Hondurans await results in primary elections

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FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2020, file photo, Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez arrives for the swearing-in ceremony for Guatemala's new President Alejandro Giammattei at the National Theater in Guatemala City. Orlando Hernandez denied once again Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, accusations from United States prosecutors that he protected drug traffickers in exchange for bribes. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File)

TEGUCIGALPA – Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández’s name keeps popping up in the New York trial of an alleged drug trafficker. And one of the candidates running to replace him in Sunday’s primary elections has been convicted in the same court of laundering money for the same cartel.

The court actions show just how deep are the challenges facing Honduras, a country that U.S. prosecutors have repeatedly portrayed as a narco-state where drug traffickers buy protection from politicians.

Voting Sunday occurred without any major reported incidents. Polls closed at 5 p.m. and the vote count had begun, but there was no immediate word on when results would be available.

Honduras’ economy has been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Two devastating Category 4 hurricanes passed through in November. Persistent gang violence and endemic corruption continue to drive large numbers of Hondurans out of the country.

Whoever wins Honduras' presidency will face a U.S. administration under Joe Biden that has already signaled a shift in priorities that will consider issues beyond just immigration in its relationship with the Central American nation.

Yani Rosenthal, fresh off serving a three-year sentence in the United States, is running for the nomination of the Liberal Party, his third time as a candidate. He was sentenced in 2017 and agreed to give up $3 million after pleading guilty to laundering money for the Cachiros cartel. His father was once Honduras' vice president and the family ran a banking empire.

Another big name in the field is Xiomara Castro, wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who is making her second bid to be the Libre party’s presidential candidate. Zelaya’s name also came up last week in the trial of accused Honduran drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez.

The former leader of the Cachiros cartel, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, testified Thursday that in addition to bribing Hernández while he was president of the Congress, he also bribed Zelaya in 2006 when he assumed the presidency. Like Hernández, he died the allegation.