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HONDURAS: Election Campaign Takes Tough Stance on Crime, Ignores Poverty

Manuel Bermúdez

TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 16 2005 (IPS) - Voters in Honduras are getting ready to go to the polls on Nov. 27 in the midst of a campaign in which the overriding issue has been the country’s soaring crime rates, while pressing concerns like poverty have been ignored, according to analysts and activists.

There is also concern about the implementation of a brand-new electoral reform, which could represent a setback for democracy by depriving small parties of a chance to hold onto or win seats in Congress.

Nearly four million voters in this impoverished Central American nation of 6.5 million are eligible to vote this month for a new president, vice president, 128 legislators and 289 mayors in the seventh general elections to take place since two decades of military rule came to an end in 1982.

The latest CID-Gallup polls indicate that the head of Congress, Porfirio Lobo, the governing National Party’s presidential candidate, is in the lead with 39 percent ratings, followed by Manuel Zelaya of the opposition Liberal Party, with 31 percent.

Also in the running, but with no chance of winning, are Carlos Sosa representing the social democratic Innovation and Unity Party, Juan Almendares of the leftist Democratic Unification Party, and Juan Ramón Martínez of the centre-left Christian Democracy Party.

The candidates of the two traditional parties, the Liberal and National parties, which have alternated in the government since the return to democracy, have based their often bitter and vitriolic campaigns on mutual accusations of incapacity to guarantee public safety and fight the youth gangs known as “maras”.

Lobo’s campaign focus on the high crime rates and violent gangs, the most pressing public concern, led the rest of the parties down the same road, and they thus left aside key issues like poverty, hunger and unemployment, Reina Rivera with the local Centre for the Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights told IPS.

The maras are the worst public safety concern in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. During the Central American Integration System’s 26th regular meeting in the Honduran capital in late June, the region’s leaders signed, along with the presidents of Mexico and the United States, a commitment to create a “rapid response” force to tackle the problem of youth gangs.

The origin of the extremely violent gangs can be traced back to the 1980s and to the U.S. state of California, after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war. Many of them settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.

In the 1990s, U.S. authorities began to deport thousands of members of the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and homicide rates in those countries soared. The gangs have now also spread to Mexico.

Although there is no consensus on how many youngsters belong to the maras, estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000 in Central America and Mexico.

Under a U.S. federal law, any non-citizen legal residents sentenced to over one year in jail must be deported after they have served their time.

The extremely precarious economic conditions in the region also create a breeding-ground for the expansion of the maras. In Honduras, 64 percent of the population lives in poverty and 45 percent in extreme poverty, while unemployment stands at 35 percent.

Every day, between 20 and 30 minors are deported to Honduras by the United States, Mexico and Guatemala, Marta Savillón, a lawyer who works with Casa Alianza (the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House), told IPS.

Lobo, who has personally experienced gang violence when relatives were kidnapped by the maras, wants to further stiffen the country’s already tough anti-gang legislation, and has even called for the reinstatement of the death penalty.

In the legislature, he already pushed through the “anti-mara law”, which outlaws gang membership and provides for prison terms of up to 20 years and fines of up to 50,000 dollars for belonging to a mara. Some 2,500 young people have been convicted so far under this law.

But his “tough on crime” stance has drawn warnings from human rights groups, which point to the risk that the draconian legislation could lead to an increase in human rights abuses and police brutality. Global rights watchdogs like Amnesty International have sounded the alert on “social cleansing” killings of young people suspected of belonging to gangs. In its 2003 report “Honduras: Zero Tolerance.for Impunity. Extrajudicial Executions of Children and Youths since 1998”, Amnesty reported that “(n)on-governmental organisations (NGOs) estimate that from 1998 to the end of 2002 more than 1,500 children and youths were murdered in Honduras.” Casa Alianza has documented that the police are responsible for at least some of these killings.

Political scientist Ernesto Paz Aguilar said neither of the two traditional parties have set forth a well-defined public security strategy, but merely present a hodgepodge of ideas in response to specific circumstances. “There has clearly been a setback in the realm of security and rights, an authoritarian involution, at least in the discourse.”

For her part, Rivera said the hard-line stance taken by the candidates is opportunistic, an attempt to win votes, while the overwhelming poverty and other problems that plague Honduran society and lie at the roots of the high crime rates have been glaringly absent from the campaign.

She also said the campaign has been exceptionally dirty, and that the major parties have not been transparent about their multimillion-dollar campaign finances.

NGOs, meanwhile, are worried about the consequences of the electoral reform approved this year.

They fear a democratic setback as a result of the new law, because even if small parties take more votes than in the last elections, they could win fewer posts.

Although the reform was adopted with the aim of helping voters cast a meaningful vote by placing the candidates’ photos on the ballots, the parties have urged Hondurans to vote for their entire slates rather than individual candidates in the presidential, legislative and municipal elections.

Leftist parties won five seats in Congress in the previous elections, when the Innovation and Unity, Democratic Unification, and Christian Democracy parties garnered just one percent of the ballots – around 150,000 votes – in the presidential race.

While the new law was designed to bring about a greater balance in the legislature, it could actually have the opposite effect. Rivera noted that if the small parties fail to win a single seat, they could even lose their legal status as parties.

Analyst Víctor Mesa told IPS that the election campaign has been the most “primitive” and hostile in years. “It is a campaign empty of proposals, coherent promises and new policies. The opportunity was lost for an electoral process that could have strengthened values and the country’s political and democratic culture,” he complained.

The presentation of party slates “leaves in place and consolidates what the new electoral law tried to combat: that people vote, but do not really choose. We have missed an important chance to strengthen democracy,” said Mesa.

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