Hondurans head to the polls on Sunday in the first general election since US federal prosecutors laid out detailed evidence of intimate ties between drug smugglers and the Honduran state.
The country’s past three presidents, as well as local mayors, legislators, police and military commanders have been linked to drug trafficking in what US prosecutors have described as a narco-state.
One brother of the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is serving a life sentence in the US on trafficking charges, while Hernández himself has been accused of seeking to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos”.
Sunday’s election is seen by many as a referendum on the corruption that has allegedly permitted drug traffickers to infiltrate the government all the way to the top.
“We’ve been discredited as a country of corrupt politicians, drug traffickers and thieves – and it’s true,” said Cristóbal Ferrera, 70, after a day of hawking gum, mints and loose cigarettes in Tegucigalpa’s central park. “For my children, for my grandchildren and for my country, may these corrupt people leave now, we do not want to continue suffering,” said Ferrera.
Hernández, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in his brother’s case and two others, might soon do just that. Protected until now by a US justice department policy of not charging sitting presidents, it is widely believed that he could be indicted by US prosecutors the day after he leaves office in January.
Hernández has vehemently denied all the accusations and has recently dedicated significant time and resources to an attempt to clear his name, including the publication of a book about his political career that he said sets the record straight.
Whether or not he is extradited to the US to face the charges could be decided by the outcome of the election.
The next congress will have the opportunity to reshape a troubled justice system by electing a new supreme court, attorney general and state auditors, all of whom will serve for terms that extend beyond a single election cycle.
“It’s not just about the presidency, it’s also about who will control congress and what their links are to corruption and drug trafficking,” said Eric Olson, a Central America expert for the Seattle International Foundation.
Nasry Asfura, 63, the mayor of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and presidential candidate for the conservative National party is believed by many to be Hernández’s hand-picked successor – and potential protector. Asfura has tried hard to overcome that perception, often saying that he is “nobody’s errand boy”.
But a refusal to address the issue of Hernández’s potential extradition when pressed by the media hasn’t helped, nor has a ticket full of politicians accused of drug trafficking and corruption who are seeking re-election.
Asfura is in a tight race with the leading opposition candidate, Xiomara Castro, 62, whose husband, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya was president from 2006 until 2009 when he was ousted in a military-backed coup. Like Hernández, Zelaya has been accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from drug traffickers, which he denies.
Castro has never been personally accused of corruption, while Asfura was accused of misappropriating roughly $1m in a case that was shelved by a judge before it could go to trial.
Hernández’s two terms as president have been plagued by scandals, not the least of which the fact that he employed a dubious court ruling to ignore a constitutional prohibition against re-election and then won a second term in a 2017 vote that was marred by allegations of fraud. Combined with the corruption and drug trafficking allegations, Hernández has come to embody the worst of Honduran politics in the eyes of many.
“Just hearing his name makes it feel like the ground is caving in,” said Ferrera, who hopes Castro will bring change and restore the reputation of Honduras.
“What we want is to hear other countries say that we have improved.”