The top court in Honduras has backed the extradition of former President Juan Orlando Hernandez to the United States, where he is wanted on drug trafficking and firearms charges.
The Honduras Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by Hernandez, 53, following a judge’s March 16 decision to accept a US extradition request, said judiciary spokesman Melvin Duarte.
Hernandez, who held office from 2014 to 2022 and has denied all the charges against him, could face a life sentence if convicted.
US authorities have accused Hernandez, who was arrested in Honduras in mid-February following an extradition request by the Court of the Southern District of New York, of participating in a drug-trafficking scheme.
They say Hernandez facilitated the smuggling of some 500 tonnes of drugs – mainly from Colombia and Venezuela – to the US via Honduras since 2004.
US prosecutors have alleged he received millions of dollars from drug traffickers for protection, including from Mexican narco-kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Once viewed as a key ally in Washington’s fight against drug trafficking, Hernandez lost his immunity after handing power over to Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female president, in late January.
He faces three charges: conspiracy to import a controlled substance into the United States; using or carrying firearms including machine guns; and conspiracy to use or carry firearms.
On the first charge, the Supreme Court’s 15 magistrates voted unanimously in favour of extradition. For the two firearms-related charges, the vote was 13 for and two against. The decision cannot be appealed.
Felix Avila, one of Hernandez’s lawyers, said on Monday that “this is a decision by the Supreme Court and the fact that we don’t agree with it does not mean it is illegal”.
Most of the allegations against Hernandez emerged in two trials in New York — those of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, the president’s brother and himself a former Honduran congressman, and Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez.
Both men were part of a sprawling drug trafficking case filed in 2015 and both were given life sentences. Prosecutors labelled Hernandez a “co-conspirator” in the same case.
The crux of prosecutors’ accusations is that Hernandez used bribes and support from drug traffickers to fuel his political rise from a congressman representing rural Lempira in western Honduras to president of the National Congress and then two consecutive presidential terms.
In exchange, traffickers allegedly were allowed to operate unencumbered, received information that helped them avoid authorities and sometimes even had security forces in their service.
Hernandez has been in custody since mid-February when he was arrested after a dramatic stakeout that saw him holed up in his home surrounded by police. He emerged hours later, pledging to cooperate with authorities.
In a letter published on Monday, Hernandez maintained that he is innocent and said he is the “victim of revenge and conspiracy”.
Hernandez claims that drug traffickers he helped extradite to the US have tried to get back at him by implicating him in the trade. “Three life sentences could make me a living dead,” said Hernandez, who added it was “painful” to be separated from his loved ones.
His wife Ana Garcia, a lawyer, joined a group of about a dozen protesters outside the court in Tegucigalpa proclaiming his innocence.
“If a citizen is tried, they should be tried in our country,” said Garcia.
The former president’s family also stressed in a statement issued later in the day that the decision was not a criminal conviction. “We’re ready and confident that we’ll be able to show the US justice system that these accusations are a revenge plot from Honduran narcos whose empire of crime and violence Juan Orlando destroyed.”