Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández appeared before a federal New York City court judge Friday
Hernandez who is accused of ‘abusing his position as President of Honduras to operate the country as a narco-state’, arrived New York in handcuffs
The case is the highest profile drug trafficking trial held in the United States since El Chapo was convicted in 2019
The 53-year-old conservative politician was extradited to the United States on Thursday to face drug trafficking and weapons charges
Prosecutors also allege that the ex-president’s political career was propelled by money provided by drug traffickers
Prosecutors charge that Hernandez received millions of dollars from drug cartels, including from notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman
His brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, was convicted on drug trafficking and weapons charges in October 2019 and sentenced to life in prison in March 2021
The trial of Tony Hernández revealed that Sinaloa Cartel head El Chapo funded Juan Orlando Hernández’s presidential campaign in 2013
Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández has been extradited to US for prosecution. He landed in New York on Thursday evening to face drug trafficking and weapons charges.
Hernández, 53, on Friday appeared virtually for his initial US court appearance Friday on federal drug trafficking and firearms possession charges.
Hernandez was extradited from Honduras and arrived in the United States on Thursday speaking through a translator, appeared expressionless when answering the questions asked by Judge Stewart D. Aaron. The former president appeared on video held the phone up to his ear while listening to the proceeding.
Through his attorney, Hernández waived the right to a formal reading of the charges against him.
Hernández, who was once a United States ally in the war against transnational drug cartels, is facing prosecution within months of leaving office.
The former president is accused of conspiring to traffic thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States between 2004 and 2022, the Department of Justice said in a statement.
Federal prosecutors say Hernández promised to ‘stuff the drugs right up the noses of the gringos,’ and received millions of dollars to ‘use his public office, law enforcement, and the military to support drug-trafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere.’
He was taken into custody by a combined team of Honduran security agents and law enforcement officers at his home in Tegucigalpa, on February 15, after U.S. authorities filed an extradition request almost three weeks after the end of his eight-year presidential term.
On Thursday, the disgraced former president was turned over to US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, who flew him into an airport north of New York City.
Hernández is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York will be prosecuting the case.
Addressing the development Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement: ‘The Department is committed to disrupting the entire ecosystem of drug trafficking networks that harm the American people, no matter how far or how high we must go.’
The indictment in US District Court in the Southern District of New York charges Hernández with cocaine importation conspiracy, possession of machine guns and destructive devices, and conspiracy to possess machine guns and destructive devices.
Both parties have agreed that Hernández will remain detained, Judge Aaron said, but an attorney for Hernández can decide to file a bail application later on.
According to U.S. prosecutors, Hernández was part of a ‘corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy’ that moved more than 550 tons of cocaine to the United States.
The two-term president was charged with participating in a drug trafficking conspiracy, possession of machine guns and destructive devices and conspiracy to possess machine guns and destructive devices.
Prosecutors charge that Hernandez received millions of dollars from drug cartels, including from notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.
Hernández it is alleged, partnered with some of the most violent drug trafficking groups, receiving millions of dollars off a network that funneled cocaine through Honduras and into the US, according to the indictment.
He used the money, the indictment says, to enrich himself, finance his political rise and subsequently remain in power.
In exchange, Hernández provided the trafficking organizations with law enforcement information that helped shield the organizations’ leaders from criminal investigations, protected leaders from extradition to the US and allowed them to commit violence with virtually no consequences, US authorities say.
His next court appearance is scheduled for May 10.
During 2019 the trial of his former Congressman brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, a key government witness testified before the New York court that Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán had contributed $1 million ahead of Juan Orlando Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign in exchange for protection.
The future president sent his brother and an associate, who has not been identified, with machine guns to collect El Chapo’s payment.
Federal prosecutors allege he used that money to finance his 2017 presidential election and engaged in voter fraud.
‘DEA’s multi-year investigation revealed that Juan Orlando Hernández, the former President of Honduras, was a central figure in one of the largest and most violent cocaine trafficking conspiracies in the world,’ DEA administrator Anne Milgram said.
‘This case should send a message – to all political leaders around the world that trade on positions of influence to further transnational organized crime – that the DEA will stop at nothing to investigate these cases and dismantle drug trafficking organizations that threaten the safety and health of the American people.’
‘We allege that Hernández corrupted legitimate public institutions in the country – including parts of the national police, military and national Congress.’
Honduras´ Supreme Court rejected his appeal of a judge’s decision in favor of extradition.
Drug trafficking fuels violent crime and addiction; it devastates families, and it ravages communities,’ Garland said.
‘The Justice Department is committed to disrupting the entire ecosystem of drug trafficking networks that harm the American people, no matter how far or how high we must go.’
Hernández has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a video message released Thursday, he said, ‘I am innocent; I have been and I am being unjustly subjected to prosecution.’
He has said he is the victim of drug traffickers he extradited who are now lying to seek revenge.
‘It is surprising that this decision … is made based on ‘media reports’ and also on statements from drug traffickers and confessed murderers who were extradited by my government, or who had to flee and surrender to the United States authorities for fear of being extradited,’ Hernández wrote in an open letter.
Henry Osorto Canales, a retired National Police commissioner who is now an analyst, said that while the extradition was an embarrassment for Honduras, it was also a historic day.
‘This is a start because it has begun with the largest political piece that the country had and logically the rest of the pieces are going to fall, at least those closest (to Hernández),’ Osorto said.
U.S. prosecutors have spent years building cases from low-level drug traffickers and local politicians to organized crime bosses who used their political connections and ties to drug trafficking cartels in Colombia and Mexico to move tons of cocaine to the United States.
Many of them testified about making payments to Hernández or one of his brothers, also a politician.
Juan Antonio Hernández was found guilty by the Southern District of New York on drug trafficking and firearms charges in October 2019. He sentenced to life in prison in March 2021.
Juan Orlando Hernández took office in January 2014 and held the presidency until January, when Xiomara Castro was sworn in as his replacement. Castro campaigned on rooting out Honduras´ corruption and Hernández was seen as the largest target.
On Wednesday, Honduras’ Supreme Court denied an appeal from the former chief of the National Police, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, better known as ‘El Tigre’ or ‘The Tiger.’ He was arrested after Hernández at the request of U.S. prosecutors on similar charges and is expected to be extradited in the coming weeks. U.S. prosecutors allege Bonilla assisted the movement of tons of cocaine through Honduras, working with Hernández and his brother Tony Hernández, both co-conspirators in the case in the Southern District of New York.
Hernández´s transport via helicopter came under heavy guard from the police base where he was held to the airport and was covered live by local television outlets.
Some Hondurans stood outside the airport’s perimeter fence to catch a glimpse of the former president boarding the plane with U.S. authorities. When Hernández’s plane took off, some were seen jumping in celebration.
Thousands of their countrymen emigrated from the country during Hernández’s administration, often shouting ‘Get out JOH!’ using his initials as they walked north. They frequently complained of a lack of job opportunities and gang violence.