(CN) — Honduras’ Supreme Court ruled Wednesday evening to extradite former President Juan Orlando Hernández to the United States on drug charges less than two months after he left office.
Hernández was arrested on Feb. 15 after the United States requested his extradition on drug trafficking and weapons charges.
He is accused of having aided in the smuggling of over 500 tons of cocaine to the United States during his two terms as president.
Hernández’s arrest and extradition came after years of allegations that he had received payments for providing protection to drug runners in Honduras. Reuters reported in May 2021 that U.S. prosecutors called Honduras a “narco-state” during a trial of drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez.
Ramírez, a Honduran national, was sentenced to life in prison and ordered to forfeit over $151 million on drug and weapons charges in February.
Hernández’s defense argued that the United States “did not send any probative documentation” that would justify his extradition.
A group of around 40 members of the ex-president’s National Party of Honduras, mostly former government employees, gathered outside the Supreme Court Wednesday morning to protest the hearing. Hernández’s wife Ana García Carías was also among them.
Their demonstration, however, was not enough to move the court to rule in Hernández’s favor.
The Supreme Court’s 15 magistrates, all of whom were appointed during Hernández’s term, were stuck between a rock and a hard place with this decision, according to Honduran economist and former presidential pre-candidate for the Liberty and Refoundation Party (Libre) Nelson Ávila.
He said that the narco-state is deeply entrenched in the court, as well as nearly every other institution in the country — the Congress, Public Prosecutor’s Office, Armed Forces and groups of corrupt businessmen and bankers.
“These groups do not want to extradite him, so as to avoid being extradited themselves afterward,” Ávila told Courthouse News before the ruling was announced.
“They are afraid of what he might say in U.S. court. If they don’t extradite him, they would face a geopolitical power and could still be extradited themselves. It’s a complex dilemma.”
Fellow Honduran economist Ismael Zepeda Galo called the ruling a “milestone” for the country, as Hernández had the “whole perverse institutional structure” in his favor.
“To extradite a person of such magnitude of power was unimaginable,” said Zepeda.
“In one way or another, this could help the country recover its public institutions from the hidden power of the drug trade and improve policy, not just in relation to criminal policy, but with economic and social policy as well,” he said.
In a statement issued after the ruling, the Supreme Court said that it approved the extradition of Hernández based on charges of drug smuggling, manufacturing and distribution by the Southern District Court of New York. Weapons charges were also part of the extradition request.
Despite the court’s ruling, Hernández will not be heading to New York tomorrow. His attorneys now have three days to appeal, which they plan to do. For now, the former president will remain in custody in the same cell he has occupied since his arrest in February.
This article includes reporting by Honduran journalist Paulo Cerrato.
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