TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Honduras extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernández to the United States on Thursday to face drug trafficking and weapons charges in a dramatic reversal for a leader once touted by U.S. authorities as a key ally in the war on the drugs.
Just three months after leaving office, Hernández boarded an airplane handcuffed with agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration bound for the United States, where he faces charges in the Southern District of New York.
Hernández was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa in February at the request of U.S. authorities. He was shackled and paraded in front of journalists, a sight many Hondurans never imagined seeing.
Honduran officials have said the three charges Hernández will face in the U.S. are conspiracy to import and distribute drugs to the United States, using firearms in support of a drug trafficking conspiracy and conspiracy to use firearms in support of drug trafficking.
Honduras’ Supreme Court rejected his appeal of a judge’s decision in favor of extradition.
U.S. prosecutors have accused Hernández of fueling his political rise with money from drug traffickers. The payments were made in exchange for Honduran authorities allowing them to operate or for information allowing them to evade interdiction.
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.
Hernández’s brother Tony Hernández, a former congressman, was sentenced to life in prison in the same U.S. court on essentially the same charges.
Juan Orlando Hernández took office in January 2014 and held the presidency until this 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.
Hernández’s transport via helicopter under heavy guard from the police base where he was held to the airport Thursday 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.