernández was named again as a co-conspirator when US prosecutors indicted former national police chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla Valladares with drug trafficking and related weapons charges. According to the indictment, Hernández entrusted Bonilla “with special assignments, including murder”.

In a third case less than a year later, a court heard that Hernández had allegedly plotted with another Honduran drug trafficker, Geovanny Fuentes, to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos”. Fuentes was convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy and related weapons charges. His sentencing is scheduled for February.

Bucking tradition, Hernández did not attend the inauguration of his successor, Xiomara Castro, on 27 January – the same day that an arrest warrant was issued in the United States.

Hernández began his political career in 1998 when he won a seat in congress to represent his home department of Lempira – located within a key drug trafficking corridor in western Honduras. In 2010, he became president of congress and then four years later, president of the republic. According to prosecutors, his rise in politics is owed in part to millions in bribes from drug traffickers.

The drug trafficking conspiracy charge carries a sentence of 10 years to life.

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