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Former Honduras president Juan Orlando Hernández arrested; U.S. seeks extradition on drug trafficking charges

Members of Honduras's police special forces stand outside the home of former president Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa on Feb. 14. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)
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Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was detained by police in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday, a day after the United States filed an extradition request for its former ally on drug trafficking charges.

Local television stations broadcast video of Hernández, who was president of Honduras from 2014 until January, being escorted from his house by police, his hands and feet in chains.

Honduran officials said Monday they had received a diplomatic note from the United States requesting his extradition.

Hernández had long been considered a U.S. ally, but in recent years allegations against him mounted in U.S. court filings as prosecutors charged members of the Honduran political elite with using state resources to traffic drugs to the United States. One of those cases was against Hernández’s brother, Tony Hernández, who was convicted by a U.S. federal court of drug trafficking charges and sentenced last year to life in prison.

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Prosecutors in that case said Juan Orlando Hernández agreed “to facilitate the use of Honduran armed forces personnel as security” for drug traffickers. In another court filing, Hernández is alleged by a witness to have said he wanted to shove drugs “right up the noses of the gringos” by flooding the United States with cocaine.

His party was unseated in elections last year by the current president, Xiomara Castro, leaving him more vulnerable to prosecution.

The extradition request, obtained by The Washington Post, says that through 2019, Hernández continued to receive bribes from Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, who last week was sentenced in a Manhattan federal court to life in prison for cocaine trafficking. The bribes were dropped off at the presidential residence, the United States alleges in the request.

A drug trafficker whose accounting books were used as evidence against Hernández’s brother was killed in a Honduran prison in 2019 “to avoid his possible cooperation” in a case against both Tony and Juan Orlando Hernandez, the United States says in the document.

The request is likely to become an explosive issue in Honduras, where Hernández’s party still wields significant influence, including over the country’s supreme court. Under Honduran law, it’s members of the court who will rule on the U.S. request. The judges met Tuesday morning. They did not release any preliminary decision, but by early afternoon, police officers escorted Hernández from his home in the capital.

“I have a process to follow,” one officer could be heard telling him during the arrest, which was aired live on television. Another put a bulletproof vest on him. His hands and feet were then chained together, and he was led to a police vehicle.

Hours before, with police surrounding his house, Hernández posted an audio message on Twitter.

“It is not an easy time. I don’t wish this to anyone,” he said. “But this message’s purpose is also to say that the national police, through my attorneys, have received the message that I am set and ready to cooperate and voluntarily arrive — with their escort — the moment that the natural judge appointed by the honorable supreme court decides, so I can face this situation and defend myself.”

In a letter shared with The Post, the Honduran Foreign Ministry addressed the country’s supreme court Monday, referring to the “formal request for the provisional arrest for the purpose of extradition to the United States of America of Juan Orlando Hernández.”

In a U.S. diplomatic note shared with The Post and addressed to the Honduran Foreign Ministry, the United States says Hernández “is wanted to stand trial in the United States for drug trafficking and firearms offenses.”

The Honduran Department of Justice declined to comment. The U.S. State Department referred questions to the Department of Justice.

A senior official in the Castro government said officials were waiting for the supreme court to rule. “There are no charges against Hernández in Honduras,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Some Hondurans took to the streets of major cities, waving flags and chanting to celebrate the extradition request. But officials expressed concern that Hernández could work through his allies to block it.

“The judges on the court are people Hernández appointed, so it’s difficult to know what kind of choice they’re going to make,” the senior official said.

Officials within the Honduran government have been concerned Hernández could attempt to leave the country, which is why security officials initially dispatched police to his residence. They said they worried he might try to flee to Nicaragua, which, under Daniel Ortega, has long flouted the demands and objections of the United States.

Castro, who took office last month, does not control the country’s congress. Her election was seen by many in the U.S. government as a hopeful sign for the country, from which hundreds of thousands of migrants have left in recent years. “Fuera la narcodictadura” — “Get the narcodictatorship out” — became a rallying cry for many of those who remained.

Vice President Harris, who attended Castro’s inauguration last month, had reportedly asked members of the U.S. government why Hernández hadn’t already been extradited. The United States doesn’t typically seek to extradite sitting heads of state.

Hernández was a particularly close partner of the Trump administration. His administration agreed to help stop Central American migrants from seeking asylum in the United States.

“President Hernández is working with the United States very closely,” President Donald Trump said in December 2019. “You know what’s going on on our southern border. And we’re winning after years and years of losing.”

The State Department said this month it was barring Hernández from entering the United States. It cited “multiple, credible media reports” accusing Hernández of engaging “in significant corruption by committing or facilitating acts of corruption and narco-trafficking, and using the proceeds of illicit activity to facilitate political campaigns.”

Hernández has denied wrongdoing. In response to the State Department ban, he said on Twitter that many accusations came from “drug traffickers and confessed assassins who were extradited by my government or had to flee and hand themselves in to U.S. authorities for fear of being extradited.”

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