The extradition of the former president of Honduras to the U.S. began today, as the former head of state is set to face drug charges following years of speculation that he effectively ran a narco state.
Some two dozen police officers and soldiers escorted Juan Orlando Hernández to a helicopter Thursday afternoon at 1 p.m. local time, surrounded by reporters taking photos and video. Hernández, wearing jeans, a blue puffy jacket, a face mask, and sunglasses, had his hands handcuffed in front of him.
He was flown to Honduran Air Force Base Hernán Acosta Mejía, where he's expected to be put on a flight to New York.
Hernández, who served as president from January 2014 to January 2022, was arrested just weeks after leaving office on charges of participating in a “violent drug-trafficking conspiracy.” U.S. authorities accuse him of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for protection.
If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars in the U.S. and never set foot in his home country again.
On March 16, a Honduran judge authorized Juan Orlando Hernández’s extradition, which the Honduran Supreme Court upheld later that month. Hernández’s attorneys unsuccessfully argued that the former president could face the death penalty if extradited.
Hernández’s brother, Tony, a former congressman, is already serving a life sentence in the U.S. for drug trafficking, and was ordered to pay $138 million in forfeiture. Prosecutors accused the two brothers of being “at the center of years of state sponsored drug trafficking.”
Hernández was deeply unpopular through the latter part of his presidency, and hundreds of thousands of Hondurans migrated to the U.S. during his tenure to escape poverty and violence. While allegations of drug trafficking have dogged him for years, the swiftness of the charges brought against him was still a stunning blow for the former president and his political party, which still holds significant power in Honduras’s Congress. The arrest of the former head of state sent a message to a region plagued by drug trafficking and corruption that the U.S. will not ignore the aiding and abetting of the international drug trade.
Hernández wanted to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos,” according to allegations made by U.S. prosecutors in the case of one of his alleged associates.
Xiomara Castro, Honduras' first female president, succeeded Hernández in January on a pledge to pass anti-corruption reforms. But critics are already casting doubt on that promise, as her allies in Congress passed a law after her victory granting immunity to members of the administration of her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya.
As her husband was awaiting the helicopter that would take him to the U.S, maybe forever, his wife and former first lady Ana García de Hernández published a message on Twitter. “My love! I believe in you and your innocence, your family and your nation for which you struggled so much will be waiting for you. We’re convinced you’ll come back, of course you’ll come back because you’re innocent.”