Honduras has returned to the brink of chaos a week after a disputed presidential election in which a winner still has not been declared.
According to the evidence thus far, the most probable scenario for the Central American nation includes further protests, more repression against demonstrators by security forces and continued questioning of the legitimacy of the election. In certain ways, the situation seems similar to the chaotic months that followed the 2009 coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya.
Indications of possible fraud emerged before the November 26 election. A report by the Economist revealed the existence of an audio recording in which members of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party talked about implementing a “Plan B” in the event that they did not win the election. Hernández is running for re-election, and according to latest official count, he has the advantage.
Soon after the election, the vote counting process raised alarms. Hours after the polls closed, with 57 percent of the voting certificates counted, election authorities gave Zelaya-supported opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla the advantage by a little more than 5 percent.
Then, after suspicious failures in the vote counting systems, authorities gave the advantage to Hernández, prompting officials responsible for the count to voice concern, El Faro reported.
Nasralla and Zelaya called for demonstrations. There were clashes in which at least one young woman was killed. President Hernández responded by implementing a curfew. The scenes, shared widely on social media, resembled the days following the 2009 coup, which were also marked by protest and repression.
Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong, academics from American University in Washington, DC, wrote that the “irregularities in the vote-counting and the harsh suppression of the opposition probably will poison political discourse and hinder democratic progress for years to come.”
Adding to an already tense situation, an elite group of Honduran police announced on December 4 that they would remain in their barracks and not partake in “repressing the people,” according to press reports. This was a clear blow for Hernández. His relationship with the police has deteriorated since he implemented a police purge, which Nasralla has publicly criticized, hinting that he would reinstate many of the officers fired for various allegations.
The division in Honduras’ public security forces and the temporary strike by the national police may contribute to destabilization when a new government takes office. The loyalty of the armed forces, which also have significant political clout in Honduras, will be a key factor. At the moment, it is difficult to determine whether or not the military will maintain support for Hernández, who solidified his relationship with the armed forces with salary and budget increases.
Furthermore, the international community’s response was much like the vote count: irregular. For almost a week, observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) were virtually silent. Then, the international body questioned the integrity of the election in a December 4 press release.
“The narrow margin of the results, as well as the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election, do not allow us … to have certainty about the results,” the statement read.
The position of the United States has been lukewarm, in part because Juan Orlando Hernández is the United States’ main ally in Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle.”
From an official Twitter account, the top US diplomat in Honduras, Heide Fulton, congratulated Honduras for an “orderly” election process, something the OAS statement contradicts. In the middle of the electoral crisis, the US State Department certified Honduras’ human rights and corruption record, a key step in allowing the country to receive millions of dollars in foreign aid from the United States.
InSight Crime Analysis
For many Hondurans, the current situation is reminiscent of 2009. And much like eight years ago during the coup, political unrest could establish the conditions for collusion between the state and organized crime groups.
In the last decade, these relationships allowed drug trafficking groups like the Cachiros to flourish, while also transforming Honduras into one of the continent’s main cocaine corridors.
Between 2008 and 2011, according to US State Department documents accessed by InSight Crime, suspected drug flights between Venezuela and Honduras increased. Indeed, in 2009, 239,000 of the 622,000 kilograms of cocaine that crossed the Central American corridor passed through Honduras.
The Venezuela-Honduras route reopened during the administration of Zelaya, who had the support and protection of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. During the presidency of Porfirio Lobo, Zelaya’s successor and Hernández’s political mentor, new groups of drug traffickers took hold of Honduras.
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Whoever ultimately takes office in Honduras will lead a country marked by violence, impunity and attempts at institutional reforms that have yet to take off. And the new president will begin his term with a weak mandate due to electoral chaos and political polarization.
One consequences of this may be, as InSight Crime has predicted, that the future president will continue to resort to “iron fist” security measures to give the impression of being in control of the chaos. (Though they are controversial, it should be noted that these policies played a role in the reduction of homicide rates since 2012.)
In addition, both Nasralla or Hernández will face questions about relationships with organized crime maintained either by themselves or by those close to them.
Nasralla will be scrutinized due to questions regarding Zelaya, his main political supporter, who has been suspected of ties to the drug trade. The accusations also involve his brother, Carlos Zelaya. Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, a convicted leader of the Cachiros criminal group, testified in a New York court that the ex-president’s brother used clandestine airstrips to traffic cocaine. (Carlos Zelaya has denied this claim.)
It is also possible Nasralla would come under scrutiny if his Opposition Alliance (Alianza de la Oposición) party were to rebuild relations with the Venezuelan government, whose leaders have frequently been accused of having links to drug trafficking. Indeed, Nasralla himself has publicly defended the Maduro government in a controversial television interview. He said that the media exaggerates the situation in Venezuela and presents Nicolás Maduro as if he were an monster.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
Several questions also linger around Hernández, a close ally of Washington since he served as president of the Honduran congress after the coup that ousted Zelaya. Hernández packed many state institutions — including the Supreme Court and the election authority — with close allies, and managed to reform the constitution to open the door for his re-election. (Ironically, Zelaya’s moves to clear the way for re-election were used by his opponents as a justification for the coup.)
The 2016 killing of Berta Cáceres, one of Honduras’ most well-respected activists, is undoubtedly the main thorn in Hernández’s side. Many in Washington have questioned the president’s commitment to uncovering the intellectual authors of Cáceres’s murder.
Testimony from Honduran drug traffickers in US courts also raised doubts regarding Hernández. Indeed, Cachiros leader Rivera Maradiaga also testified that the president’s brother, congressman Antonio “Tony” Hernández, was an active accomplice of drug trafficking groups in the country.
Hernández assumed the presidency in 2013 with a comfortable 10-point victory. And the incumbent has several public security achievements under his belt, including an ongoing police reform effort, a declining murder rate and the installation of an OAS-supported anti-corruption mission known as MACCIH.
At the same time, there are clear signs that the current instability will have long-lasting implications in Honduras. As the years following the 2009 coup proved, institutional confusion and corruption can provide fertile ground for the flourishing of organized crime in Honduras.