She beat him to the punch, and now she may be Honduras’ first female president

SAN JOSE ISLAND, Honduras — Like much of Central America, Honduras has long been run by men until the last days of August, when Juana Efrain Avila broke the mold.

With a massive makeover, Avila embarked on a massive campaign to become Honduras’ first female president. Even two decades after first women were first put on the ballot, there had never been one elected president in the region.

She convinced the National Congress to change the rules, and here she is, hours away from a hotly contested runoff election. Polls show her ahead of her closest challenger by an especially wide margin.

“I will never betray the majority of the Hondurans who supported me,” she said. “I am humbled, grateful and thankful for their vote. It was the will of the Hondurans. I will only keep going forward.”

Avila, 50, is hoping to succeed Orellana, her mentor who is leaving office at the end of a six-year term marked by corruption, patronage and impunity. Avila is running with the blessing of the coalition backing her campaign.

Two weeks ago, she was involved in a serious accident on a dirt road outside the capital. Her presidential campaign bus spun out of control, and she fell 20 feet, fracturing two vertebrae and suffering bruising. And yet voters seemingly love her. Her campaign symbol of a clenched fist, with Juana painted on the end, became synonymous with her political campaign.

Avila is running for her second term as mayor of San Pedro Sula, a northern Honduran city that is seen as a model for social inclusion and battling gang violence. Avila cut the crime rate significantly with a hardline approach and spending money on programs to create jobs and move families out of the city’s slums. Her approach was so successful she won the presidency as mayor, and was then elected to Congress.

“She is someone who wants to leave a legacy of peace and order, and as mayor did it by bringing people together,” said Mauricio Villeda, a city councilman. “She never tried to hide her victories, and that helps win support.”

During her time in Congress, Avila — sometimes referred to as the People’s Vote’ — garnered support for close scrutiny of the presidents and governors elected on the ticket with her, an indication of her independence.

Asked what her legacy would be, she cited her efforts to create jobs and the vote of confidence from the business community — both desires of the business community — as among her chief accomplishments as a legislator.

“As a legislator, I brought an end to practices that were harming the economy and threaten the stability of the country,” she said. “I was the first to send a bill for an audit of the administration.”

She believes that if her two main rivals win the upcoming runoff election, her country will fall back into “the same mentality of corruption.”

“I feel very sad,” she said. “I am confident, very confident that the voters have understood my approach and their message.”

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