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Former US Ally in Cuffs

The U.S. asked for the extradition of former president Juan Orlando Hernández on drug trafficking charges, just weeks after he left office. His potential extradition could mark the first political win of the government of Xiomara Castro and seal her alliance with Washington. Hernández, detained Tuesday, said he will cooperate.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022
El Faro English

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The image will remain engraved in Central Americans’ memory: Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras for eight years, detained and handcuffed before cameras just two weeks after leaving power. 

On Monday night, the Honduran Foreign Ministry announced it had received a U.S. extradition request for a “Honduran politician.” Hours later, the press confirmed the politician was former President Juan Orlando Hernández, named as a co-conspirator in his brother Tony Hernández’s conviction on drug trafficking charges in New York.

The charges in the extradition request include three counts of drug trafficking. Military and police surrounded Hernández’s home Monday night waiting for an arrest warrant, which was issued by a judge and carried out Tuesday. His capture ended months of speculation about his whereabouts and post-presidency plans, including widespread rumors he would seek asylum in Nicaragua.

At 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Hernández published an audio message via Twitter: “This is not an easy moment. I don’t wish it on anyone,” he said. “I am ready to collaborate and arrive voluntarily with their escort, when a judge is designated by the Supreme Court, to confront this situation and defend myself.” Hernández, who has repeatedly said that any trafficking allegations are lies invented by vengeful cartels, maintains his innocence.

The extradition request came just two weeks after President Xiomara Castro of the leftist Libre party took office, marking a new tone in U.S. policy toward Honduras and naming the elephant in the room. In recent years, the absence of Hernández from regional anti-corruption lists has often been a major point of criticism for U.S. policy in the region.

Former president Juan Orlando Hernández with the Honduran National Police following his arrest on Feb. 15, 2022. Photo: AFP
Former president Juan Orlando Hernández with the Honduran National Police following his arrest on Feb. 15, 2022. Photo: AFP

The case represents a “shift” in terms of high-profile corruption cases in Honduras, where no president has been convicted for crimes committed while in office, according to Julio Raudales, vice rector of international relations at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). (Rafael Callejas, president from 1990 to 1994, pled guilty in Brooklyn in 2016 to wire fraud and racketeering in a sweeping FIFA bribery scandal.)

“Honduras has now made this step,” Raudales said. “This is going to pressure the country so that the justice system is more effective at controlling crime.” 

Hernández’s extradition request brings the Biden and Castro administrations closer and ends the United States’ once-close relationship with Hernández.

The case is an example of how the U.S. government interacts with “dictatorships and drug traffickers,” said Joaquín Mejía, lawyer with Honduran research group ERIC-SJ and the Honduran Legal Team for Human Rights (EJDH). “The U.S. has only interests and no allies,” Mejia told El Faro English. “When it doesn’t need these pawns, it discards them.”

Brotherly Reunion?

“Sending Juanchi to New York” where “the gringos are waiting for him” — as President Xiomara’s most well-known campaign song goes — now depends on the Honduran justice system following through with the extradition request.

Mejía said the extradition process under Honduran law is simple and should be resolved within days given Hernández’s importance and the high risk of evading justice the longer he stays in Honduras. Hernández’s legal team said it expected the process to take up to three to four months, as evidenced by the past 32 extradition requests, setting the stage for a potential judicial showdown with implications for other powerful interests in Honduras.

“Having JOH here is a hot potato for the political class,” Mejía said. “But there are also groups interested in not extraditing him because of the information he has.”

Hernández will now face a preliminary hearing set for Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. Central Time, in which the charges against him are read, and then a second hearing in which evidence is presented.

Raudales of UNAH believes that now that the wheels have been put into motion for the extradition request, it’s unlikely Hernández will be able to escape. “Mr. Hernández is going to the U.S. and he is going to be tried there,” Raudales said. 

A constitutional reform that went into effect in 2014 allows for extradition in cases of drug trafficking. There should be no purely legal grounds to oppose the terms of the extradition, according to Mejía.

“If [the Supreme Court magistrates] do it, it’s a political decision, and reckless, furthermore, because we’re talking about the U.S. and the biggest drug boss in the region in recent years,” said Mejía.

The current Supreme Court judges were named under Hernández. The new government will not have a chance to name new magistrates until 2023.

Even if the court grants the request, Hernández could appeal. And there are other ways Hernández could avoid extradition, such as through charges brought against him in a Honduran court, which would halt his extradition by requiring him to face justice in Honduras, where the court system is more vulnerable to political manipulation.

Attempts to evade justice would be highly unpopular in Honduras and likely lead to mass protests, said Mejía, adding: “In the end, the state has the sovereign decision to decide whether to extradite him or not.”

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