Honduras woke up Monday to state of political chaos and uncertainty after election observers refused to recognize the result of presidential elections held three weeks ago due to unprecedented evidence of computer fraud.
The Organization of American States called for new elections late Sunday, saying "the electoral process was characterized by irregularities and deficiencies, with very low technical quality and lacking integrity."
It cited "deliberate human interference in the computer system," in some polling stations in certain parts of the country, favoring ruling party candidate and incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández.
A 66-page detailed analysis of the election by a U.S.-based group calling itself GANAS USA (Group of North American Friends in Software) also found evidence of sophisticated computer software fraud involving 174,000 votes, more than enough to swing the result in favor of Hernández.
It said those votes "can only be attributed to manipulation and fabrication."
What happens next is unclear. "The situation is extremely volatile, it's changing minute by minute," said one Latin American diplomat.
The OAS rejection of the official result was a stunning shock, especially coming from an organization that has historically shied away from criticizing elections in the region, with rare exceptions.
"My God. The OAS completes its return to relevance as a principled, hemispheric guardian of democracy. A Christmas miracle," said a currently serving American ambassador in the region who had seen the results of the study.
However, it was unclear how the Trump administration will react. Hernández is a key U.S. ally in the region on strategic issues such as security and immigration. The U.S. has also remained mostly silent during the election crisis, besides appealing for electoral transparency and calm on the streets.
In the last three weeks protests have claimed the lives of at least 17 people with hundreds more arrested. More protests are expected Monday.
Opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla traveled to Washington on Sunday to present evidence of the alleged fraud and is due to meet with officials from the Organization of American States, the U.S. State Department and human rights groups.
"It's clear there was fraud," he said in a short Facebook video. "The president of the republic at this moment is an imposter, and the Honduran people know it," he added, saying he was carrying with him detailed evidence of how the fraud was carried out.
There was no immediate public comment by Hernández, who is in mourning after his sister and communications minister, Hilda Hernández, died Saturday in a helicopter crash.
In a series of tweets, Honduran government minister Ebal Diaz, accused the OAS of violating its mission and rejected the call for new elections. "What it proposes is illegal and unacceptable," he said.
The latest chapter in the spiraling crisis began Sunday when the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, David Matamoros, declared Hernández the winner, even though two of four members of the tribunal were not present, and one has alleged irregularities.
According to the official count, Hernández won by slightly more than 50,000 votes, (42.95% to 41.42%).
That came after the Electoral Tribunal conducted a recount of ballot boxes last week and announced there was virtually no change to its count. A team of observers from the European Union also found "virtually no difference" between tallies provided by the opposition and the official results.
Matamoros defended the court’s performance, saying it was “the most transparent electoral process ever seen in Honduras.”
US group alleged software fraud
However, a 66-page detailed analysis of the election by a U.S.-based group calling itself GANAS USA (Group of North American Friends in Software) found evidence of sophisticated computer software fraud that it said was not evident to the untrained eye.
"We looked at the raw data of official tallies sent by the polling stations and statistically it didn't make sense," the author of the GANAS report told Univision News. A U.S. computer engineer, he asked to remain anonymous due to fears for his family in Honduras.
Univision verified his computer engineering credentials but has not been able to check his analysis with other experts, including the OAS or the Honduran electoral tribunal.
Closer examination of high resolution images of the voting tallies revealed some had been digitally altered. "All the background information was cleared, wiped clean, and on top of that pre-scanned images were inserted," he said.
The election controversy stems from a bizarre vote-count which initially had Nasralla leading by 5% with 57% of the ballots tabulated, before a sudden halt due to an alleged computer malfunction. The count was suspended for a day and a half. When it restarted Hernández was mysteriously ahead.
"When you look closely it's very obvious," he added, noting how data showed voting trends in some districts suddenly shifted in favor of the ruling party after the computers shut down. The analysis by GANAS shows that after the computers shot down "they flooded the system with 500,000 votes," padding the numbers with false vote tallies to favor the ruling National Party of Hernández by 174,000 votes.
It was done with such sophistication that GANAS said security coding in the system had to be re-written to cover the tracks. "They systematically cleared tallies from the system. They deleted a bunch of stuff," he said.
GANAS said it was an independent group but had been contacted by Luis Redondo, a senior member of the opposition Alliance close to Nasralla. GANAS said it did the work free of charge.
Asked about his motivation, the GANAS analysts said: "I saw the situation and I felt sorry for Honduras."
A seven-page official OAS analysis released late Sunday and written by Georgetown University professor Irfan Nooruddin, came to similar conclusions.
"There is a marked break point with roughly 68% of votes counted in polling level station turnout rates and concomitant vote shares for the National Party and the opposition Alliance," he wrote.
"For this to be plausible, we’d have to believe not only that late-reporting polling stations favored the incumbent but that that they did so by overwhelming margins unlike the polling stations that reported even a few minutes earlier in the evening," he added. "It is consistent with a hypothesis of tampering with the vote tallies that were counted last."
He gave three examples of districts were sudden shifts occurred. In one department. La Paz, the share for the National Party went from 44% to 56%. At the same time, the Alliance's vote share plummeted from 32% to just 16%. Voter turnout also leapt from 68% to 73%.
Speaking to journalists in the Honduran capital before departing, Nasralla insinuated that he was in possession of the GANAS report and planned to make it a major part of his meetings in Washington. "There are things the magistrates (of the Electoral Tribunal) do not have the capacity to determine. The technical part of how the fraud was done can only be determined by a technician ... not a lawyer," he said.
"The fraud was well consummated and well prepared, by absolute mobsters and criminals," he added.
Hernandez, a 49-year-old lawyer and former lawmaker, took office in January 2014 and is credited with reducing gang violence in the impoverished Central American country. That has earned his praise from U.S. officials for reducing migration of Hondurans fleeing to the United States to escape violence.
But his government has been tainted by corruption and drug trafficking allegations. He is also accused of plotting an illegal power grab by engineering a change in the constitution to allow re-election, long outlawed in Honduras.
Nasralla is a successful businessman and former Pepsi CEO in Honduras as well as being the country's best-known sportscaster. Married to a former beauty queen, he has never been elected to political office before.