With the arrest of former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández on drug charges, US prosecutors have brought down a powerful figure once considered a US ally, but who later emerged as a lynchpin in what they allege amounted to state-sponsored trafficking.
The former president is accused of participating in an international drug conspiracy that moved 500 tons of cocaine from Honduras to the United States, beginning in the early 2000s and lasting two decades, according to parts of his US extradition request published by Proceso.* Prosecutors say Hernández received millions of dollars in bribes from trafficking groups in Mexico and elsewhere in exchange for shielding them from potential investigations, arrests and extradition, while using the Honduras security forces to protect drug shipments, according to the extradition documents.
A Honduras Supreme Court judge issued an order for Hernandez's arrest on February 15, a day after the US requested his extradition, according to a statement by Melvin Duarte, spokesman for Honduras' judiciary system. Hernández was detained at his home in Tegucigalpa, CNN Español reported. Shackled and wearing a bulletproof vest, the former president was placed in a police van, which then drove away.
In an audio message published on Twitter, Hernández had earlier said he was willing "to collaborate."
The extradition request first came to light when the Honduran Foreign Affairs Ministry announced in a February 14 tweet that the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa had requested the arrest of a Honduran politician. Though the ministry did not name the official, CNN Español reported that the request was for Hernández.
The US Justice Department has not commented on the request nor have officials announced a formal indictment against the former president.
Hernández left office on January 27, after the inauguration of President Xiomara Castro. Castro’s election last year brought to an end more than a decade of rule by Hernández’s National Party.
Just hours later, Hernández was sworn in as a representative of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), which affords its members immunity from prosecution. That immunity, however, can be removed or suspended if a member’s home country demands it, according to Luis Javier Santos Cruz, an anti-corruption prosecutor in Honduras.
“There is no impediment to his extradition,” Santos Cruz wrote on Twitter.
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After having spent years accusing Hernández of involvement in drug trafficking in other cases, including his brother's, US prosecutors appear on the verge of making their case against the former president in court.
"It would be a mistake to request extradition of a former president with a weak case, so I assume that Justice Department believes the case is very strong," a former US official with knowledge of Honduras, who asked to speak anonymously because he was not authorized, told InSight Crime.
The extradition request comes after more than two years of cases and court filings in which US prosecutors have repeatedly accused the former president of accepting bribes from traffickers and participating in his brother’s drug ring.
A federal jury convicted his brother, the former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, on drug trafficking charges in 2019. Throughout that trial, the president was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Prosecutors also alleged that Hernández’s brother accepted a million-dollar bribe from Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo,” on behalf of the president.
Evidence in the case included a ledger confiscated from a drug trafficker that allegedly detailed cocaine shipments distributed by Tony Hernández, with one entry showing a $440,000 payment to “JOH y su gente,” or JOH and his people. The initials “JOH” have long been used to refer to the former president.
In March 2021, Hernández again stole the limelight in the US trial of Honduran drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez. Prosecutors made a string of accusations against Hernández – again an unindicted co-conspirator – including that he took a $25,000 bribe from the defendant to provide legal and political protection for drug trafficking operations. This arrangement allegedly provided Hernández access to a drug lab producing hundreds of kilograms of cocaine per month in northern Honduras.
Among the trial’s most damming evidence was the testimony of Fuentes Ramírez’s former accountant, who claimed to have witnessed a meeting in which the former president left with a cash-filled briefcase. Prosecutors named Hernández over 50 times in Fuentes Ramírez’s sentencing documents, accusing the then-president of long-time links to drug groups.
Hernández has spent years weathering these allegations, often citing his history of extraditing top traffickers, including members of the Valle and Cachiros drug clans.
Hernández came to power in 2014, and he was held up as a poster child for US allies taking on drug trafficking in Central America. However, accusations against him began to mount in 2018 after the arrest of his brother that November. Despite this, Hernández retained his status as a key partner under former US President Donald Trump, who was more concerned with having Honduras block migrants from reaching the US border. But soon after Joe Biden became president in 2021, officials began to turn their back on Hernández, though few formal statements were made.
In the last months of his presidency, Hernández was sanctioned on a US government list of corrupt actors in Central America. His appearance on the list, however, was not made public until days before the extradition request.
Now that the United States has asked for his extradition, US legislators are not only taking aim at Hernández but grappling with Washington's longtime support of him.
"Throughout the past eight years of decay, depravity, and impunity, successive US administrations sullied our reputation by treating Hernández as a friend and partner," said US Senator Patrick Leahy in a statement. "By making excuse after excuse for a government that had no legitimacy and that functioned as a criminal enterprise, US officials lost sight of what we stand for and that our real partners are the Honduran people."
US Rep. Norma Torres has long accused Hernández of double-dealing, and she called for Hernández’s indictment and extradition upon the end of his term in office.
Ironically, as the head of the National Congress in 2012, Hernández spearheaded the passing of a constitutional reform that allowed for the extradition of Hondurans charged with drug trafficking, terrorism or organized crime.
Hernández now appears to be searching for any way to avoid that fate, given his quick appointment to the Central American parliament.
But according to Joaquín Mejía Rivera, an expert in human rights and international law, Hernández's affiliation to Central American parliament offers him little protection. Rivera told InSight Crime that Parlacen members are afforded the same level of immunity bestowed upon congress officials from their home country. In Honduras' case, congress representatives do not have immunity from drug trafficking charges, according to Rivera.
"Juan Orlando Hernández does not have any protection," Rivera said.
The charges against Hernández mean that the former president joins an ignominious club of heads of state charged in US drug cases. Most recently, in March 2020, the US Justice Department indicted sitting Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro on drug trafficking and narco-terrorism charges, among other alleged crimes.
Decades earlier, in 1988, the Department of Justice charged Panama’s then-military ruler Manuel Antonio Noriega with links to illegal narcotics smuggling. Noriega was ousted during a US invasion in 1989. Three years later, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison on drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering charges.
*This story has been updated to reflect reporting on the accusations against Hernández and new reporting by InSight Crime.