The US has charged former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez with drug and weapons offences, the Justice Department said, accusing the 53-year-old of abusing his power to run Honduras like a “narco-state”.
The charges were announced on Thursday shortly after Hernandez was taken in handcuffs to a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plane in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and extradited to the United States.
Filed by prosecutors in New York, the indictment charged Hernandez with three counts of drug and weapons offences.
“Hernandez abused his position as President of Honduras … to operate the country as a narco-state,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters.
A ruling by Honduras’ Supreme Court in late March cleared the way for Hernandez, who served as president from 2014 until January of this year, to be extradited to face charges in a New York court.
The US Justice Department said in a statement that Hernandez – once viewed as a key US ally in the war on drugs – “participated in a corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy to facilitate the importation of hundreds of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States”.
“Hernandez allegedly received millions of dollars to use his public office, law enforcement, and the military to support drug-trafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico, and elsewhere,” it said, including approximately $1m from Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Hernandez has denied all the charges, saying they are part of a plot orchestrated by enemies who are trying to get back at him.
The former president lost his immunity after handing power to Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female president, in late January. The US indictment was filed the same day she took office, on January 27, but was kept sealed until Thursday.
Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said during a news conference on Thursday evening that Hernandez was involved in “rampant corruption and massive cocaine trafficking” that spurred violence in Honduras.
“Honduras became one of the most violent countries in the world during the defendant’s presidency, and while Hernandez amassed money and political influence, the people of Honduras endured conditions of poverty and violence,” he said.
“This indictment reflects years of work by my office and the DEA, investigating and prosecuting members of this conspiracy,” said Williams, adding that “it is now [Hernandez’s] turn to face justice”.
Former US ally
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Buenos Aires earlier in the day, said Hernandez had been a very close ally of the US while holding office. “In fact, he met with Vice President Biden when he was [part of] the Obama administration. He met with former President Donald Trump,” Bo said.
“He was considered to be doing the right thing at the time because he was fighting against illegal immigration and assisting the United States in that fight.”
She added that while this is not the first time that a former leader has been accused of drug trafficking, “it’s very, very significant – especially [in reference] to the United States policy in the region and the war on drugs”.
Some Hondurans had celebrated in the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital, when Hernandez was arrested in February. Hundreds of police officers had surrounded his home after a lower court judge issued a warrant for his arrest following the US extradition request.
“The authorities are finally doing what they should have done a long time ago: penalise and put behind bars the people who have robbed this country,” Aaron Hernandez, a 31-year-old Honduran truck driver, told Al Jazeera after the Supreme Court’s decision.
But others have come out in support of Hernandez, saying they believe he did nothing wrong.
“If a citizen is tried, they should be tried in our country,” the ex-president’s wife, Ana Garcia, a lawyer, said as she joined about a dozen protesters outside the Supreme Court in late March to proclaim Hernandez’s innocence.
Most of the allegations against Hernandez emerged in two trials in New York — those of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, the president’s brother and himself a former Honduran congressman, and Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez.
Both men were part of a sprawling drug trafficking case filed in 2015 and both were given life sentences. Prosecutors labelled the former president a “co-conspirator” in the same case.
In a letter published when the Supreme Court issued its decision, Hernandez maintained that he is innocent and said he is the “victim of revenge and conspiracy”.
His family also said in a statement at that time that they were “ready and confident that we’ll be able to show the US justice system that these accusations are a revenge plot from Honduran narcos whose empire of crime and violence Juan Orlando destroyed”.