Juan Orlando Hernández, who was president of Honduras for eight years, was extradited to New York on Thursday to face charges of engineering a massive effort to flood the U.S. with cocaine.
The rare extradition of a former head of state followed Hernández's arrest in February at his home in Tegucigalpa less than a month after he stepped down from office. The Justice Department accused him of participating in a violent drug trafficking operation that shipped 500 tons of cocaine from Venezuela and Colombia to the U.S. through Honduras.
“We allege that Hernández corrupted legitimate public institutions in the country — including parts of the national police, military and national Congress,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday. “And we allege that Hernández worked closely with other public officials to protect cocaine shipments bound for the United States. Because of these alleged crimes, communities in the United States suffered, and the people of Honduras suffered.”
The charges say he received millions of dollars for shielding drug traffickers from arrest and for facilitating their shipments.
Hernández, 53, took bribes from some of the world’s most notorious drug traffickers, including $1 million from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former head of the Sinaloa cartel, “to protect his operations in Honduras,” said Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where Hernández will be prosecuted.
A grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday says Hernández used the money “to enrich himself, finance his political campaigns, and commit voter fraud,” including in connection with the 2013 and 2017 Honduran presidential elections.
He “abused his position as the president of Honduras to operate the country as a narco-state, in order to enrich himself and corruptly gain and maintain power,” the charges say.
Hernández said on social media this year that the U.S. charges were based on the claims of “drug traffickers and confessed assassins who were extradited by my government.”
A Honduran judge ruled last month that Hernández could be extradited to the U.S.
Juan Antonio Hernández, the former president's brother, was sentenced to life in prison last year after he was convicted of drug trafficking and weapons violations. During his trial, federal prosecutors said his brother, then the president, agreed to use his country’s military forces to provide security for drug traffickers.
The extradition of Hernández marks one of the few times a former head of state has been brought to the U.S. to face charges. In 1990, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was arrested on drug trafficking charges during a U.S. military operation. He was convicted in federal court in Miami. Noriega died in 2017 at Hospital Santo Tomas in Panama City at age 83.