TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The U.S. government has requested the arrest and extradition of Juan Orlando Hernández, the former Honduran president who has been accused in federal court in New York of receiving money from drug cartels.
The extradition request was sent to the Honduran Foreign Ministry on Monday, according to a ministry official. Hours later, police officers surrounded the house of Mr. Hernández, who left office in January after his political party was ousted in elections last year.
But whether Mr. Hernandez will be sent to the United States remains to be seen. The Supreme Court, which the former president stacked with loyalists before he left office, must implement any extradition requests.
In a federal courtroom in New York last year, one witness said Mr. Hernández bragged that he was “‘going to stuff the drugs up the gringos’ noses, and they’re never even going to know it.’”
The accusations against Mr. Hernández have been made in at least two drug-trafficking cases pursued by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
Mr. Hernández has disputed the allegations in the past.
“It must be made clear that this is an outrage,” said Mr. Hernández’s attorney, Hermes Ramírez, according to local news media.
“They cannot arrest him,” he said, adding that the former president is Honduras’s representative to the Central American Parliament, a regional political body. “He enjoys immunity.”
By nightfall Monday, convoys of police pickup trucks could be seen speeding toward the former president’s home. A neighbor living about a block away from Mr. Hernández said that dozens of police officers had surrounded the residence.
As news of the extradition request spread through the capital, at least a hundred people rushed to a main boulevard to celebrate the possible arrest of Mr. Hernández, who is widely disliked, and suspected of corruption.
“Juanchi, you’re off to New York!” the protesters chanted, using a nickname for the president.
Earlier on Monday, the Foreign Ministry said on Twitter that the United States had asked for the arrest of a “Honduran politician” but did not specify who it was. CNN en Español confirmed the extradition request was for Mr. Hernández.
The State Department directed all questions about the extradition request to the Justice Department, which did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
With a crippled and corrupt justice system, many in the region say that prosecution in the United States is the only way that justice can be served.
Many of the drugs being trafficked through Latin America end up in the United States, which means that American officials can file charges in U.S. federal courts and pursue officials with extradition requests.
Such a swift extradition request — coming just weeks after Mr. Hernández stepped down — is unusual, and will most likely send a pointed message to other governments in the region to clean up or risk being pursued in United States courts.
Mr. Hernández’s party lost national elections last November, opening the former president up to prosecution in the United States. The countries have an extradition treaty.
Mr. Hernández left office in January and was succeeded by Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female president. Ms. Castro has promised to cooperate with the United States and fight corruption in the country.
Tackling the widespread graft that plagues much of Central America is a top priority for the Biden administration, which sees it as a main reason for the record number of migrants heading toward the United States’ southern border.
Vice President Kamala Harris attended Ms. Castro’s inauguration last month, and it was seen as a message to other Central American governments to get on board with the Biden administration’s plan for the region or risk a frayed relation with the United States.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 300,000 crossings by Hondurans in the last fiscal year, making the country the second-largest source of migrants after Mexico.