Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández has been extradited to the United States, drawing to a close a shocking saga in which he went from a top US ally to an accused drug trafficker, and setting the stage for a blockbuster trial in New York.
On April 21, Hernández was placed on a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) aircraft and sent to the United States, where he faces drug and weapons charges. Hernández, who served two terms as president from 2014 to 2022 and left the country’s highest office about three months ago, is accused of participating in an international drug conspiracy that trafficked over 500 tons of cocaine from Honduras to the US during a two-decade period starting in the early 2000s.
A major military and police operation was conducted to move Hernández. About mid-day, handcuffed and surrounded by dozens of security agents, Hernández was put on a helicopter that landed at the police unit where he had been held since his arrest two months ago. The helicopter transported him to Hernán Acosta airbase. Hours later, he was escorted by Honduran authorities and DEA agents onto a small plane that took off for the US.
The former president’s extradition came quickly. Authorities detained him at his Tegucigalpa home on February 15, a day after US prosecutors asked for his extradition. Though his lawyers appealed his removal while the former president was held in police custody in the capital, Honduras’ Supreme Court ratified the lower judge’s ruling to extradite Hernández on March 28, leaving him without any further options.
While his extradition was rapid, Hernández’s downfall was long in the making. During his second term in office, which ended earlier this year, US prosecutors alleged in a string of drug cases that Hernández had received bribes from traffickers for protection and was complicit in his brother’s cocaine ring. Though he faced no formal charges while president, Hernández was tarred by the allegations, which included being named more than 50 times in a sentencing document filed in the case of his brother Antonio, or Tony, as he is better known – who was convicted of drug charges in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.
During his brother’s trial, US prosecutors alleged that the world’s most notorious drug trafficker, Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” handed Hernández’s brother a million-dollar cash bribe meant for the president.
The 2021 trial of Honduran trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez also placed Hernández under the spotlight. US prosecutors made the shocking claim that Hernández had told an associate he wanted to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos.”
Prosecutors also alleged that the then-president had not only taken bribes but played an active role in trafficking operations, including providing protection for a cocaine lab and employing security officials to facilitate drug shipments. These officials included former Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, also known as “El Tigre,” whose extradition on drug conspiracy charges was approved by the Honduras Supreme Court a day prior to Hernández’s extradition.
Hernandez’s family released a press statement in which they described the former president as the “victim of drug traffickers seeking revenge who were extradited by [Hernández] himself,” or who sought plea agreements with US prosecutors to reduce their prison sentences.
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Hernández’s extradition to the United States is extraordinary, as it was hardly inevitable. This marks only the second time a leader of a sovereign Latin American state faces trial in the United States on trafficking charges. The first was Panama President Manuel Noriega, who was convicted in a Florida court in April 1992.
Mike Vigil, a 31-year veteran of the DEA who was formerly head of the agency’s international operations, said that the case against Hernández is the biggest drug trafficking case in the annals of American justice.
“His case ranks even higher than Noriega,” Vigil told InSight Crime. “Under Hernández, Honduras was converted into a narco-state. He was very much engaged in the drug trade, corruption and the killings of rivals.”
Hernández’s extradition is likely to send shockwaves throughout the region, raising the stakes for other top government officials and administrations believed to be connected to drug trafficking.
“His extradition is a warning to all high-level officials in the region,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. “If enough evidence of [a politician’s] involvement in drug activities arises, they may be held accountable, at least in the US,” Breda told InSight Crime.
The extradition, however, does little to explain away years of unwavering US support for Hernández. When Hernández came to power in 2014, he was regarded as an ally in combating drug trafficking in the region, particularly after he paved the way for a number of high-profile extraditions of Honduran traffickers. But some of those traffickers and others who surrendered to US authorities went on to be witnesses for US prosecutors, providing the first testimony to implicate Hernández in his brother’s activities.
Washington, though, never publicly turned its back on the Honduran president even when prosecutors in the Justice Department began in 2019 to openly link Hernández to trafficking activities. Hernández’s name was also included in a 2013 DEA investigation that targeted elites suspected of being involved in “large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering activities.”
Both the administration of former president Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden maintained a “certain working relationship” with the Hernández government, “prioritizing the strategic importance of Honduras in counternarcotics operations and as a partner for stemming migration flows,” Breda said.
But while the Trump government continued to praise Hernández even after his brother was convicted, the Biden administration began to give Hernández the cold shoulder in 2021, Breda told InSight Crime.
In February 2022, just after Hernández had left office, US officials revealed that Hernández’s placement on a government list of corrupt actors in Central America, which he had dodged for years despite serious allegations of misconduct ranging from illicit campaign financing to ties to the drug trade.
With the stakes so high, all eyes will be on New York as prosecutors with the Southern District – the same office that convicted the president’s brother – put years of investigative work to test in court.
“The evidence against Hernández is very strong. Prosecutors are generally very conservative in cases like this. If the case against the defendant is not airtight, they’re not going to take it or make a formal accusation,” Vigil said.
Whereas some of the high-profile traffickers extradited under Hernández were able to strike deals with US prosecutors, it’s very unlikely Hernández will be presented with such an opportunity.
“Who is he going to give up that is higher than him? US prosecutors don’t trade for subordinates, they trade for bigger fish than the actual defendants,” Vigil told InSight Crime.
If convicted, Hernández faces a sentence of between 40 years to life in prison.
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