TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was loaded onto a Drug Enforcement Administration plane Thursday and extradited to the United States, where the onetime U.S. ally faces federal drug and weapons charges on allegations he accepted millions of dollars to protect massive shipments of cocaine.
Hernández’s party lost the presidential election in November, making him more vulnerable to extradition.
Hernández has denied wrongdoing. In February, he said the United States had been “a friend and ally in the fight my government carried out valiantly against organized crime,” and noted his work had been recognized by senior U.S. officials. He has blamed the allegations against him on “confessed drug traffickers and assassins” that his own government had extradited.
On Thursday, he again proclaimed his innocence and quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a video posted on social media.
“I want to echo some very potent words, very powerful,” he said: “‘Injustice in any place is a threat to justice everywhere.’ You know I worked tirelessly with the purpose to get peace back in Honduras. … It is regrettable that those who turned Honduras into one of the most violent countries in the world — that those villains now want to be heroes.”
At an afternoon news conference, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke briefly about the charges against Hernández.
“Hernández is charged with participating in a corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy to facilitate the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States from 2004 to 2022,” he said. “As is charged in the indictment, Hernández abused his position as president of Honduras from 2014 through 2022 to operate the country as a narco-state.”
Garland described the investigation into Hernández as “part of a years-long investigation of criminal drug-trafficking organizations and their infiltration of the Honduran government.”
That timeline raised anew questions about how much the U.S. government knew about Hernández’s alleged crimes while it continued to work with his administration.
Hernández’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former congressman in Honduras, was convicted in federal court in Manhattan in 2019 of cocaine trafficking. The Justice Department alleged that Tony Hernández had delivered a bribe of $1 million from Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to Juan Orlando Hernández in 2013.
But even as allegations against Juan Orlando Hernández mounted in U.S. court documents, he remained in power, and his government continued working with U.S. officials on migration and other issues. He maintained a close relationship with the Trump administration, which called on Honduras to sign an agreement to send asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S. border to Honduras. That agreement was never implemented; it has been suspended by the Biden administration.
Hernández said he worked with U.S. security agencies to limit the flow of drugs through Honduras. The State Department, in its 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, said the Honduran government “has increased its efforts against drug trafficking in coordination with U.S. law enforcement agencies; however, structural challenges of investigative capacity, resources, communications, and corruption remain.”
During the last years of Hernández’s presidency, his many critics came to believe their only shot at justice was in the United States. Protesters called for his extradition. “Fuera la narcodictadura” — “Out with the narcodictatorship” — became a rallying cry. Honduran migrants who reached the United States suggested it was the corruption of Hernández’s government that had motivated them to flee.
But given Hernández’s grip on power, extradition seemed unlikely. That changed when opposition party candidate Xiomara Castro won a surprising electoral victory last year over Hernández’s National Party. In February, police arrived at Hernández’s residence and cuffed his hands and feet, shocking the country. The streets of major Honduran cities erupted in impromptu celebrations.
The Honduran justice department has begun the process of seizing 33 of Hernández’s family properties. Officials said in a statement that the properties would be investigated for “their connection to people linked to drug trafficking.”
Political analyst Rafael Jerez, a research fellow at the Institute for Transnational Law at the University of Texas, said the extradition would give a sense of justice but would “not satisfy the thirst completely.”
“Corruption is not just at the level of the presidency,” Jerez said, but at all levels of government. He said Honduran officials should not celebrate delivering him to the U.S. justice system.
“This is a very important call to reflection for the attorney general’s office because everything is happening in their faces,” he said. “It’s important that [Honduran authorities] move forward to combat corruption, not just in an abstract way but actually with an anti-corruption reform institutionally.”
Honduran news organizations live-streamed coverage of Hernández being marched in handcuffs by Security Minister Ramón Sabillón and armed troops from the barracks of the police special operations command along a heavily guarded route to the helicopter that took him to Toncontín International Airport to meet the DEA plane. Authorities dubbed the mission Operación Liberación — “Operation Liberation.”
Hernández’s wife posted messages of support for him.
“My love, Juan Orlando Hernández, I believe in you, I believe in your innocence, your family and your nation for which you fought for so much will be waiting for you,” Ana García tweeted. “We’re convinced you’ll #RETURN, of course you’ll #RETURN because you’re #INNOCENT. We’re with you and #GOD Almighty will do you #JUSTICE!”
It’s highly unusual for the United States to request the extradition of the former head of state of another country. The federal prosecution reflects the more aggressive role that the U.S. justice system is now playing in Latin American corruption and drug-trafficking cases. Though the 2017 extradition of Guzmán is perhaps the best known, other prominent cases have also emerged.
Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former secretary of public security, is awaiting trial in New York for allegedly accepting bribes from the Sinaloa cartel while he was in office. A U.S. judge last year ordered the extradition of a former governor of Chihuahua, César Duarte, on corruption charges. In 2017, authorities said they would seek to extradite former Guatemalan vice president Roxana Baldetti on drug-trafficking charges. She is currently serving a prison sentence in Guatemala.
Sieff, Sheridan and Ibarra Chaoul reported from Mexico City.