Honduras vote raises fears of violence at ‘key moment’ for Central America

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The flag-waving parade of opposition politicians snaked through the winding streets of this capital’s slums. Residents clambered onto roofs and packed the doorways of shacks lit with bare lightbulbs, pumping their fists, laughing or jiggling to a satirical tune blasting into the night.

Set to a merengue beat, the lyrics riffed on the possible extradition of the country’s two-term president to the United States. “Juanchi, Juanchi, Juanchi,” the song squawked, using a sly diminutive for Honduras’s president, Juan Orlando Hernández. “Juanchi’s headed to New York. The gringos are waiting for him.”

Hernández, 53, isn’t seeking another term. Yet his shadow looms large over Sunday’s presidential election in this Central American nation. U.S. prosecutors allege he’s overseen the rise of a “narco-state” and funded his campaigns with drug money. Hernández denies the accusations, which emerged in the 2019 drug-trafficking trial of his brother in New York. The president hasn’t been charged.

Honduran elections in recent years have been turbulent, marred by fraud and followed by protests met with brutal crackdowns. Now, with many analysts predicting Hernández will be indicted in the United States, the fight for power is even more intense. At least 31 political-related slayings have occurred during the campaign, the highest number on record, according to the Honduran National Observatory of Violence. Those killed include congressional and mayoral candidates and their top supporters.

The consequences of a disputed election could go well beyond Honduras.

The election comes as U.S. relations have soured with other Central American countries — especially Nicaragua and El Salvador, whose leaders have become increasingly authoritarian.

“It’s a key moment not only for Hondurans but for Central America and for the wider hemisphere,” said a senior State Department official in Washington, who briefed reporters on the condition he was not identified. “A good clear democratic outcome that reflects the will of the Honduran people will send an important signal.”

The president’s conservative National party has led the country since 2010. It came to power after the military ousted Mel Zelaya, an ally of leftist Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chávez. The party has steadily tightened its grip on Honduras’ judiciary, electoral institutions and security forces.

Now Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, is trying to break the party’s hold. Polls show her Libre party ahead, thanks in part to her alliance with a third-party candidate, Salvador Nasralla. Yet the coalition is fearful of fraud, especially after the widespread irregularities in the 2017 balloting, when Hernández ran for reelection. Security forces opened fire on people protesting that result, killing more than 20.

Propelling the Libre campaign is anger over deep-seated graft. An independent watchdog, the National Anti-Corruption Council, said allegations of corruption trail 50 of the 70 deputies seeking reelection in the 128-seat legislature.

Semma Julissa Villanueva, the former director of the national morgue, is one of the Libre Party’s high-profile congressional candidates. She lost her job after she accused the government of a coverup in the death of an agent who was reportedly investigating drug trafficking.

“The people aren’t stupid,” she shouted into the din at the recent campaign parade. “The people know.”

What they know, she meant, is that President Hernández’s brother, Tony, was sentenced in March to life in prison after being convicted of trafficking 185 tons of cocaine to the United States. Prosecutors alleged that the president himself protected drug lords in exchange for payoffs, although he was not charged.

His ruling party has a well-oiled patronage machine and has traditionally relied on support from the countryside. Opposition candidates say it is increasingly resorting to bare-knuckle tactics.

David Castro, who heads an association of Honduran mayors and has been a fierce critic of the government’s response to the pandemic, said he was warned by three National Party figures to “lower my profile.” The threats coincided with a spate of murders of candidates.

“These are well-organized political crimes,” said Castro, who is running for reelection of the town of Los Cedros for the smaller Liberal Party. He is not related to the presidential candidate. The National Party has denied it’s connected to the violence.

Hernández calls the allegations against him smears from confessed narco-traffickers seeking vengeance for his efforts to dismantle organized crime. He notes that he helped forge the country’s extradition treaty with the United States while serving as head of Congress, before his election in 2013.

His party has pledged to respect the election results.

Corruption allegations swirl around several of the presidential hopefuls.

The National Party’s candidate, Nasry Asfura, was accused by Honduran prosecutors last year of embezzling more than $1 million while serving as mayor of Tegucigalpa. (He denies the charge). Yani Rosenthal, of the Liberal party, served three years in a U.S. prison for money laundering. While Castro isn’t facing any charges, a Honduran drug trafficker testified this year that he paid a $500,000 bribe to her husband when he was president. (Zelaya has denied that).

The Biden administration has insisted it doesn’t have a favorite candidate. But many Hondurans regard Washington as a longtime supporter of the National Party. President Donald Trump praised Hernández for his cooperation on limiting migration, overlooking the leader’s alleged drug connections and the flawed 2017 election. The Obama administration criticized the 2009 coup, but ultimately accepted the National Party government that followed it.

Since then, “we’ve seen a terrifying downward spiral of the economy, the government and of health care, and that’s exactly what people are fleeing,” said Dana Frank, a historian and Honduras expert at University of California, Santa Cruz.

U.S. administrations “have chosen to support these regimes over and over again, with devastating results,” she said.

The pandemic, together with back-to-back hurricanes a year ago, have added to the economic and political volatility driving Hondurans to leave their country. About 309,000 Hondurans, equivalent to 3 percent of the population, were detained at the U.S. southern border in fiscal year 2021.

Even some Hondurans accustomed to the nation’s chronic violence are nervous about Sunday’s election. Zobeida Narvaez, a defense attorney, has served as an election observer for the National Party in past elections. Not this time.

“I’m going to stock up on food, lock myself at home and bar the front door,” she said.

Sheridan reported from Mexico City.

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