But the status quo was fine with the oligarchy. Zelaya, a rich landowner from Olancho state, was one of them when he was elected president in 2006. When he began to move away from Washington towards Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez, however, his opponents feared a populist threat. His proposal for a referrendum on changing the constitution was the last straw. He was booted out by leaders of his own party, backed by the army.
The U.S. suspended aid as a sanction for the coup, and in the ensuing political chaos, drug traffickers saw an opening.
‘‘Direct flights from the Venezuela-Colombia border soared to runways in Honduras, and thus began a violent struggle for control of this drug corridor,’’ according to the 2012 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report. The report estimates drug trafficking now accounts for about 13 percent of Hondura’s gross domestic product.
Cocaine shipments are dropped in the Mosquito Coast region, bordering Nicaragua, then are moved through Olancho or Gracias a Dios states, converging on the border of Guatemala.
In high drug-trafficking areas, many people depend on the cartels, not the government, to provide jobs and services.
‘‘We’re like Colombia of the 1980s,’’ said Caceres, the former Security Ministry adviser who now heads a security support program for the European Union in Honduras. ‘‘People linked to drug trafficking are seen by part of the population as benefactors, because of the inability of the state to offer solutions to their poverty.’’
Hondurans say corruption and crony politics have deprived state coffers of revenue thanks to politicians who enact laws to favor their own business interests.
For example, Tito Asfura, a city council member running for mayor of Tegucigalpa, holds the garbage collecting contract for the capital and sits on the corporation that renews the contract. Fast-food franchises proliferating in the city’s many shopping malls and street corners get tax breaks for creating jobs that often pay less than minimum wage, or for promoting ‘‘tourism.’’
‘‘The culture of tax evasion is amazing in Honduras,’’ said Mario Lopez Steiner, the 16th director of the country’s Department of Revenue in 18 years.
Since taking office in January 2010, Lobo has been under international pressure to fix the broken country. He brokered an agreement to let ousted former President Zelaya return to form his own political party, and tried to regain the trust of foreign investors.
Lobo proposed creating private cities with their own laws and authorities, arguing that the country’s justice system didn’t work. It was an attempt ‘‘to create a Honduras from scratch,’’ said Octavio Sanchez, Lobo’s chief of Cabinet. But the Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional.
In a nation where people have to regularly dodge extortion attempts from police and daily violence, Lobo launched a program of background checks on police officers — a priority of the U.S. government, which gives Honduras about $100 million a year in aid.
Lobo’s police reform sowed the seeds of the current confrontation. A constitutional court declared the purge unconstitutional because it did not include an appeals process for dismissed officers, and the full Supreme Court was expected to uphold the ruling. Before it could, congress voted to put the reform to a popular vote, and replaced the dissenting court members. The attorney general reacted immediately, saying he would consider prosecuting the congressmen who approved the ouster.
The Honduran constitution gives the president, judiciary and congress autonomous powers. Since the coup of 2009, and despite a subsequent truth commission report recommending the constitution be changed to allow for impeaching a president or a justice, little has changed.
Lobo interrupted all television programing on Thursday to call for a national dialogue with the country’s key players, many of whom he accused of trying to oust him just a week ago, ‘‘to find a way out of this crisis.’’
Average Hondurans call it a power-struggle among the elites, and say they don’t want to get in the middle of it.
‘‘God help us, we don’t want the chaos of another coup,’’ said bus driver Moises Cruz. ‘‘The worst is that we’re going through this crisis again because of all these politicians who only look out for themselves.’’
Associated Press Correspondent Martha Mendoza contributed from Santa Cruz, Calif.