The San Juan Daily Star
Former Honduras president detained after a US extradition request
By Joan Suazo and Anatoly Kurmanaev
Honduran authorities detained former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández earlier this week to potentially face extradition and drug charges in the United States, capping a spectacular downfall for one of Central America’s most powerful men.
Hernández, who led the country for eight years and stepped down less than a month ago, was escorted by security officers from his home, wearing a bulletproof vest and shackles that bound him hand and foot.
“It’s not an easy moment, I don’t wish it on anybody,” Hernández said in an audio message posted on his Twitter profile at 5 a.m. Tuesday.
“I’m ready to present myself voluntarily and defend myself in accordance with the law,” he said in a separate message on Facebook, shortly after.
Fireworks exploded around the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa almost immediately after Hernández was led away from his home, and about 100 protesters gathered around his residence to celebrate his detention. The former president is deeply unpopular, accused of allowing organized crime and corruption to penetrate the highest echelons of power, keeping Honduras one of the poorest and most violent countries in Latin America.
“Justice has been served for Honduras,” said Ana María Torres, a university student who came to revel in Hernández’s arrest. “He left the country in ruins and now the gringos are going to take him so that he pays the price of being a narco.”
Police trucks and black SUVss with tinted windows surrounded his home in an upmarket gated community Monday night, just minutes after the country’s Foreign Ministry revealed that it had received an extradition request from the United States for a politician. On Tuesday morning, he opened his door to the authorities, who took him away.
The extradition request, presented to Honduras’ Supreme Court and seen by The New York Times, claims Hernández participated in a “violent drug-trafficking conspiracy” that since 2004 has transported 500 tons of cocaine from Venezuela and Colombia to the United States via Honduras. The document claims that Hernández received millions of dollars in bribes for facilitating the shipments and shielding traffickers from prosecution.
Juan Orlando Hernández was expected to be presented in court Wednesday. In the past, he has repeatedly denied all drug-related accusations, claiming that unspecified voice recordings made by the Drug Enforcement Administration show his innocence.
It is not clear if, or when, Hernández may be extradited to the United States and whether he will be accused of crimes at home. Honduras’ Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether to grant the extradition request.
A Supreme Court judge who was named Tuesday to hear Hernández’s case is affiliated with the former president’s party and has a history of absolving suspects in corruption cases, said Gabriela Castellanos, the head of National Anti-Corruption Council, an independent body created by congress.
Honduras, which relies heavily on American aid, has never denied a U.S. extradition request, said Marlon Duarte, a Tegucigalpa-based lawyer who has participated in five extradition cases. But a case against a recent president has no precedent, and Hernández retains significant support in the judicial system, he said.
The legal battle that will decide Hernández’s future could drag on for weeks or even months, Duarte said.
“We are putting the country’s institutions to the test,” he said. “We are about to see if the judicial system is part of the same criminal structure that the president is accused of creating.”
Honduras’s new president, Xiomara Castro, has accused Hernández of turning the country into a “narco-dictatorship.” She was swept to victory in November elections after promising to overhaul the system of corruption and impunity that flourished under Hernández, contributing to a mass exodus of its citizens to the United States.
But while Hernández’s arrest appeared to show Castro’s resolve to pursue tainted opponents, her initial actions have sown doubt about a fight against a broader culture of graft. Her allies in Congress have passed a law that would effectively grant immunity to members of the administration of her husband and former president, Manuel Zelaya. And Castro has appointed several family members to serve in her government.
Hernández’s extradition would be a significant foreign policy victory for the Biden administration, which has struggled to assert influence in Central America and make good on its promise to reduce corruption in the region to help stem migration.
The Honduran ex-president’s fate is likely to be closely followed in neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, whose leaders have steadily dismantled anti-corruption institutions, over the Biden administration’s protests, and whose inner circles have been implicated in graft scandals themselves.
In Honduras, Hernández is widely disliked, but still, many found the speed of his downfall surprising. He is a member of the Central American Parliament, which technically grants him immunity from prosecution, and his political party remains a major force in Honduras’ congress.
“This is the first fundamental step in the fight begun by the citizens against a system of impunity in Honduras,” said Josué Murillo, a Honduran political analyst and country head of the Pan American Development Foundation, a human rights nonprofit.
But Murillo said the country cannot advance until justice ceases to be a political weapon used to target government opponents. Hernández’s possible extradition, he added, shows that the country’s judicial system is often incapable of punishing crimes committed by the powerful.
“Our justice is contaminated by corruption,” he said. “We need to urgently reform it to remove it from politics.”