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Honduran ex-president brought before judge as US seeks extradition

Honduran ex-president Juan Orlando Hernandez, in office just three weeks ago, spent the night in police custody. ©AFP

Tegucigalpa (AFP) - Honduran ex-president Juan Orlando Hernandez, detained pending a decision on his extradition to the United States on drug trafficking charges, will appear Wednesday before a judge in Tegucigalpa assigned to determine his fate.

Hernandez surrendered to police Tuesday, hours after the judge -- whose name authorities are withholding for his own protection -- issued a warrant for his arrest.

The former president is wanted in the United States over claims that he facilitated the trafficking of 500 tons of cocaine.

In power for eight years until three weeks ago, when leftist Xiomara Castro was sworn in as Honduras's first woman president, Hernandez spent Tuesday night in the custody of the police special forces.

The 53-year-old rightwing politician, who served two successive terms clouded by corruption claims, was arrested hours earlier at his house in the capital Tegucigalpa by Honduran police in coordination with American agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration.

He offered no resistance, and allowed officers to cuff his hands and feet and fit him out in a bullet-proof vest.

Dozens of people with banners celebrated outside Hernandez's home, while in other cities, people took to the streets with loudspeakers singing "Juancho goes to New York," using his nickname.

The US embassy in Tegucigalpa said in a statement Hernandez is accused of trafficking some 500 tons of cocaine through Honduras, knowing it would end up in the United States.

 'Defend myself'

The ex-president faces three charges: conspiracy to import a controlled substance into the United States, using or carrying firearms including machine guns, and conspiracy to use or carry firearms in support of the conspiracy to traffic narcotics.

Hernandez is accused of having conspired with his brother, former Honduran congressman Tony Hernandez, who was in March 2021 given life in prison in the United States for drug trafficking.

Spokesman Melvin Duarte said Hernandez's appearance Tuesday was to start the process for the judge to weigh information received from the United States.

Previous extradition requests had taken no more than four months to adjudicate, he added.

Hernandez vowed Tuesday to cooperate with domestic authorities, saying in an audio message on Twitter he was ready to appear in court and "defend myself."

Though Hernandez had portrayed himself as an ally of the US war on drugs during his tenure, traffickers caught in the United States claimed to have paid bribes to the president's inner circle.

Alleged associate Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez was sentenced in the United States last week to life in prison and a fine of $151.7 million for smuggling tons of cocaine into the country -- with Hernandez's aid, according to prosecutors.

In that trial, a prosecutor said the then-president had received millions of dollars from drug traffickers for protection -- including from Mexican narco kingpin Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that "according to multiple, credible media reports," Hernandez "has engaged in significant corruption by committing or facilitating acts of corruption and narco-trafficking and using the proceeds of illicit activity to facilitate political campaigns."

Hernandez denies the claims, which he said were part of a revenge plot by traffickers that his government had captured or extradited to the United States.

 'Bankrupt' state

His lawyer, Hermes Ramirez insisted Monday that his client enjoyed immunity from prosecution as a member of the Guatemala-based Central American Parliament, Parlacen.

Hernandez joined Parlacen hours after leaving office on January 27.

But some analysts told AFP the Parlacen charter gives members, in their country of origin, the same immunity they would have enjoyed as members of their own parliament, which in Honduras, does not exist.

They also said that any immunity conferred by Parlacen membership could be waived at the request of a national government.

During his term, Hernandez was accused of unjustly expanding presidential powers, including over the justice system and the country's election tribunal.

His re-election in 2017 was met with widespread protests against an alleged fraudulent campaign in the poverty- and violence-ridden country.

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