The former Honduran president extradited to the United States to be charged with drugs

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was extradited to the United States on Thursday, where he will be indicted in a New York court, accusing him of dealing in drugs for decades to advance his political career.

Around. At 13.20 a plane from the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrived at Toncontín International Airport in the capital Tegucigalpa, and almost an hour later the Honduran Minister of Defense said that Mr Hernández had been extradited.

A federal indictment closed late Thursday in Manhattan accused Mr. Hernández, for nearly the past two decades, of “participating in a corrupt and violent drug smuggling conspiracy to facilitate the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States.”

The indictment alleges that Mr. Hernández received millions of dollars from several drug trafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere, including from the former leader of the Sinaloa cartel, the Mexican drug baron known as El Chapo.

Hernández used the proceeds of his drug trade to “enrich himself, fund his political campaigns and commit voter fraud,” including in connection with the presidential elections in Honduras in 2013 and 2017, the indictment states.

“This case should send a clear message to any foreign leader who corruptly abuses their power to support drug cartels,” Anne Milgram, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said at a news conference Thursday night.

“If you think you can hide behind the power of your position, you are wrong,” she added.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said Mr Hernández operated Honduras as a “drug state”.

Mr. Hernández resigned in January after completing the two presidential terms allowed by law. Shortly afterwards, he was detained at his home in Tegucigalpa, triggering a failed offer by his lawyers to block the U.S. government’s extradition request.

On the evening of February 14, just minutes after the Honduran Foreign Ministry said it had received the extradition request, police cars surrounded Mr Hernández’s home and he was taken out the next morning in chains and wearing a bulletproof vest.

“I am ready to present myself voluntarily and defend myself in accordance with the law,” he said in a Facebook post the same morning. Hernández has long vehemently denied any involvement in the drug trade.

Last month, a Honduran judge ruled that Mr Hernández should be extradited to the United States, and his appeal to the country’s Supreme Court failed.

On Thursday, about 100 police officers escorted Mr. Hernández from the building to the helicopter that was to take him to a military base next to Toncontín airport. He wore a cap, a blue vest and mask and a pair of handcuffs.

As the helicopter took off, loud gunpowder detonations were heard throughout the city, with thousands of people celebrating the long-awaited extradition of the former president.

“Justice happened,” said Wendy Sierra, 22, a biology student at Honduras National Autonomous University. “He left us poor here, he stole everything and favored drug smugglers, and no one ever touched him. But with the gringos you can not play.”

Accusations have surfaced over Mr Hernández for years as the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and the DEA conducted a far-reaching drug trafficking investigation that revealed top-level corruption in Honduras. The nation of 10 million has become a gateway to huge amounts of cocaine being moved through Mexico and into the United States.

In two recent federal lawsuits in Manhattan, testimony placed Mr. Hernández at the center of a drug trafficking operation that depended on members of the Honduran military and national police sent tons of cocaine into the United States and generated millions of dollars in dividends spent on behalf of Mr Hernández’s national party in campaigns .

Hernández, along with his brother Tony Hernández, a former congressman from Honduras, “played a leading role in a violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy,” prosecutors said in a 2021 lawsuit.

The new indictment accuses Juan Orlando Hernández of cocaine import conspiracy, possession of machine guns and destructive devices and conspiracy to possess them.

In 2019, Tony Hernández was convicted of conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States and other charges and was sentenced to life in prison.

Last year, in the trial of a Honduran man convicted of conspiracy and weapons, an accountant testified that he heard Mr Hernández, when he was a presidential candidate in 2013, say he wanted to remove his country’s extradition treaty with the United States. which makes his employees “untouchable”.

According to the testimony, Mr Hernández also said: “We’re going to stuff drugs out of the gringo’s noses and they’ll never know.”

At the press conference on Thursday, Damian Williams, the American lawyer in Manhattan, said that while Mr. Hernández and his accomplices helped push 500 tons of cocaine into the United States – “poison that landed in this country on our streets.” as he put it – there were also staggering costs for the people of Honduras.

“Honduras became one of the most violent countries in the world during the accused’s presidency,” he said. Williams, “and while Hernández amassed money and political influence, the people of Honduras endured conditions of poverty and violence.”

During the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, even while Mr. Hernández was under investigation, he was treated as an ally in matters of immigration and security. In September 2019, after agreeing to an agreement that would allow the United States to force some migrants to seek asylum in Honduras, Mr Hernández received a handshake from Mr Trump during the UN General Assembly.

Kevin K. McAleenan, then acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, said in a tweet at the time that Mr. Hernández was a “strong partner“, which worked to” combat irregular migration and transnational criminal organizations. “

While it is rare for another country’s former head of state to be extradited to the United States to be prosecuted, it is not without precedent. In 2013, Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala’s president from 2000 to 2004, was sent to prosecution in Manhattan, where he pleaded guilty to a money laundering case and was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.

And Mr Hernández is not the first former Honduran president to be prosecuted in New York.

Rafael Callejas, who served from 1990 to 1994, surrendered to the US authorities in 2015 shortly after being charged in a major corruption case involving FIFA, football’s international governing body. Sir. Callejas pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn federal court to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and extortion; he died in 2020 before he could be convicted.

Benjamin Weiser reported from New York, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Katie Benner contributed reporting from Washington.

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