Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has made his first appearance in US court after being extradited to the country to face drug trafficking and weapons charges.
Hernandez, 53, appeared via video link in federal court in New York on Friday. He was not required to enter a plea, and his lawyers did not request bail for him but said they would do so at a later date, the AFP news agency reported.
A US judge set a May 10 arraignment hearing for Hernandez, where he will be formally asked whether he pleads guilty or not.
Hernandez was extradited on Thursday afternoon from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plane bound for the US.
That same day, US federal authorities unsealed an indictment against the former president, accusing him of participating in a “corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy to facilitate the importation of hundreds of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States”.
He is accused of having facilitated the smuggling of some 500 tonnes of cocaine – mainly from Colombia and Venezuela – to the US via Honduras since 2004, starting long before his presidency.
In turn, he received “millions of dollars in bribes … from multiple narcotrafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico and other places”, US prosecutors allege, including approximately $1m from Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
But the ex-president, who served two terms between 2014 and January 2022, has maintained that he is innocent. He lost his immunity from prosecution when he handed power over to Honduras’s first female president, Xiomara Castro, in January.
A ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court in late March cleared the way for Hernandez to be extradited to face charges in a New York court.
The US Justice Department said in a statement on Thursday that Hernandez – once viewed as a key US ally in the war on drugs – “was allegedly paid millions of dollars in cocaine proceeds which he used to enrich himself, finance his political campaigns, and commit voter fraud while the people of Honduras endured conditions of poverty and rampant violence”.
The US indictment charged Hernandez with three counts of drug and weapons offences that could land him decades in prison if convicted.
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.
Hernandez has denied the allegations. In a video message released Thursday, he said: “I am innocent; I have been and I am being unjustly subjected to prosecution.”