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Honduran ex-president in court as US seeks extradition

Honduran ex-president Juan Orlando Hernandez (2L) spent the night in police custody. ©AFP

Tegucigalpa (AFP) - Honduran ex-president Juan Orlando Hernandez, wanted on drug trafficking charges in the United States, appeared Wednesday before a judge in Tegucigalpa who will decide whether to extradite him.

Hernandez, who was still in office just three weeks ago, was brought to court in a convoy that included armored vehicles and a helicopter from the police station where he had spent the night.

Outside the court building, supporters from his rightwing National Party (NP) shouted, "He is not alone!" while backers of the leftist Libre party that recently ousted the NP from power celebrated Hernandez's fall from grace.

The 53-year-old is accused of having facilitated the smuggling of some 500 tons of drugs mainly from Colombia and Venezuela to the United States via Honduras from 2004 until as recently as this year.

In turn, he allegedly received "millions of dollars in bribes...from multiple narcotrafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico and other places," according to a document from the US embassy in Tegucigalpa.

The judge -- whose name authorities are withholding for his own protection -- would on Wednesday inform Hernandez of the claims made against him by the United States, so that he can present a defense, judicial spokesman Melvin Duarte told AFP.

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

Hernandez surrendered to police Tuesday, hours after the judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

'Juancho goes to New York'

In power for eight years until January 27, when leftist Xiomara Castro was sworn in as Honduras's first woman president, Hernandez was taken from his home in the capital Tegucigalpa by Honduran police acting in coordination with American agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The rightwing politician -- who served two successive terms clouded by corruption claims -- 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 a nickname.

The US embassy document said Hernandez is accused of shielding drug traffickers from investigation, arrest and extradition, and providing them with classified information about ongoing investigations.

He allegedly made members of the police and military protect drug shipments in Honduras and "allowed brutal acts of violence to be committed without consequence." 

Hernandez is also accused of accepting a million dollars derived from the activities of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in exchange for protecting his Sinaloa cartel's activities in Honduras.

 'Defend myself'

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.

Hernandez's brother, former Honduran congressman Tony Hernandez, was given a life sentence in the United States in March 2021 for drug trafficking.

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 Hernandez enjoyed immunity from prosecution as a member of the Guatemala-based Central American Parliament, Parlacen, which he joined hours after leaving office.

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

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

According to the embassy document, drug money financed both Hernandez's election in 2013 and his reelection.

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