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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Voters in Honduras go to the polls today to elect a new president. These are the first open elections with all parties participating since the left-leaning government in Honduras was ousted in a 2009 coup. The vote comes at a difficult time for the U.S. ally. Two-thirds of the Honduran people live in poverty, unemployment is soaring, and as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, all the drug trafficking and gang violence have given Honduras one of the highest murder rates in the world.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Tegucigalpa's narrow downtown streets are crowded and loud. Vendors hawk everything from bread to pirated CDs while men push passengers onto boarding buses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: This week, I met a man in the central market, who in a very low voice, told me how everyone around here has to pay the gangs a war tax.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says all the stalls in the market, the tiny convenience stores, even the women selling tortillas pay it. He was too scared to give me his name. He says for his five-car taxi business he paid the gangs 15,000 lempiras, about $750 a month.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: I just worked to pay the tax, he said. If not, they kill you. He blames the ruling party for letting the gangs do as they please and says he'll vote for the new LIBRE Party and its candidate, Xiomara Castro, who says she'll restore peace and justice in the country, which has become the favorite transit stop for South American cocaine heading into the U.S. Critics say though that Castro is a front for her husband, the former president deposed in the coup. But she's been a strong campaigner and rides high in the polls.

XIOMARA CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: But despite few TV spots, LIBRE hasn't advertised much. It's been outspent and out-organized by the ruling National Party's candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez. The 45-year old charismatic head of the Congress is popular with many for his plan to put the military back on the streets, and his program giving 10,000 lempiras to poor families.

SARAH ESTER GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Eight-year-old Sarah Ester Gonzalez, who sells chocolates on the downtown streets, says her parents are voting for Orlando Hernandez because he gave them the money. Orlando Hernandez has been rounding up votes with a 100-person call center at his headquarters.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: A vote for Juan Orlando is a vote for a safe, prosperous and peaceful Honduras, says the operator. Before hanging up she adds: Be sure to pick up one of the candidates' free discount cards, good at most stores. Election observers, like Ulrike Lunacek, who heads the European Union's team here, says it's troubling that the campaigns haven't been clear about how much money they've spent or where it comes from.

ULRIKE LUNACEK: I think one of the best methods or medicines against corruption is transparency. The financial transparency hasn't been there.

KAHN: And she says preparation for tallying the vote today has been shaky too. There is much concern about violence breaking out if election results are delayed or very close. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson says whoever wins will face a country with high debt, poverty and violence.

ROBERTA JACOBSON: So, we have no allusion that this is going to be easy.

KAHN: But she says the U.S. is ready to back whoever wins as long as the election is clean and free. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tegucigalpa.

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