TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández handed himself in to the authorities to potentially face extradition and drug charges in the United States, capping a spectacular downfall for one of Central America’s most powerful men.
Mr. Hernández, who led the country for eight years and stepped down less than a month ago, was escorted by security officers from his home on Tuesday, wearing a bulletproof vest and handcuffs.
“It’s not an easy moment, I don’t wish it on anybody,” Mr. Hernández said in an audio message posted on his Twitter profile at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.
“I’m ready to present myself voluntarily and defend myself in accordance with the law,” he said in a separate message on Facebook, shortly after.
Police trucks and black sports utility vehicles with tinted windows surrounded his home in an upmarket gated community on Monday night, just minutes after the country’s Foreign Ministry revealed that it had received an extradition request from the United States for a politician. Local media showed images of a balaclava-clad tactical police unit with drawn guns standing ready to enter his front door throughout the morning.
An extradition request presented to Honduras’s Supreme Court and seen by The New York Times claims Mr. Hernández had participated in a “violent drug-trafficking conspiracy” that since 2004 had transported 500 tons of cocaine from Venezuela and Colombia to the United States via Honduras. The document claims that Mr. Hernández had received millions of dollars in bribes for facilitating the shipments and shielding traffickers from prosecution.
The former president’s brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, is serving a life sentence in the United States for cocaine trafficking. Another convicted cocaine trafficker who implicated the former president, Geovanny Fuentes, received a similar sentence last week.
It is not clear if, or when, Mr. Hernández may be extradited to the United States and whether he will be accused of crimes at home. Honduras’s Supreme Court is expected rule on whether to grant the extradition request.
A Supreme Court judge who was named on Tuesday to hear Mr. Hernández’s case is affiliated with the former president’s party and has a history of absolving suspects in corruption cases, said Gabriela Castellanos, the head of National Anti-Corruption Council, an independent body created by congress.
Up to now, Honduras, which relies heavily on American aid, has never denied a U.S. extradition request, said Marlon Duarte, a Tegucigalpa-based lawyer who has participated in five extradition cases. But a case against a recent president has no precedent, and Mr. Hernández retains significant support in the judicial system, he said.
The legal battle that will decide Mr. Hernández’s future could drag on for weeks or even months, said Mr. Duarte.
“We are putting the country’s institutions to the test,” he said. “We are about to see if the judicial system is part of the same criminal structure that the president is accused of creating.”
Honduras’s new president, Xiomara Castro, has accused Mr. Hernández of turning the country into a “narco-dictatorship.” She was swept to victory in November after promising to overhaul the system of corruption and impunity that flourished under Mr. Hernández, contributing to a mass exodus of its citizens to the United States.
Still, the speed of Mr. Hernández’s downfall has surprised most of Hondurans. He is a member of the Central American Parliament, which technically grants him immunity from prosecution, and his political party remains a major force in Honduras’s congress.
Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City.