WASHINGTON — Honduras likely will grant Washington's request to extradite one of the country's wealthiest and most powerful men to face U.S money laundering charges, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said Wednesday.
Hernandez said 80-year-old Jaime Rosenthal, a billionaire businessman who was once the country's vice president, would first face tax evasion and other criminal charges in Honduras.
Once that case has run its course, a Honduran judge will determine the extradition.
Given that Honduras has granted all recent U.S. extradition requests, Hernandez said, Rosenthal almost certainly will be sent to United States for prosecution.
"Not one (extradition request) has been denied," Hernandez told a group of U.S. reporters in Washington, where he is representing Honduras at the inauguration of a new anti-corruption commission for his country in partnership with the Organization of American States.
Seventeen people have been extradited to the United States since the procedure was made legal under Honduran law two years ago, Hernandez said.
Rosenthal sits atop a vast business empire that includes newspapers, banks, transportation companies, farms and soccer clubs.
When Honduran authorities began investigating him for tax evasion last year, they raided 20 companies and five mansions and confiscated cars and airplanes.
Forbes has estimated the Rosenthal fortune at $1.2 billion in Central America's poorest nation.
Honduran officials said this month they had received a U.S. request for Rosenthal's extradition on charges related to money laundering on behalf of drug cartels in Central America, a phenomenon that has exploded in recent years.
The U.S. Department of Justice, contacted Wednesday, declined to comment on the extradition request.
Last October, a federal grand jury in Manhattan indicted Rosenthal, known in Honduras as Don Jaime, his son Yani and nephew Yankel on charges of laundering money through their Banco Continental and other holdings.
Yankel Rosenthal was arrested in Miami and Yani reportedly is in custody in New York.
Jaime Rosenthal was placed under house arrest in Honduras, a stunning fall for a man of such wealth and influence in a country where powerful men normally call the shots.
The three Rosenthals and their businesses were given the Treasury Department's so-called kingpin designation, a blacklisting for drug trafficking suspects and those who support them.
The designation freezes any assets they have in the United States and bars U.S. citizens from doing business with them.
The Rosenthal family denied the charges and blasted the U.S. accusations. The blacklisting, especially, was "a viciousness ... which we repudiate."
Honduran Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales said earlier this month that the charges against the Rosenthal family were "bad news for the country."
On Wednesday, however, Corrales joined Hernandez in voicing support for the extradition.
Honduras has a weak political and judicial system, exacerbated by widespread corruption and the arrival in recent years of violent drug traffickers and brutal gangs.
Honduras also has come under enormous popular pressure, including a series of emphatic street demonstrations demanding reform, and investigations into numerous public scandals.
Similar protests last year in neighboring Guatemala, where an anti-corruption commission already exists, led to the resignation and jailing of the president.