TEGUCIGALPA — Honduras' new president, former Congress head Juan Hernandez, took office on Monday, calling U.S. drug policy a "double standard" and urging U.S. President Barack Obama to recognize the joint effort required to end the region's drug scourge.
Hernandez, of the ruling National Party, won against the wife of ousted former leftist leader Manuel Zelaya in November's disputed presidential election on a pledge to use the military to clean up the blood-soaked country.
Decades of gang warfare, weak institutions and endemic corruption have provided fertile ground for cartels to expand their operations in Honduras, using the country as a pit-stop for United States-bound cocaine.
But in his comments, delivered after being sworn in as president, Hernandez said the United States had not kept up its side of the bargain in the war on drugs, noting that Central America was suffering as a result of U.S. drug consumption.
"It strikes us as a double standard that while our people die and bleed, and we're forced to fight the gangs with our own scarce resources, in North America drugs are just a public health issue," Hernandez said. "For Honduras and the rest of our Central American brothers it's a case of life and death."
"We ask the government of Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to recognize this shared responsibility ... and that we truly work together to solve this problem, which is also their problem," Hernandez added.
His candid comments were striking given Honduras' strong ties with the United States, and appeared to tap into a growing vein of discontent across the region at the U.S.-led 40-year war on drugs.
Frustrated by ceaseless bloodshed and a perception that the United States has not done enough to curb its own drug consumption, many leaders in the region, such as Guatemalan President Otto Perez, are now speaking openly about the possibility of legalizing drugs.
According to the United Nations, in 2012 Honduras, the United States' top ally in Central America, had a murder rate of 85.5 per 100,000 people - the world's highest. The sight of dismembered bodies and corpses hanging from bridges is increasingly common across the country.
Hernandez, a graduate of Honduras' army academy, has vowed a no-nonsense response to the drug scourge - a worry for those who fear rights abuses. He advocates using a newly formed militarized police force alongside the army to combat the gangs and plans to extradite criminals to the United States.
A law passed earlier this month gives Honduras the power to shoot down planes believed to be carrying drugs. Nearly 90 percent of the cocaine from South America heading for the United States moves through the country.
"If we can stop the planes carrying drugs passing through our territories, then we will make a big advance in the fight against drug traffickers, who cause so much violence and death in our country," said former Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, who is part of Hernandez' transition team.
But putting a stop to the increasingly violent spiral of drug crime is just one of the challenges facing Hernandez, who must also tackle Honduras' shaky economy. Despite being the region's top coffee producer, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, afflicted by rampant unemployment, a feeble tax take and a yawning fiscal deficit that, at 7.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), ended 2013 at its highest level in nearly 20 years.
The deficit has already lea to strikes across the country from unpaid public sector workers, while hospitals often go without drugs for routine operations. A lack of money for police investigations exacerbates widespread impunity.
In a recent legislative blitz, lawmakers signed off on a 2014 budget that seeks to nearly halve the deficit to 4.7 percent of GDP by the end of this year, a tax reform that aims to generate up to $800 million a year and a breakup of the loss-making state electricity company.
During the campaign, Hernandez vowed not to devalue the Lempira currency, which trades at around 20 to the dollar, despite the fact a devaluation is widely seen as a pre-condition for a new, much-needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) credit deal.
He also said he would sign a new deal with the IMF within six months of taking office.