1 of 7 | Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez was extradited to the United States on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Honduras National Police/Twitter
April 22 (UPI) -- The former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez was extradited to the United States on Thursday where he will face drug trafficking charges.
The Honduras National Police confirmed the extradition of Hernandez in a statement, saying all of his rights have been respected and was in full mental and physical health during the process.
Online, the agency posted images and photos showing a handcuffed and masked Hernandez being escorted from a helicopter that landed at an airport in the capital Tegucigalpa and the arrival of a small plane that was to take the former president to the United States.
"Mission accomplished upon delivery of ex-President Juan Orlando Hernandez," the law enforcement agency said.
For years, allegations of corruption have swarmed around the former president but they intensified as those in his inner circle including his brother, Tony Hernandez, were convicted in U.S. courts and then sentenced to prison.
Hernandez was taken into police custody on Feb. 15 at the request of the United States with a Honduran judge last month approving his extradition.
While detailing a conspiracy that began in at least 2004 and persisted up into this year, the three-count indictment unsealed Thursday specifically charges Hernandez with cocaine importation conspiracy, possession of machine guns and destructive devices and conspiracy to possess machine guns and destructive devices .
In the document, prosecutors accuse Hernandez of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from drug cartels that he used to buy his way into Hondura's highest office and in exchange he facilitated the exportation of some 500,000 kilos of cocaine into the United States.
"That's 500 tons of cocaine -- poison that landed in this country, on our streets, and as we alleged in the indictment that was exactly what Hernandez wanted," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York told reporters during a press conference.
During the length of the conspiracy, drug cartels trafficked cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela via maritime and air routes into Honduras where prominent Honduran public officials -- including Hernandez, a former congressman and two-term president during that time -- are accused of accepting bribes in exchange for protection.
Prosecutors said that in 2013 while Hernandez began his campaign for president, he accepted a $1 million bribe from Joaquin Guzman, also know as El Chapo, the head of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. jail, in exchange for protecting his drug trafficking gang.
The indictment states that Hernandez gave the bribe money to politicians and election officials nationwide to buy votes.
The associates "traveled to various municipalities that were not sufficiently supporting Hernandez and bribed officials who controlled voting centers to manipulate the vote count in Hernandez's favor," the document states.
Hernandez won the election with nearly 37% of the vote compared to challenger and current president Xiomara Castro de Zelaya's 28%.
Then when re-election came around in 2017, Hernandez is accused in the indictment of using some $1.5 million gifted him from drug cartels to again bribe politicians and election officials.
He was again elected to the country's highest political seat.
As part of the exchange for bribes, he offered the cartels sensitive law enforcement and military information to assist their activities, caused members of the police and military to protect drug shipments "and allowed brutal violence to be committed without consequence," the indictment states.
"This rampant corruption and massive cocaine trafficking came at a cost at the people of Honduras," Williams said. "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."
Within the United States, prosecutors said the conspiracy in which Hernandez participated inflamed the ongoing overdose crisis.
Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told reporters during the press conference that the Sinaloa Cartel is one of two organizations responsible for importing into the United States the synthetic opioid fentanyl, a drug connected to the majority of the 107,000 deaths recored in the United States in the past 12 months.
"This case should send a clear message to any foreign leader who corruptly abuses their power to support drug cartels," she said.
Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration Anne Milgram (R), accompanied by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland
(L), answers questions about the extradition and unsealing of an indictment charging former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez with participating in a cocaine-importation conspiracy and related firearms offenses, at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Photo by Win McNamee/UPI
The charges were announced as the Biden administration has focused on cracking down on corruption in Central American countries as an attempt to take aim at the causes of irregular migration.
In July, the State Department announced a list of 55 Central American officials accused of corruption, which Hernandez was on.
That same month, the United States sanctioned former Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa and his wife, Orsa Elena Bonilla Avila.
Lobo Sosa is mentioned in the indictment against Hernandez. The pair are accused of working together in 2009, when Lobo Sosa was president, and accepting $2 million in drug trafficking proceeds to provide protection from arrest and extradition to the United States for former El Parasio mayor Ardon Soriano, who was indicted by the Justice Department in early 2019.
The president's brother, Tony Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman, was convicted of importing 200 tons of cocaine into the United States and being complicit in at least two drug-related murders, and was sentenced last year to life in prison.
"So far, this investigation has led to the conviction of numerous Honduran drug traffickers who were responsible for the importation of over 500,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States as well as dozens of foreign murders," Attorney General Merrick Garland said during the press conference.
"Drug trafficking fuels violent crime and addiction; it devastates families and it ravages communities. 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," he said.