TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Honduras extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernández to the United States on Thursday to face drug trafficking and weapons charges in a dramatic reversal for a leader once touted by US authorities as a key ally in the war on the drugs.
Just three months after leaving office, Hernández boarded an airplane handcuffed with agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration bound for the United States, where he faces charges in the Southern District of New York.
Hernández was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa in February at the request of US authorities. He was shackled and paraded in front of journalists, a sight many Hondurans never imagined seeing.
Hebrew media reports have said that Hernández claimed to have received assurances from Israel that it would act on his behalf in the event that the US would seek his arrest and extradition.
When Hernandez arrived in Israel last June to participate in a ceremony opening his country’s new embassy in Jerusalem, he told officials in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government that their predecessors had promised to do everything they could to prevent his extradition in exchange for him moving the diplomatic mission from Tel Aviv, Channel 12 reported in February after his arrest.
Hernandez brought up the same purported deal in November when Israeli minister Eli Avidar visited Honduras to participate in the opening of a new Israeli embassy in Tegucigalpa, the network said.
Responding to the report, an associate of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Channel 12 that no request to prevent Hernandez’s extradition had ever been raised by the Hondurans.
Honduran officials have said the three charges Hernández will face in the US are conspiracy to import and distribute drugs to the United States, using firearms in support of a drug trafficking conspiracy and conspiracy to use firearms in support of drug trafficking.
Honduras’ Supreme Court rejected his appeal of a judge’s decision in favor of extradition.
US prosecutors have accused Hernández of fueling his political rise with money from drug traffickers. The payments were made in exchange for Honduran authorities allowing them to operate or for information helping them to evade interdiction.
Hernández has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a video message released Thursday, he said, “I am innocent; I have been and I am being unjustly subjected to prosecution.”
He has said he is the victim of drug traffickers he extradited who are now lying to seek revenge.
Henry Osorto Canales, a retired National Police commissioner who is now an analyst, said that while the extradition was an embarrassment for Honduras, it was also a historic day.
“This is a start because it has begun with the largest political piece that the country had and logically the rest of the pieces are going to fall, at least those closest (to Hernández),” Osorto said.
US prosecutors have spent years building cases from low-level drug traffickers and local politicians to organized crime bosses who used their political connections and ties to drug trafficking cartels in Colombia and Mexico to move tons of cocaine to the United States. Many of them testified about making payments to Hernández or one of his brothers, also a politician.
Hernández’s brother Tony Hernández, a former congressman, was sentenced to life in prison in the same US court on essentially the same charges.
Juan Orlando Hernández took office in January 2014 and held the presidency until this January, when Xiomara Castro was sworn in as his replacement. Castro campaigned on rooting out Honduras’ corruption and Hernández was seen as the largest target.
On Wednesday, Honduras’ Supreme Court denied an appeal from the former chief of the National Police, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, better known as “El Tigre” or “The Tiger.” He was arrested after Hernández at the request of US prosecutors on similar charges and is expected to be extradited in the coming weeks.
US prosecutors allege Bonilla assisted the movement of tons of cocaine through Honduras, working with Hernández and his brother Tony Hernández, both co-conspirators in the case in the Southern District of New York.
Hernández’s transport via helicopter under heavy guard from the police base where he was held to the airport Thursday was covered live by local television outlets.
Some Hondurans stood outside the airport’s perimeter fence to catch a glimpse of the former president boarding the plane with US authorities. When Hernández’s plane took off some were seen jumping in celebration.
Thousands of their countrymen emigrated from the country during Hernández’s administration, often shouting “Get out JOH!” using his initials as they walked north. They frequently complained of a lack of job opportunities and gang violence.
ToI Staff contributed to this report