TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has been accused in U.S. court hearings of aiding drug traffickers, on Thursday was sworn in as a member of the Central American parliament, giving him immunity from prosecution in the region.
Hernandez formally joined the Guatemala-based regional body, called Parlacen, just a few hours after Xiomara Castro’s inauguration as Honduran president, amid media speculation that he would be indicted on drug trafficking charges by the United States upon leaving office.
His term with Parlacen is due to last four years, in line with the organization’s mandate to incorporate former presidents and vice presidents along with elected members, Parlacen said in a statement.
Parlacen affords members immunity from prosecution in Central America, though that immunity can be removed or suspended if requested by a member’s home country.
“When former President Juan Orlando Hernandez is sworn in as a member of the Central American parliament, he enjoys the immunity granted by being part of that body,” said attorney and former Parlacen member Arturo Echenique.
Hernandez, who governed Honduras for eight years and was a U.S. ally in anti-narcotics operations, has repeatedly denied links to drug cartels and has not been formally charged in U.S. courts.
U.S. Representative Norma Torres on Thursday called for Hernandez to be immediately indicted and for U.S. officials to request his extradition.
“President Hernandez has been a central figure in undermining the rule of law in his own country and in protecting and assisting drug traffickers,” Torres said in a statement.
“He has been repeatedly identified as a co-conspirator in other drug trafficking cases.”
Hernandez, from the conservative National Party, saw his popularity plummet by the time he left office after serving a maximum two consecutive terms. Castro, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from the leftist Libre party, won support of Hondurans tired of corruption and the country’s concentration of power.
If the United States were to charge the Honduran ex-president and seek his extradition, the Honduran government could pass the case over to Parlacen to decide, Echenique said.
In a case last year against now-convicted Honduran drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, prosecutors said that Hernandez used Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers.
Hernandez’s brother last year was sentenced by a U.S. judge to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking.
(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia, Editing by Daina Beth Solomon & Simon Cameron-Moore)