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Amid fierce protest, Honduras inaugurates a president accused of stealing the election

Amid fierce protest, Honduras inaugurates a president accused of stealing the election
Soldiers and police launch tear gas at demonstrators marching to protest the inauguration of President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Eduardo Verdugo / AP)

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was sworn in for a second term Saturday amid violent clashes between police and protesters who insist Hernandez was not legitimately elected.

Soldiers and riot police fired tear gas and set up barricades to block thousands of demonstrators from marching to Tegucigalpa's National Stadium, where Hernandez was presented with the blue-and-white sash of office in an elaborate morning ceremony.

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Masked protesters shot rocks from slingshots toward security forces and set fire to tires and road blocks, filling the capital with smoke. Videos showed police responding by violently beating several protesters in the street.

Among those demonstrating was opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, who has refused to accept the results of the November election, saying he was the true winner of the vote.

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"We remain in the struggle to rescue the country from dictatorship," Nasralla told the Associated Press.

In an address to the nation, Hernandez said he hopes "to begin a process of reconciliation to unite the Honduran family." But the chaotic and violent start to his second term highlights the challenges he will face in leading a country that is fiercely divided.

Observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union documented many irregularities in the Nov. 26 election, including a long delay of the vote count. Eventually Hernandez, who trailed Nasralla in early counts, was declared the winner by more than 50,000 votes.

Despite calls for a new election by the OAS, the United States issued a statement congratulating the president on his win. The U.S. views Hernandez as an important ally in its efforts to reduce violence in Central America and reduce migration from the region.

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Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez kisses his wife Ana Garcia after being sworn in for a second term.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez kisses his wife Ana Garcia after being sworn in for a second term. (Fernando Antonio / AP)

Experts say the U.S. may have doubted whether it would receive the same kind of cooperation from Nasralla, a television personality with no previous political experience.

Many of the nationwide demonstrations that followed were violently suppressed by police using tear gas, batons and live ammunition.

Between Nov. 29 and Dec. 31, at least 30 people were killed, 232 wounded and 1,085 detained, according to the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared in Honduras, a human rights group. Reports of police brutality, including random killings, have not been investigated, the group said.

"The country is in a fragile place, said Lester Ramirez, a researcher at Transparency International Honduras, an anti-corruption watchdog. "It's totally uncertain what will happen next."

While Hernandez may be able to win legislative victories because his National Party holds more seats than any other party in Congress, "he doesn't have legitimacy at the popular level," Ramirez said.

A 49-year-old lawyer, Hernandez is the first president to be reelected in Honduras. That's another reason people are protesting against him.The nation's constitution bars presidents from seeking a second term. In 2009, Hernandez and his allies deposed leftist President Manuel Zelaya for allegedly considering reelection. But in 2015, Hernandez won a Supreme Court ruling to get around the prohibition. Hernandez, who has stacked government institutions including the Supreme Court with political allies, told the nation Saturday that he will not seek a third term.

Police block a road in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
Police block a road in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. (Orlando Sierra / AFP/Getty Images)

Fueling distrust in the government was a vote by Congress this month targeting the attorney general's office, which has been working with an international panel to investigate high-level corruption cases. About 60 members of Congress are believed to be under investigation by the anti-corruption team. The Jan. 18 vote effectively stripped the attorney general's office of its authority to investigate the theft of government money. Shortly after, five Honduran lawmakers accused of diverting public funds were promptly released from detention.

Honduras was rocked with another scandal this week, when the Associated Press reported that the nation's newly appointed national police chief helped a cartel leader pull off the delivery of about $20 million of cocaine in 2013. The report cited a confidential government document that accused the chief, Jose David Aguilar Moran, of intervening after a police officer seized a tanker truck packed with 1,700 pounds of cocaine, and ordering the tanker to be set free. Officials said Aguilar's appointment is being "re-evaluated."

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Those scandals, along with the election and the government's harsh response to street protests, have helped generate support for the opposition, said Hugo Noe Pino, an economist aligned with Nasralla.

"The people are more convinced that there is a power structure that works for its own interests and not the interests of the people," he said. "That's the light at the end of the tunnel."

But many worry that Hernandez might turn to military action if he is challenged.

"We continue to receive reports about continued repression and abuses at the hands of the security forces," said Adriana Beltran, a Honduras expert at the think tank Washington Office on Latin America. She said it is in the best interests of the U.S. and other countries in the region to make sure anti-graft efforts are supported in Honduras, and investigations into police brutality at protests thoroughly conducted.

"Honduras is facing a political crisis," Beltran said. "If these issues are not addressed effectively, it will lead to greater instability."

Twitter: @katelinthicum

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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