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

Juan Orlando Hernandez is shown taking part in the celebration of the 196th anniversary of the Army of Honduras in Tegucigalpa, on Dec. 10, 2021, while he was still president.
ORLANDO SIERRA
/
AFP via Getty Images
Juan Orlando Hernandez is shown taking part in the celebration of the 196th anniversary of the Army of Honduras in Tegucigalpa, on Dec. 10, 2021, while he was still president.

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The United States has asked Honduras to arrest former President Juan Orlando Hernández for his eventual extradition to the U.S., officials confirmed Monday.

National Police and soldiers surrounded the neighborhood around Hernández's home Monday night.

Honduras' foreign affairs ministry initially said via Twitter that it had notified the country's Supreme Court of Justice that the U.S. Embassy had formally requested the arrest of a Honduran politician for the purposes of extradition.

The ministry did not identify the politician. But Honduras' current vice president, Salvador Nasralla, confirmed to The Associated Press that the request names Hernández.

Later, the president of the Supreme Court of Justice called an urgent session of the full court for Tuesday morning to choose a judge to consider the extradition request from the United States.

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment. The U.S. State Department referred requests for comment to the Justice Department.

CNN en Español first reported that the politician was Hernández, showing the communication from the ministry to the court naming Hernández.

Hernández's attorney, Hermes Ramírez, accused authorities of being unfair to the former president. He said Hernández was inside the Tegucigalpa residence.

"At this time the secretary of security is violating the rule of law by wanting to execute an arrest order violating the procedure that is established by law," the lawyer told local media. "We leave clear the abuse that my client ex-President Juan Orlando Hernández is the subject of."

Over the weekend, Hernández had posted photographs of himself playing with his dogs in an apparent attempt to knock down rumors that he had fled the country.

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.

Ramírez said Monday night that Hernández had immunity because of his position in the regional parliament and insisted that he had a right to a presumption of innocence.

Members of the police special forces arrive at the home of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Tegucigalpa on Feb. 14, 2022.
ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Members of the police special forces arrive at the home of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Tegucigalpa on Feb. 14, 2022.

With a weak and co-opted Honduran justice system, Hondurans' hope for justice had rested for years with U.S. federal prosecutors in New York, where a string of revelations against Hernández was closely followed back home.

Speculation had swirled for months over whether Hernández would be charged once he was no longer president, because U.S. prosecutors in New York repeatedly implicated him in his brother's 2019 drug trafficking trial, alleging that his political rise was fueled by drug profits.

Hernández strongly denied any such activities.

The brother, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, himself a former Honduran congressman, 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."

In an audio recording sent to his staff that day, the then president said his brother's conviction "is hard for the family, hard for me personally."

"I find it outrageous; I find it unbelievable that false testimony by confessed killers could have been heard and given weight in this way," he continued, citing Honduras' progress in reducing violence as evidence of his stance against organized crime.

U.S. prosecutors said Tony Hernández brokered large bribes from drug traffickers to his brother in exchange for protecting their shipments through Honduras. In some cases, members of the National Police and military escorted drug shipments, prosecutors said.

They said Juan Orlando Hernández received bribes while still a member of Honduras' congress and directed bribes to other lawmakers so they would support him as the body's president.

Hernández has long said that the accusations against him come from drug traffickers, who in some cases he extradited and who are now seeking revenge. He has denied any involvement with drug traffickers.

Hernández became president of the congress in early 2010. By 2013, he was campaigning to be Honduras' president and allegedly solicited $1.6 million from a drug trafficker to support his campaign and those of other politicians in the National Party, according to U.S. authorities.

Tony Hernández also received $1 million from Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán to support his brother's presidential campaign, prosecutors said. They said Tony Hernández had promised the Sinaloa cartel leader that if his brother won the presidency, they could protect Guzmán's drug shipments through Honduras.

Juan Orlando Hernández took office Jan. 27, 2014. U.S. authorities allege he continued receiving drug profits while in office in exchange for allowing drugs to move through Honduras.

Hernández was also named as a "co-conspirator" in the case of convicted drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez. Witnesses in the two-week trial shortly before Tony Hernández's sentencing told of Hernández accepting bribes from Fuentes Ramírez and other drug traffickers from his time as a presidential candidate up through at least 2019.

During the Fuentes trial, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, former leader of the Cachiros cartel, testified that he had sent $250,000 to Juan Orlando Hernández in 2012 through his sister in exchange for protection of his smuggling business and to avoid extradition. An accountant testified that he twice witnessed Hernández receiving bribes from Fuentes Ramírez in 2013.

Hernández used a friendly Supreme Court to overcome Honduras' constitutional ban on re-election and won a second term in 2017 in elections marred by irregularities.

He was a deeply unpopular president at a time that saw tens of thousands of Hondurans flee the country due to a lack of economic opportunity, street gang violence and natural disasters.

Hernández worked to curry favor with the Trump administration, which was focused largely on slowing immigration. The Trump administration was quick to recognize Hernández's re-election victory in the disputed election. And Hernández announced that Honduras would follow Trump's lead and move his country's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. When accusations against Hernández emerged from trials in New York, Hernández would often use photo ops with U.S. officials to show that he had nothing to hide.

The Biden administration, however, worked to keep Hernández at arm's length, frequently repeating that corruption was one of the root causes of migration in the region.

Hernández has focused his defense largely on his record of extraditing drug traffickers to the United States and Honduran security forces' cooperation with U.S. authorities intercepting drug shipments.

Honduras changed its constitution in 2012 — while Hernández was president of the congress — to allow the extradition of Hondurans facing drug trafficking charges. And drug traffickers were extradited under Hernández. However, the U.S. government has complained that Honduras in recent years had not extradited others, including some alleged co-conspirators of Tony Hernández.

In February, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to yank Hernández's U.S. visa and sanction him as a "significant foreign narcotics trafficker."

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

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