In Gang-Plagued Honduras, the Softer Stance Takes the Presidency

In Gang-Plagued Honduras, the Softer Stance Takes the Presidency
Zelaya promised to tackle poverty and jobs; his opponent favored the death penalty.
By Sam Enriquez and Alex Renderos
Special to The Times

November 29, 2005

MEXICO CITY — A wealthy agricultural landowner who said attacking poverty and unemployment would stem soaring gang violence has won Honduras’ presidential election, officials said Monday, beating a favored opponent who had promised to reinstate the death penalty to stop violent crime.

Former Congressman Manuel “Mel” Zelaya defeated Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa in Sunday’s balloting, according to preliminary returns. The four-year presidential term begins Jan. 27.

Zelaya had 50.8% of the vote and Lobo 45%, the early results showed.

Zelaya will lead a country that suffers from a 70% poverty rate, high unemployment and violence by the Mara Salvatrucha gang and its branches.

He campaigned largely on promises of more citizen involvement and more transparency in government. Reducing government corruption, the Liberal Party candidate said, would allow for more money to be spent fighting poverty.

A week before the election, Zelaya, under pressure from Lobo, said he would seek the return of life sentences for violent crimes. But he said he favored more jobs and job training to fight crime among youths.

Honduran authorities tallied more than 1,400 homicides in this country of 7 million during the first six months of 2005, many of them gang-related.

The U.S. estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 Mara Salvatrucha members are in the country and “pose a serious threat, because members use violence to protect drug and weapons trafficking operations from rival gangs,” according to a 2004 intelligence report.

Mara Salvatrucha was formed two decades ago in neighborhoods around MacArthur Park, west of downtown Los Angeles. Thousands of members have since been deported to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

Lobo promised to augment the tough policies of President Ricardo Maduro, who made gang membership a crime punishable by prison terms as long as 20 years.

Lobo, the National Party of Honduras candidate and president of the National Congress, called for the return of the death penalty for murder, sexual assault, drug trafficking and terrorism.

But voters, though fearful of gangs, were apparently even more fearful of the “strong fist” of government, according to Honduran political analysts. The country ended military rule in 1981.

“Lobo’s advisors thought that the problem of gangs was the biggest concern of people,” said Victor Meza of the Honduran Documentation Center think tank. “But the biggest concern for people here are corruption and the economy … in other words, the solution of social and structural problems, not just a strong fist.”

Voters also questioned why Lobo never mentioned drug cartel leaders or their white-collar collaborators, said Julieta Castellanos, a sociology professor at the Autonomous National University of Honduras.

“What about the leaders of organized crime?” she said. “He only talked about the youth.”

Maduro’s minister of security, Oscar Alvarez, quit his post to campaign in the last month to strengthen Lobo’s law-and-order image. But Castellanos said voters recalled that Alvarez was the nephew of an army general accused of eliminating dissidents in the 1980s. “There was a fear that should Lobo win the election, he [Lobo] would have excessive power,” she said.

Times staff writer Enriquez reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Renderos from San Salvador. Staff writer Rich Connell in Los Angeles, Carlos Martinez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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