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Election strengthens Honduran military’s hand

Hernandez seen accelerating move to full police state

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2013

Conservative candidate Juan Hernandez's victory this week in Honduras' presidential election poses a potentially dangerous role for the military in the crime-riddled Central American nation, regional analysts say.

Honduras has struggled to restore democracy since the 2009 military coup that ousted left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya. But the military emerged from the shadows to openly support Mr. Hernandez over his main challenger — Xiomara Castro, Mr. Zelaya's wife — in Sunday's election.

"I'm personally concerned that the military has become a political actor by joining in the Juan Hernandez campaign ads," said Eric L. Olson, associate director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "Can you imagine the U.S. military appearing in an ad for Mitt Romney?"

Mr. Hernandez's victory is likely to accelerate what Mr. Olson and other analysts describe as a militarized approach to fighting drug-related crime that has gripped urban and rural areas.

As the head of the National Party in the Honduran Congress, Mr. Hernandez, 45, pushed through legislation that created a special military police force to patrol city streets. As a presidential candidate, he promised to make the program a foundation for waging war on gangs and drug runners.

Honduras is one of the nations receiving aid under the Obama administration's Central American Security Initiative, which aims to help governments grow and maintain security. Analysts say the situation creates a challenge for the White House, noting concerns that Honduras' military is prone to human rights abuses against citizens.

"There are many credible reports of the military's involvement in egregious human rights abuses, and these reports are very seldom investigated by Honduras' dysfunctional and corrupt judiciary," says Alex Main, senior associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

"Putting the military in the streets and having no effective accountability around their actions is a particularly dangerous combination," Mr. Main said. "Soldiers are trained to fight an enemy, not to apply the law with a particular concern for the rights of suspects or victims."

"Often in Honduras and Latin America, when troops have been deployed to carry out policing duties, these troops have in fact been involved in violent repression of various forms of legitimate and peaceful dissent," he added. "We've seen it in Honduras in the '80s, in Haiti under Baby and Papa Doc, in Nicaragua under the Somoza dictatorships, and so on."

The Obama administration has vowed to work with Mr. Hernandez. But analysts say the White House is unlikely to do so overtly and may seek to avoid being associated with the Honduran military's role in law enforcement.

"The Obama administration has been careful not to openly support the militarization of policing in Honduras, but they continue to funnel a considerable amount of assistance to both the military and police of Honduras, which certainly sends a tacit message that it's OK," Mr. Main said.

Mr. Olson said: "The question really is whether the U.S. will embrace Mr. Hernandez's approach, find it difficult to embrace, or find some middle ground where they don't totally embrace it, but continue working with the Honduran government."

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