Drug Gangs In Crosshairs As Honduras Congress Chief Wins Presidency

by
Reuters
Long viewed as Honduras' most powerful politician, conservative Congress leader Juan Hernandez staked his presidential campaign on taking the fight to violent drug gangs that have helped make the Central American country the world's murder capital.

Long viewed as Honduras' most powerful politician, conservative Congress leader Juan Hernandez staked his presidential campaign on taking the fight to violent drug gangs that have helped make the Central American country the world's murder capital.

Known as "The Dauphin" for his close links to incumbent Porfirio Lobo, Hernandez saw off leftist challenger Xiomara Castro, the wife of former leader Manuel Zelaya - whose ouster in a 2009 coup triggered a deep political crisis.

Honduras' electoral authority said on Monday results showed Hernandez had an irreversible lead, but Castro has refused to accept defeat, denouncing fraud and vowing to challenge the result.

The fifteenth of 17 children, Hernandez rose to become a powerful head of the Honduran Congress, often overshadowing his boss.

"It has to be recognized that Juan Hernandez has more power and influence than President Porfirio Lobo," analyst Raul Pineda told Reuters before Sunday's vote.

As the congressional leader, the 45-year-old Hernandez oversaw a constitutional reform that allowed the extradition of Hondurans involved in organized crime to the United States.

Hernandez also rolled out a militarized police force to reclaim control of a drug-ravaged country with a population of 8.5 million where 20 people die violently each day.

The new leader wants to broaden the military's role in taming drug gangs that have turned Honduras into a key staging point in moving South American cocaine to the United States.

He says he will seek a new credit deal with the International Monetary to steady Honduras' growing fiscal deficit, but is against any currency devaluation, which many experts believe will be a prerequisite for the deal.

Nor has he acknowledged many of the fund's other likely conditions: lower public salaries, a tax overhaul and the privatization of loss-making state utilities.

Hernandez has vowed to refinance the country's debt, create a mining royalty scheme, slash exemptions and modernize the tax office, but says he will not raise taxes.

Viewed as a business-friendly candidate, Hernandez also backs the creation of free trade zones, autonomous areas designed to attract much-needed foreign investment, and public-private partnerships to kick-start Honduras' sagging economy.

"Private investors have confidence in our proposal," he said before the election. "We're the most credible candidates."

But Hernandez's journey to the upper reaches of Honduran politics has made him enemies, with opponents arguing his placing of allies in top jobs gives him an unprecedented stranglehold over the main levers of power.

Last year Hernandez deposed four supreme court judges after they decided his bills to clean up Honduras' corrupt police force and establish free trade zones were unconstitutional. He named his own replacements shortly afterwards.

In September, with backroom support from opposition lawmakers, he gave two of his people the top jobs in the prosecutor's office, angering some who argued they had been fast-tracked without proper screening.

A lawyer who studied at the State University of New York and Honduras' military academy, Hernandez has also faced criticism for his military-led tactics. Critics say giving the security forces more power, often with lax oversight, opens the door to rights abuses and corruption.

A security tax that aimed to raise $75 million a year to fight crime irked many of Honduras' business elite.

Hernandez is married with four children.