In Honduras vote, new lesson in how the drug war steers politics


Are beefed-up police like these guys the real winners of Honduras' election?


Orlando Sierra

MEXICO CITY — The new Honduran president-elect promises to wield a harsher hammer to rebuild a country bedeviled by organized crime, deadly violence and deep-set poverty.

Juan Orlando Hernandez, 45, of the conservative ruling National Party and a former head of congress, says his priorities will be “recovering the peace and tranquility of the country, promoting investment to generate massive employment and tending to the humblest and poorest.”

Hernandez took 35 percent of Sunday’s vote, about 6 points above his closest rival in an eight-way race, election officials said.

Runner-up Xiomara Castro, 54, of the left-tilting Libre party, whose husband was overthrown in a 2009 coup authorized by congress, had also claimed she won and as of Thursday had not recognized the results.

Hernandez campaigned on a law-and-order platform, vowing to double down on the recent deployment of military policy into the most crime-ridden areas.

Castro promoted a different kind of community-based police force as well as greater social spending, jobs programs and other measures she said would prevent crime.

More from GlobalPost: Honduras picks between police state or gangster state

Hernandez “promised a get tough on crime approach, so I think we can expect that for sure,” said Eric Olson, a leading expert on Central America at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, DC think tank. “The question is which is a more effective strategy.”

But odds are that Hernandez won’t much improve his country’s dismal record in stopping the thriving trade in US-bound cocaine and synthetic drugs. Nor will it stanch the torrent of young Hondurans — as many as 100,000 a year, by one official count — migrating through Mexico into the United States illegally.

Drug trafficking, murder and poverty all have spiked as the world economic crisis, US-born street gangs and drug cartels have beset the country. The “hard hand” policies of outgoing President Porfirio Lobo, who won office following the ouster of Manuel Zelaya and is barred by law from seeking a second term, did little or nothing to change that reality.

Honduras long has ranked among the world’s deadliest countries, its murder rate 14 times greater than that of the US. Killing too often resolves ordinary disputes. The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, both imported from Los Angeles, vie for control of extortion, street drug sales and other vice rackets, with frequently fatal effect.

Central America serves as a transit point for South American cocaine and other illicit drugs trafficked to American consumers. But the Washington-backed seven-year offensive against Mexico’s crime lords has pushed more of the illicit trade into Honduras and its neighbors.

Four-fifths of all US-bound cocaine now flows through the region, the State Department estimates. Nearly 90 percent of the cocaine-laden planes departing South America land first in Honduras. Precursor chemicals for methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs pass through the country and its neighbors.

That’s brought an almost existential threat to the region’s already weak governments and impoverished societies.

Mexico has begun tightening its porous southern border with troops and immigration checkpoints. Guatemala’s government recently has deployed a US-trained unit along its border with Mexico meant to interdict narcotics. Hundreds of US Marines have been deployed to support bases in Guatemala.

US Drug Enforcement Administration agents recently have been coordinating with vetted Honduran police along the country’s Caribbean coast to combat the cocaine trade. One such joint operation last year killed four innocent villagers in an isolated coastal region favored by traffickers.

Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Federation cartel has operated both in Honduras and neighboring Guatemala for years. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the reputed Sinaloa top boss, has been reported to frequent both countries. The violent Zetas gang, Sinaloa’s rival, also set up operations in the region.

In addition, at least three powerful Honduran gangs connect South American cocaine producers with Mexican gangs who funnel the drug to US consumers. Honduras’ sparsely populated northern Caribbean coast hosts clandestine airstrips and smuggler-friendly waterways.

“It’s both a trampoline and a storage center,” Steven Dudley, co-director of Insight Crime, which studies criminal groups throughout Latin America, says of Honduras. “The country is basically at the service of the highest bidder.”

The gangsters’ ill-gotten gains in turn finance varied business investments and win friends among Honduran executives and officials.

The US Treasury Department in September targeted one Honduran gang, the Cachiros, "as a violent drug trafficking organization … whose members plow illicit drug proceeds into businesses and properties in order to gain public legitimacy and launder their wealth," said Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Controlled by the extended Rivera Maradiaga family, the Cachiros’ assets are estimated to total some $800 million, Dudley says. That’s powerful wealth in a largely agricultural country with an $18 billion annual economy.

With steady, good-paying jobs scarce, Honduras’ 8.5 million people, whose numbers have doubled in three decades, get by on an average annual income of a bit more than $2,000 each. About 60 percent of the people live below the country's poverty line, according to the world bank.

Critics claim that gangster funds slosh through Honduras’ political parties and their election campaigns. Under agreement from all the political parties, there is no independent oversight of campaign budgets or spending, notes Olson of the Wilson Center.

“Failing to address institutional weakness leaves the door open for organized crime,” Olson says. “All the Central American countries should take a lesson in that.”

Claiming fraud, Castro and husband Zelaya have asked supporters to protest against the results. Only a few hundred students answered the call earlier this week. International observers have reported no widespread irregularities in the voting.

Still, Olson says he doubts about the cleanliness of the vote could further erode the already shallow faith Hondurans have in democracy.

Only 44 percent of Hondurans surveyed this year in a hemisphere-wide opinion poll agreed that democracy was the preferable form of government. That’s among the region’s lowest level of support for democratic government, though ahead of Mexico’s 37 percent, according to pollster Latinobarometro.

The early vote count gives Hernandez’s National Party only 47 of 128 congressional seats, while Castro’s Libre Party will hold 39 and the Liberal Party has 26. That will force Hernandez to negotiate compromises with opponents or to preside over the gridlock that has hobbled his predecessors.

But once he takes office Hernandez almost certainly will accelerate deployment of militarized police to the most violence-plagued areas, including the industrial center of San Pedro Sula and the capital, Tegucigalpa.

But, like Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, he’s signaled that his public security policies might well diverge from those of Washington in targeting violent crime more than drug trafficking.

“For them it’s a problem of public health, but for us it’s a problem of blood and death,” Hernandez said of US policymakers during the campaign, according to The Associate Press.