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Ex-Honduran president appears in US court on drugs charges

Honduras' former President Juan Orlando Hernandez (2-R) is escorted by Minister of Security Ramon Sabillon (R) towards a plane of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), during his extraditaton to United State at the Air force Base, in Tegucigalpa, on April 21, 2022
Honduras' former President Juan Orlando Hernandez (2-R) is escorted by Minister of Security Ramon Sabillon (R) towards a plane of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), during his extraditaton to United State at the Air force Base, in Tegucigalpa, on April 21, 2022 - Copyright AFP Ed JONES
Honduras' former President Juan Orlando Hernandez (2-R) is escorted by Minister of Security Ramon Sabillon (R) towards a plane of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), during his extraditaton to United State at the Air force Base, in Tegucigalpa, on April 21, 2022 - Copyright AFP Ed JONES
Ana FERNANDEZ

Ex-Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez made his first appearance before a US judge Friday following his extradition to America to face drug trafficking charges.

The 53-year-old appeared in a New York federal court via video-link after he was brought to the United States on Thursday.

Hernandez is accused of aiding the smuggling of hundreds of tons of cocaine to America in return for millions of dollars in bribes from drug-traffickers.

Hernandez was not required to enter a plea during the short hearing. His lawyers did not make a request for bail but said they would at a later date.

Judge Stewart Aaron set a date of May 10 for Hernandez’s arraignment, when the former leader will be expected to say whether he will challenge the charges.

Hernandez, whose 2014 to 2022 stint as president was plagued by allegations of corruption, risks spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

He is accused of having facilitated the smuggling of some 500 tons of cocaine — mainly from Colombia and Venezuela — to America via Honduras since 2004, starting long before his presidency.

In turn, he received “millions of dollars in bribes… from multiple narcotrafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico and other places,” US prosecutors allege.

Hernandez has been charged with three counts of drug and weapons offenses.

Not even three weeks after leaving office following elections, a warrant was issued for his arrest at Washington’s request, and he surrendered to police on February 15.

He was then held at a police special forces prison in the capital Tegucigalpa before he was taken to the US on a Drug Enforcement Administration plane.

Hernandez portrayed himself as an ally of the US war on drugs during his tenure, helping to extradite several narcotics kingpins.

Washington even supported his re-election in 2017 despite a constitutional one-term limit and accusations of voting fraud.

But several drug traffickers since told US prosecutors they had paid bribes to the president’s inner circle, and by the time he left office, US drug enforcers were ready to move against Hernandez.

– ‘Narco-state’ –

The US says the former president turned Honduras into a “narco-state” by involving the military, police and civilians in drug trafficking to the United States.

He is alleged to have received money from traffickers including Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, allowing them to operate with near impunity.

An alleged Hernandez associate, Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, was sentenced in the United States in February to life in prison and a fine of $151.7 million for smuggling tons of cocaine with the ex-president’s aid.

And the former president’s brother, ex-congressman Tony Hernandez, was given a life sentence in America in March 2021 for drug trafficking crimes in which Juan Orlando Hernandez was said to have been a co-conspirator.

Hernandez left office on January 27 when leftist Xiomara Castro became president. Honduras has a poverty rate of at least 60 percent among its 10 million inhabitants.

On March 28, the 15-member Supreme Court of Honduras — all judges appointed during Hernandez’s first term — ratified his extradition.

The former president’s family has said drug-traffickers told lies about Hernandez in a bid to have their own sentences reduced.

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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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