Honduras congress OKs referendum on police cleanup amid tension between president, judiciary

The Honduran congress approved a bill Tuesday to submit President Porfirio Lobo's police cleanup program to a popular vote, after the measure was blocked by the courts.

Lobo has been locked in a standoff with Supreme Court justices, who he accuses of catering to powerful business interests. He says the same people who ousted then President Manuel Zelaya in a 2009 coup are now plotting against him.

The tension was heightened Tuesday when about 50 soldiers and 25 police officers showed up outside the congressional building.

Army Maj. Melvin Flores said his troops had been sent there by his commanders to guard the building. But congressional vice president Marvin Ponce said he hadn't asked for the troops.

Ponce said congress might consider firing some Supreme Court magistrates, which could further raise tensions.

"We are in a high-level political crisis," Ponce said. "I wouldn't rule out the firing of some magistrates, or of the whole court."

Late Tuesday night, the president of congress was meeting with the head of the armed forces to discuss the situation, said lawmaker Waldina Paz.

"We were notified that the national congress was being militarized and this worries us a lot," Paz said. "We have requested that the human rights commission ask military leaders to withdraw the soldiers from congress."

Perla Simmons of the Liberal Party said she didn't know what was happening. "We are suspicious of events and don't know what decisions are going to be taken over the course of the night."

Honduras' federal judges have long been closely tied with the business elite. In October, the Supreme Court shot down Lobo's plan to build private cities as a means of attracting investment and economic development, and last week it declared unconstitutional his plan to clean up the notoriously corrupt national police force.

Honduras has lived through this kind of dispute before.

Zelaya was deposed when he ignored a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum on his plan to revise the constitution, promising the poor they would get a voice in shaping the future of the country.

Drug trafficking and violence have spiked since Zelaya's ouster in Honduras, where two-thirds of the 8.2 million people live in poverty. With a homicide rate of 91 per 100,000 residents, it is often called the most violent country in the world.

The 2009 coup split created a headache for the United States, which cut off aid to Honduras as punishment, but then was criticized for recognizing Lobo's government after he was elected in a regularly scheduled vote later that year. Lobo took office in January 2010 and is limited to a single term, which ends next year.