As politicians prep for Honduras’ 2013 general elections, allegations are surfacing that some electoral bids are funded by drug money, leaving the authorities with the challenge of keeping tainted candidates out of the running.

Victor Hugo Barnica, head of Honduras' National Council against Drug Trafficking (CNN), warned recently that organized criminal groups are working to put their chosen candidates in power. He said that drug traffickers are investing heavily in backing certain candidates in the parties’ November internal elections and primaries to select candidates for the 2013 general elections, when the country will elect a new president, members of congress, and mayors.

Such allegations are shaping up to be a key theme for the elections. In January, Liberal presidential hopeful Mauricio Villeda declared that, in Honduras, “We already have narco-congressmen and narco-mayors.” He called on the country to fight against the interference of drug traffickers in politics. Meanwhile Ricardo Alvarez, would-be presidential candidate for the National Party, has also spoken out in recent months about corrupt political campaigns, warning that officials backed by drug money will act in the interest of criminal groups rather than that of the country.

Barnica singled out the province of Copan, west Honduras, as particularly vulnerable. He said the council had received reports that drug traffickers were planning to invest some 20 million lempiras ($1 million) to win the mayorship of Santa Rosa de Copan, the provincial capital. Copan, which borders Guatemala, is one of the most violent provinces in the country, with a homicide rate of over 85 per 100,000 in 2010, and is an important strategic territory for drug traffickers to control. It sits at the mouth of the “Road of Death,” a drug trafficking route that starts in Gracias a Dios province on the border with Nicaragua and feeds into Guatemala through Copan. A report last year by El Faro quoted an anonymous intelligence agent who described Santa Rosa de Copan as a place of relative peace between trafficking groups, where drug lords “have their families and houses to relax … There they also make deals with those politicians, mayors and officials who they have bought off, hold their political meetings." The province is territory of the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel, but, according to the intelligence agent, the Zetas have also been detected there in the last year.

The pickings can be rich for public officials who accept the support of drug traffickers. The mayor of the municipality of El Paraiso, Copan, is allegedly backed by the Sinaloa Cartel. Mayor Alexander Ardon, according to one intelligence official that spoke to InSight Crime, built a town hall that resembles the White House, complete with a heliport on the roof, and travels with 40 heavily armed bodyguards. (See image, above.)

The issue of dirty money in the elections feeds into concerns that Honduras could become a "narco-state," whose government, deeply penetrated by criminal groups, works to promote the interests of the drug trade. Honduras is home to domestic drug transporting groups known as the "transportistas," but more powerful foreign trafficking groups from Colombia as well as from Mexico have increased their presence in the country, taking advantage of the chaos that followed in the wake of the 2009 coup. US sources have told the media that Honduras is now the biggest transition point for cocaine that passes through Mexico into the US -- a development that has brought millions of dollars of drug money in its wake. It is difficult to prevent this cash from being used to pay off law enforcement officials, and buy elections. It is possible these foreign groups pose the biggest threat in terms of infiltrating the state, moving to increase their political influence as the next step in their expansion.

What can Honduras do to halt this? One issue is regulation of campaign financing. In December the head of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Enrique Ortez Sequeira, said that under current legislation, "The political parties are left at the mercy of drug trafficking and organized crime, which can finance the campaigns." A Congress committee collaborated with the TSE last year to draw up a list of campaign law reforms centered around making party financing more transparent, but they were rejected by Congress in January.

Another option is for the state to be responsible for funding political campaigns, with private donations banned or kept to a minimum. This would be pricey, however, and could be unrealistic, with El Proceso quoting figures that say congress candidates in Latin America spend $500,000 to $1 million on their campaigns, on average. Some argue, moreover, that making financing more transparent is not a solution by itself, and that candidates with links to organized crime should be removed at an earlier stage, and prevented from entering the parties' lists of candidates. This responsibility would fall on the political parties, and on the TSE.

National Council against Drug Trafficking head Barnica said that the body would work with the TSE to remove suspect candidates from voting lists before parties’ internal elections. One of Barnica’s proposals was for the parties to display lists of candidates online, allowing members of the public to report any irregularities. While a worthwhile measure, such an online forum would only be the most basic of screens to prevent drug money filtering into political campaigns. If foreign drug cartels whose tentacles stretch across the hemisphere have decided to buy political power through Honduras' election, it will take much more than this to stop them.