Beloved Honduran mayor stood out in bloody electoral season

Two weeks before Honduran elections, Cantarranas Mayor Francisco Gaitan appeared untouchable as he pursued a fifth consecutive term

ByCHRISTOPHER SHERMAN Associated Press
November 27, 2021, 6:18 PM
Soldiers patrol in Cantarranas, Honduras, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, one day ahead of the general elections. Political related violence prior to Sunday’s elections has reached unprecedented levels with close to 30 murders considered to have been motiva
Soldiers patrol in Cantarranas, Honduras, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, one day ahead of the general elections. Political related violence prior to Sunday’s elections has reached unprecedented levels with close to 30 murders considered to have been motivated by or involving politicians. Francisco Gaitan, the mayor of Cantarranas who was seeking his fifth re-election was murdered on Nov. 13. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
The Associated Press

CANTARRANAS, Honduras -- San Luis was the eighth stop on a tour of nine villages for Francisco “Paquito” Gaitan, the popular mayor of this municipality perched in the mountains outside the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

Two weeks before the elections, Gaitan appeared untouchable as he pursued a fifth consecutive term. The rare politician here who had clear plans to improve the lives of his constituents and worked doggedly to fulfill them. The list of reasons why people loved the bespectacled agricultural engineer was long.

In San Luis it started with the electricity he brought years ago to the farming community of about 120 people some 40 minutes drive down rough road from downtown Cantarranas, and it included potable water and a new school he insisted have two classrooms.

So Gaitan’s Nov. 13 murder on the doorstep of Luis Rodríguez’s home in San Luis was a complete shock. Not only was it the first murder anyone could remember there, but it was their beloved mayor as he showed Rodríguez’s 93-year-old father and others a sample ballot to prepare them for election day.

Gaitan’s was the most resonant murder in another bloody Honduran election campaign.

The National Autonomous University of Honduras’ Violence Observatory counted 20 murdered politicians between last Dec. 15 and Sept. 15 of this year. This month, there have been four murdered politicians, including Gaitan, all from the Liberal party.

“I daresay it was political jealousy,” said Marco Antonio Guzmán, Gaitan’s 35-year-old deputy mayor, who was selected to replace his mentor on the ballot and refers to him as “our eternal mayor.”

The killer, from a nearby village, was caught, but Guzmán alluded to others being involved without giving names. Authorities haven’t provided a motive for the killing.

“There was unease because they knew he was going to win,” Guzmán said. “It was something like the political impotence of knowing they couldn’t do anything against the will of the people.”

Cantarranas was like any other small Honduran town until Gaitán decided to try politics after a successful career in agriculture that included managing one of Honduras’ largest coffee exporters.

During his first two terms, he focused on basic infrastructure and services — electricity, potable water, roads, schools — investments that dramatically changed residents’ quality of life.

Then, Gaitan, whose work had allowed him to travel internationally, turned his focus toward the arts and education. Today, Cantarranas is best known as the town an hour’s drive from Tegucigalpa with streets brightened by colorful murals.

It hosts annual festivals for muralists and sculptors, who come from across Honduras and Latin America. The town started a program to teach children the arts. Its streets are full of quaint cafes and its central plaza dotted with sandstone sculptures.

Together it is an atmosphere unlike any other in Honduras and it has made Cantarranas one of the country’s tourism destinations.

The transformation of Cantarranas is all the more impressive because it happened with another party in power at the national level. Guzmán said the city didn’t receive the same support from the federal government for that reason.

On Saturday, dozens of people crowded on one side of the central square where the federal government was handing out bags of food staples to parents of schoolchildren. The bags were not stamped with any party logo, nor were those handing them out wearing the colors of the governing National party, but it was on the eve of the election.

Back in San Luis, instead of being frightened by the killing of their mayor people said they were more resolute and ready to cast their ballots for Gaitan’s successor Sunday.

Mario Rodríguez, Luis’ brother, saw Gaitan fall and the killer shoot him several more times. He saw his sister on the ground and thought she had been hit as well, but she was just knocked down in the scrum.

Two weeks later the farmer still gets emotional thinking about the good Gaitan did for his remote community. On Sunday, he said he would make the journey to town to vote.

“In memory of him (Gaitan) we have to respond,” Mario Rodríguez said. “Now with more drive we’re going to arrive.”

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AP writer Marlon González in Tegucigalpa, Honduras contributed to this report.

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