The US authorities accuse Juan Orlando Hernández of receiving millionaire bribes as part of a drug trafficking plot.
Honduras extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernández to the United States, where he faces drug and arms trafficking charges.
A US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) plane took off with Hernandez on board from the airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital, on Thursday afternoon. Just three months after leaving office, Hernández boarded the plane in handcuffs.
The extradition comes weeks after the Honduran high court in late March cleared the way for Hernandez, who served as president from 2014 until earlier this year, to be extradited to face charges in a New York court.
US authorities have accused the former leader of participating in a drug trafficking scheme in which he facilitated the smuggling of some 500 tons of drugs, mainly from Colombia and Venezuela, into the US through Honduras.
The 53-year-old has denied all charges, saying they are part of a plot orchestrated by enemies trying to get revenge on him.
But US prosecutors have alleged that Hernández received millions of dollars from drug traffickers for his protection, including from the Mexican drug lord. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Once seen as a key ally in Washington’s fight against drug trafficking, Hernández lost his immunity after handing over power to Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female presidentat the end of January.
He faces three charges: conspiracy to import a controlled substance into the United States; use or carry firearms, including machine guns; and conspiracy to use or carry firearms.
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Buenos Aires, said Hernández was airlifted from a Honduran special forces military base to an airport, where the DEA plane was picking him up.
“Hernandez was a very close ally of the United States. In fact, he met with Vice President Biden when he was [part of] the Obama administration. He met with former President Donald Trump,” Bo said. “He was seen as doing the right thing at the time because he was fighting illegal immigration and helping the United States in that fight.”
He added that although this is not the first time that a former leader has been accused of drug trafficking, “it is very, very significant, especially [in reference] to US policy in the region and the war on drugs”.
Some Hondurans had celebrated in the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital, when Hernández He was arrested in February. Hundreds of policemen had surrounded his home after a trial judge issued an arrest warrant for him following the US extradition request.
“The authorities are finally doing what they should have done a long time ago: sanction and put behind bars the people who have stolen from this country,” Aarón Hernández, a 31-year-old truck driver from Honduras, he told Al Jazeera after the decision of the Supreme Court.
But others have come out in support of Hernandez, saying they believe he did nothing wrong.
“If a citizen is tried, he should be tried in our country,” said the former president’s wife, Ana Garcia, a lawyer, as she joined a dozen protesters outside the Supreme Court in late March to proclaim Hernandez’s innocence.
Most of the accusations against Hernández arose in two trials in New York, those of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandezthe brother of the president and himself a former Honduran deputy, and Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez.
Both men were part of a sprawling drug-trafficking case filed in 2015 and both were sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors labeled Hernandez a “co-conspirator” in the same case.
In a letter published when the Supreme Court issued its decision, Hernández maintained that he is innocent and said that he is a “victim of revenge and conspiracy.”
His family also said in a statement at the time that they were “ready and confident that we will be able to show the American justice system that these accusations are a revenge plot by the Honduran narcos whose empire of crime and violence Juan Orlando destroyed.”