In El Paraíso, a city of 14,000 that sits right near Honduras’ border with Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party secured an impressive 81.4 percent of the vote. In second place, with 7.2 percent of the vote, was “invalid.”
Last week the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), declared that Hernandez had been elected president of Honduras with 35 percent of the vote, compared to 27.4 percent for Xiomara Castro, of the newly formed LIBRE party. Castro is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 military coup. Alleging fraud, LIBRE has yet to recognize the results and is reportedly in discussions with the TSE to begin a recount process.
But no matter the outcome of the recount, if it ever occurs, there were numerous other irregularities on election day, including a number of reports of voter intimidation as well as other, perhaps more nefarious, means of voter manipulation. Although it is generally difficult to directly link election results to acts of voter intimidation, the case of El Paraíso provides an interesting example.
El Paraíso, in the Copan department[i] of Honduras, is located directly on what is known as the “road of death.” The road is a well-known drug trafficking route which travels through Honduras and on to Guatemala. The presence, and influence, of Mexican drug cartels has steadily been rising in the area.
The mayor of El Paraíso, Alexander Ardón, who has referred to himself as “the king of the people”, is a member of the ruling National Party. A 2011 report from the Wilson Center states that, “Ardón works with the Sinaloa Cartel,” according to “Honduran police intelligence.” The report continues:
Ardón has built a town hall that resembles the White House, complete with a heliport on the roof, and travels with 40 heavily armed bodyguards. Cameras monitor the roads leading in and out of the town, intelligence services say. And there are reports that the mayor often closes the city to outsiders for big parties that include norteña music groups flown in from Mexico.
The 2013 Elections
In the weeks prior to the election on Sunday, November 24, rights groups in Honduras began to hear about possible fraud in El Paraíso. Prior to election day, with few local observers willing to go to polling places, a number of monitors were bussed in from other cities. The human rights group COFADEH released a statement on election day (see here for testimony from an electoral observer there), reporting that:
Also this day in the town of El Paraíso in the department of Copan, about 50 people who have been designated to monitor the election tables were locked in a hotel by over 100 armed men who threatened to burn them if they left the hotel to go to the voting centers.
Another group heading to 10 voting centers succeeded in making it through the obstacles at first, but on the way there the road was blocked by two Prado SUVs with heavily armed men who proceeded to stab their vehicles' tires with knives and threatened to kill anyone who continued toward their destination.
The intimidation seems to have its desired effect. In the two elections (2001 and 2005) prior to the 2009 military coup, El Paraíso had a voter turnout of 63 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In 2013, turnout was reported to be 85 percent. According to the official results from the TSE, the National Party took 81.4 percent of the vote. Looking deeper, the results are even stranger. There were 16,135 voting tables in Honduras; the ten which showed the highest number of votes for Hernandez were all located in El Paraíso. The 81.4 percent that went to the National Party was over 11 percentage points higher than in any other city in the entire country.
Overall, in Copan, the National Party took over 47 percent of the vote, one of their highest rates in the country.
A Repeat of the 2009 Elections and U.S. Support
In 2009, elections were held under the coup regime, which had ousted President Manual Zelaya months earlier. The elections took place during a period of tremendous violence and repression, which targeted both the opposition and independent media. As a result most of the region refused to recognize the results, though the United States quickly sought to legitimize them.
In 2011, Oscar Martinez reported for the Salvadoran news organization El Faro on the department of Copan and the impact that drug traffickers and corruption had on the area. Martinez spoke with an ex-mayor from the region, who described a scene from election day in 2009 that is eerily familiar to what was reported this year:
There are things that everyone knows, like how in El Paraíso in the mayoral and congressional elections in 2009, the ballot boxes closed at 11 in the morning with the help of armed men… They took the ballot boxes and finished filling them.
Two more sources confirmed this fact…One of those who did so is a member of the National Party, like Mayor Ardón. The numbers of voters indicates some very unusual results in El Paraíso compared with other municipalities. Of the 12,536 voters that were eligible in that municipality, 9,583 went to the voting box. That is the lowest abstention in all of the Copán department. Of those voters, only 670 elected the Liberal Party. The other 8,151 gave the win to the National Party.
In the four years since, the U.S. has spent over $10 million dollars in electoral assistance through programs with the United Nations Development Program, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the National Democratic Institute, according to public contracting records. Much of these funds went directly to technical assistance for the TSE as well as to improve “citizen security” for the elections.
On election day, U.S. ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske held a press conference, soon after the TSE had announced preliminary results, to declare the electoral process “transparent.” On November 27, the U.S. issued a statement noting that “Organization of American States and European Union electoral observation mission reports reflect a transparent process.”
But despite the millions in direct support and technical assistance, and the presence of numerous official electoral observation missions, violence and intimidation continue to plague the electoral process in Honduras. Regardless of any discrepancies that a possible recount might uncover, this important fact cannot be ignored.
The commander of the police in Copan, before his appointment by current president Lobo Sosa as Chief of Police in 2012, was Juan Carlos Bonilla, aka “El Tigre”. Bonilla has been accused of death squad activity and the Honduran police have recently been suspected of “disappearing” detainees, according to the Associated Press. While the U.S. provides substantial funding for the Honduran military in support of the “war on drugs,” Bonilla is supposed to be kept at arms’ length given “allegations of human rights violations,” according to the State Department. However, in a recent interview with the AP, Bonilla described the close relationship he has with the U.S. and the support he receives in conducting operations throughout the country.