June 20, 2019 / 2:22 AM / a month ago

Anti-riot police step back from Honduras protests, fueling demonstrations

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Members of a Honduran riot police that have dealt with weeks of protests stood down in Tegucigalpa on Wednesday, allowing adversaries of President Juan Orlando Hernandez to block streets and cause traffic chaos in the city. 

A demonstrator walk by a burning barricade during a protest against the government of Honduras' president Juan Orlando Hernandez, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

Members of the National Directorate of Special Forces (DNFE), who have been protesting since Tuesday night by remaining in their quarters, said if they did not receive better benefits, they would not carry out anti-riot operations.

Protests against Hernandez, an ally of the United States, have been building in recent weeks over planned reforms that the president’s critics argue will lead to the privatization of public health and education services.

The police strike is a fresh headache for the conservative leader, who has been under pressure since he changed electoral rules to allow him to run for a second term in 2017. Though he won the election, it was heavily criticized by international observers and opponents who say he stole the victory.

The DNFE’s withdrawal encouraged demonstrators to block streets and roads in the Honduran capital, burning tires and creating roadblocks during the second day of a strike by truckers that caused rushes to buy fuel at gas stations.

Hernandez’s official residence was being guarded on Wednesday night by military police and soldiers armed with high-performance rifles while demonstrators marched through streets calling on the president to step down.

Late on Wednesday, military police began deploying to areas affected by the disturbances, images broadcast on local television showed.

Earlier, outside the local DNFE base, a masked police officer stood with colleagues to read out a statement with demands to the government for better life insurance and healthcare benefits, as well as improved welfare coverage for their families.

The statement also expressed “discontent” with the government over the crisis and underlined that the force would not carry out acts of “repression” against the people.

Police commissioner Orlin Cerrato told a news conference that authorities are looking for a solution to the dispute, and said the strike only involved around 10% of the DNFE, which government sources say has about 3,000 members nationwide.

In recent weeks protesters have also torched an access gate to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa and targeted fruit trucks marked with the logo of the Dole Fruit Company.

Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Additional reporting by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Michael Perry

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