TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras suspended the right to free movement on Friday, imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew and giving the army and police extended powers after looting and protests triggered by a contested election killed at least one person.
Five days after polls closed, no clear winner has emerged from Sunday’s vote. President Juan Orlando Hernandez has clawed back a thin lead over his challenger, but thousands of disputed votes could still swing the outcome.
At least one protester has died, over 20 people were injured and more than 100 others were arrested for looting after opposition leaders accused the government of trying to steal the election by manipulating the vote count.
“The suspension of constitutional guarantees was approved so that the armed forces and the national police can contain this wave of violence that has engulfed the country,” said Ebal Diaz, member of the council of ministers.
International concern has grown about the electoral crisis in the poor Central American country, which struggles with violent drug gangs and one of the world’s highest murder rates. Honduras is the source of waves of poor migrants to the United States and sits on major cocaine trafficking routes.
The nationwide curfew will run from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for 10 days starting on Friday night, government minister Jorge Ramon Hernandez read out in a statement simultaneously broadcast to TV and radio stations.
Under the decree, all local authorities must submit to the authority of the army and national police, which are authorized to break up blockades of roads, bridges and public buildings.
In the widely criticized vote count, TV-host’s Salvador Nasralla’s early lead on Monday was later reversed in favour of President Hernandez, leading Nasralla to call for protests.
One of the four magistrates on the electoral tribunal on Thursday flagged “serious doubts” about the counting process.
Nasralla, who heads a centre-left coalition, said government infiltrators had started the looting and violence to justify a military curfew.
“The people doing acts of vandalism are not from the opposition Alliance, they are from the government,” Nasralla said on his Facebook page. “These are government operations to spread panic, create chaos and make you believe that the Alliance is causing the destruction.”
Both Hernandez and Nasralla claimed victory after the election. The 64-year-old Nasralla is one of Honduras’ best-known faces and backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist ousted in a coup in 2009.
Businesses closed early and Hondurans lined up for panic purchases as groups of looters carried off TVs and washing machines from shopping centres, television images showed.
Plumes of smoke from burning tires at barricades drifted over the San Pedro Sula, the country’s second city. Police used tear gas to disperse crowds.
Police sources said at least one man had been shot and killed at a protest in the city of La Ceiba, while about 12 members of the military and police force had been injured in demonstrations that snarled traffic outside Honduras’ main port on Friday and around the country.
At least 10 protesters were injured in the capital of Tegucigalpa, according to the city’s Hospital Escuela.
More than 100 people were also arrested on suspicion of looting in San Pedro Sula on Friday, a police spokesman said, and local media carried footage of shops being plundered with no security forces in sight.
People flocked to supermarkets on Friday, stocking up on food and provisions as major roads and supply routes were blocked across the country by angry protesters.
“I‘m filling the tank with gas in case anything happens, the situation looks bad and there are protests all over the city,” said Carlos Valle, a 61-year-old pensioner, as he joined a long line of vehicles waiting at a fuel pump in Tegucigalpa.
Honduras was due to publish the final result of the election at 9 p.m. local time (0300 GMT) on Friday, the electoral tribunal said, but opposition complaints about the count impeded that.
Election results initially had Nasralla leading by five points with more than half the votes counted. They then swung in favour of U.S.-backed centre-right Hernandez after the count came to a halt on Monday and resumed over a day later, sparking protests.
The tribunal has said it will hand-count some 1,031 outstanding ballot boxes with irregularities - or nearly 6 percent of the total - after the count halted with Hernandez ahead by less than 50,000 votes, or about 1.5 percentage points.
However, Nasralla’s centre-left alliance has called for votes to be recounted in three of Honduras’ 18 departments, or regions, and refused to recognise the tribunal’s special count until its demands for a wider review were met.
“If Juan Orlando wins, we’re ready to accept that, but we know that wasn’t the case, we know that Salvador won and that’s why they’re refusing the transparency demands,” said Marlon Ochoa, campaign manager of Nasralla’s alliance.
Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Ana Isabel Martinez, Adriana Barrera and Daina Beth Solomon; Writing by Dave Graham and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Michael Perry