US asks Honduras to arrest, extradite ex-President Hernández

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Special Forces Police set up barriers near the house of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, late Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. After years of speculation in Honduras, the United States formally requested the arrest and extradition of Hernndez less than three weeks after he left office. (AP Photo/Elmer Martinez)

MEXICO CITY – The United States requested the arrest and extradition of former President Juan Orlando Hernández on drug and weapons charges less than three weeks after he left office, a move that follows years of accusations about the Honduran leader's alleged links to drug traffickers.

Honduran security forces surrounded Hernández’s neighborhood Monday night and on Tuesday the Supreme Court of Justice met to choose a judge to handle the extradition request.

Honduran Security Minister Ramón Sabillón, who was fired by Hernández as head of the National Police in 2014, said Tuesday that Hernández had conspired “with cartels to traffic (drugs) and corrupt many public institutions, which led to social deterioration and undermined the application of justice in Honduras.”

He said the main charges Hernández faces in the U.S. were drug trafficking, using weapons for drug trafficking and conspiracy to use weapons in drug trafficking.

U.S. prosecutors in New York had repeatedly implicated Hernández as a co-conspirator during his brother’s 2019 drug trafficking trial, alleging that his political rise was fueled by drug profits.

His brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández 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.”

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined comment late Monday about the U.S. extradition request.

In a video released by Hernández’s legal team, apparently from inside his home, attorney Félix Ávila said that no arrest order had yet been issued.

Hernández released an audio recording via Twitter early Tuesday thanking his supporters. “It is not an easy moment,” he said. “I don't desire it for anyone.”

He said his lawyers had informed the National Police that “I am ready and prepared to cooperate and go voluntarily ... to face this situation and defend myself” if an arrest order is issued.

The identity of the judge chosen to handle the case was not immediately released. However, the court’s president, Rolando Argueta, is known to be close to Hernández, and all 15 Supreme Court justices were selected by Congress in 2016 during Hernández’s first presidential term. They serve seven-year terms, and most come from his National Party.

The U.S. moves were a long-awaited fall for a leader reviled in his home country who enjoyed support from the Trump administration but had been kept at arm’s length by the Biden White House, which has targeted Central America’s endemic corruption as a root cause of migration.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy was one of a dozen senators who supported a bill that sought to isolate Hernández by imposing sanctions on him and prohibiting the export of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets that Honduran security forces deployed in recent years against protesters.

“Throughout the past eight years of decay, depravity, and impunity, successive U.S. administrations sullied our reputation by treating Hernandez as a friend and partner,” Leahy said in a statement Tuesday. “By making excuse after excuse for a government that had no legitimacy and that functioned as a criminal enterprise, U.S. officials lost sight of what we stand for and that our real partners are the Honduran people.”

Dana Frank, a Honduras expert and professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the U.S. wants to look heroic for finally trying to bring Hernández to justice, but that successive administrations going back to President Barack Obama enabled Hernández.

“Hernández was able to wreak havoc with Honduras, with devastating costs, in large part because the U.S. supported him up to the last minute,” Frank said.

Honduran criminal lawyer Marlon Duarte said that the extradition process against Hernández, if it moves ahead, would not last more than three months.

Once an arrest order is issued, Hernández would have to turn himself in or be forcibly taken into custody, he said. At an initial hearing, Hernández would be informed of the charges and he would be held on a military base.

Within two months, another hearing would be held in which the U.S. evidence would be presented and the judge would make a decision on whether he should be extradited.

If the judge rules for extradition, Hernández would have three days to appeal. Then the appellate court — also named by the Supreme Court — would decide within five days whether to confirm the extradition or overturn the judge’s decision. If the judge denies extradition, the U.S. government would have an opportunity to appeal.

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.

One of his lawyers, Hermes Ramírez, told local media his client had immunity as a member of the regional parliament and said government forces were not following proper procedures. He said Hernández was inside the home.

Various contingents of the National Police, including special forces as well as military police, were present around Hernández’s neighborhood Monday night. Barriers at all of the entrances kept out media and even residents.

Members of the security forces entered the area with weapons, wearing balaclavas and with handcuffs dangling from their ballistic vests.

Hernández often pointed to the fact that Honduras began allowing the extradition of its citizens on drug trafficking charges while he was president of the Congress as part of his defense.

But U.S. prosecutors have alleged that he was taking bribes from drug traffickers on the promise of protecting them once he was president.

Hernández took office on Jan. 27, 2014. He used a friendly Supreme Court to overcome Honduras’ constitutional ban on reelection and won a second term in 2017 in elections marred by irregularities.

Around midnight Monday, 56-year-old Jorge Arturo Vega, a supporter of new president Castro’s Liberty and Refoundation party, stood outside a police barricade at Hernández’s neighborhood celebrating.

“This is a party we’ve been waiting a long time for,” Vega said, thinking back over the dozen years since Hernández came up in Congress. “We couldn’t stand this drug trafficker, criminal, killer in the presidential house any longer.”

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Sherman reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Elmer Martínez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Claudia Torrens in New York, contributed to this story.