TEGUCIGALPA (AFP) – Fears of violence spread through the Honduran capital ahead of Sunday’s post-coup elections, which have divided both the Central American country and the continent.
A military crackdown on dissenters after the June 28 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya and scores of small explosive attacks on media outlets and political targets have frayed nerves in a city already mired in gang violence.
De facto leader Roberto Micheletti, who stepped down briefly over the electoral period, on Saturday accused Zelaya supporters of secretly setting up bomb attacks to disturb the polls, and blamed them for putting “psychological pressure” on voters to urge them to boycott the vote.
Zelaya’s backers have called for people to stay at home to avoid being blamed for possible clashes.
Brazil and Argentina have led regional support for their view that holding elections with Zelaya out of office — and still holed up in the Brazilian embassy — will legitimize the coup in a region with a painful history of dictatorships.
The United States, the country’s main commercial and military partner, has suggested it will support the polls in a bid to turn a page on the five-month crisis.
Levels of participation and the running of the vote will be key in evaluations of its credibility.
“It’s calm but people are frightened that they’ll be attacked over the vote,” said 27-year-old Patricia Calix, hawking fruit by the roadside in the Belen area, known for its street gangs.
Police this week carried out car and body searches in and around Tegucigalpa in a campaign to confiscate weapons in a country where guns are legal and widely visible.
But the main aim of the latest operation, which collected only a small haul, was to reassure citizens, said police spokesman Jorge Daniel Molina Galvez, underlining its “psychological value.”
“We’re living in an unusual and difficult situation,” said driver Manuel Aceitunos as officers searched his car.
“Sunday could be dangerous. You have to go out and vote and then remain at home.”
Around 30,000 soldiers and police have been deployed nationwide to distribute electoral material and oversee the polls.
Amnesty International said Friday that security forces had stockpiled 10,000 tear gas cans and other crowd control equipment.
Javier Zuniga, head of Amnesty’s Honduras delegation, decried what he called “an environment of fear and intimidation.”
Rights groups already expressed concern after several deaths and dozens of arrests in the aftermath of the coup, and have reported new threats and intimidation of pro-Zelaya activists.
Activists on both sides tore down electoral posters as the campaign to encourage voting gained force.
An ad in a newspaper sympathetic to the de facto regime warned voters that if they stayed away, their election history could easily be traced on the Internet.
“The real risk of the 29th (of November — election day) is that you don’t vote,” the ad said.
Back in Belen, where armed gangs roam pot-holed streets littered with rubbish, fears of violence are not new.
Presidential frontrunner Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo gained support in the area after his campaign on an anti-crime ticket.
Calix said she was planning to vote for him and welcomed the idea of more security forces.
“Pepe promises there’ll be more police, more security. I have children and I’m afraid for them to go out in the street,” she said.