EXPLAINER: Ex-Honduras leader long in US prosecutors' sights

Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández was arrested at the request of the United States on drug trafficking charges Tuesday and a Honduran judge will decide if he is eventually extradited to stand trial in the U.S. While Hernández was president, he was untouchable for Honduras’ co-opted justice system and successive U.S. administrations made no move alienate him

APTOPIX Honduras Corruption
APTOPIX Honduras Corruption

Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández was arrested at the request of the United States on drug trafficking charges Tuesday and a Honduran judge will decide if he is eventually extradited to stand trial in the U.S.

While Hernández was president, he was untouchable for Honduras’ co-opted justice system and successive U.S. administrations made no move alienate him. The exceptions were prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, who spent the last several years working their way up through Honduran drug trafficking organizations to the person many believed was the inevitable pinnacle — Hernández.

Most of the allegations those prosecutors have made against Hernández come from two trials, that of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the president’s brother and himself a former Honduran congressman, and Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez. Both men were part of a sprawling drug trafficking case first filed back in 2015. They were both convicted on drug trafficking charges and given life sentences — Fuentes Ramírez just last week. Prosecutors have labeled Juan Orlando Hernández a “co-conspirator” in the same case.

WHAT CHARGES WOULD JUAN ORLANDO HERNÁNDEZ FACE IN THE U.S.?

U.S. prosecutors have not unsealed an indictment on Hernández, but charges were made known to him Wednesday during an initial hearing in Honduras’ Supreme Court of Justice. They include conspiracy to import drugs to the United States, using firearms in support of a drug trafficking conspiracy and conspiracy to use firearms in support of drug trafficking. They appear to mirror the charges that got his brother a life sentence with the exception of his brother’s additional false statements charge.

WHAT ALLEGATIONS HAVE U.S. PROSECUTORS MADE ABOUT HERNÁNDEZ?

At the March 2021 sentencing of Tony Hernández, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Laroche called it “state-sponsored drug trafficking.”

The crux of prosecutors’ accusations is that Juan Orlando Hernández fueled his political rise from a congressman representing rural Lempira in western Honduras to president of the National Congress and then two consecutive presidential terms with the help of bribes and support he received from drug traffickers. In exchange, traffickers were allowed to operate unencumbered, received information that helped them avoid authorities and sometimes even had security forces put in their service.

Hernández became president of the congress in early 2010. By 2013, he was campaigning to be Honduras’ president and allegedly solicited $1.6 million from a drug trafficker to support his campaign and those of other politicians in the National Party, according to U.S. authorities.

Tony Hernández also received $1 million from Mexican kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán to support his brother’s presidential campaign. Tony Hernández had promised the Sinaloa Cartel leader that if his brother won the presidency, they could protect Guzmán’s drug shipments through Honduras.

Juan Orlando Hernández took office Jan. 27, 2014. U.S. authorities allege he continued receiving drug profits while in office in exchange for allowing drugs to move through Honduras.

Witnesses in the two-week Fuentes Ramírez trial shortly before Tony Hernández’s sentencing told of Hernández accepting bribes from Fuentes Ramírez and other drug traffickers from his time as a presidential candidate up through at least 2019.

It was during that trial that Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacob Gutwillig said that an accountant had heard Juan Orlando Hernández say he wanted to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos.’”

Also during the Fuentes Ramírez trial, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, former leader of the Cachiros cartel, testified that he had sent $250,000 to Juan Orlando Hernández in 2012 through his sister in exchange for protection of his smuggling business and to avoid extradition. An accountant testified that he twice witnessed Hernández receiving bribes from Fuentes Ramírez in 2013.

WHAT HAS HERNÁNDEZ SAID?

Each time the allegations have been made by U.S. prosecutors, Hernández has strenuously denied any illegal activity and dismissed his accusers as drug traffickers seeking revenge against him by making up stories. He has pointed to his government’s close cooperation with U.S. authorities working to intercept cocaine being shipped from South America through Honduras to the United States. He has reminded everyone that Honduras changed its constitution in 2012 — while Hernández was president of the congress — to allow the extradition of Hondurans facing drug trafficking charges and that many were extradited under his administration.

Now the next one sent to the U.S. could be Hernández himself.

HOW SOON COULD HERNÁNDEZ BE EXTRADITED?

If Hernández decides not to contest the U.S. extradition request things could move very quickly. If the judge decides Hernández should be extradited, but he fights it, it could take up to three months to run through the complete process and any appeals.

On Wednesday, the charges were read to Hernández and the judge denied his petition for house arrest and scheduled a hearing in which evidence to support the U.S. charges would be presented for March 16. Once the judge makes a decision on extradition there will be an opportunity to appeal, but experts say that generally things move quickly at that stage and the appeal would he heard and decided within a matter of days.

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AP writer Marlon González in Tegucigalpa, Honduras contributed to this report.

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