Children hold candles during a demonstration to condemn violence against children in Tegucigalpa
Children hold candles during a demonstration to condemn violence against children in Tegucigalpa Reuters

Seventeen people have been killed in Honduras in a deadly gun battle between two rival drug gangs. Chief prosecutor Roberto Ramirez said the killings took place in La Mosquitia, a remote area in the country’s northern coast, one of the main transshipment points for cocaine smuggled from South America to the United States, according to reports. Some of the victims are believed to be women and children.

The government has deployed army and navy troops into the region to investigate the killings. One of the men killed was a prominent gang leader from neighboring Nicaragua named Victor Centeno, aka "El Muco." The BBC reported that gangs from Nicaragua and Honduras battle for control of Gracias a Dios province (including La Mosquitia), which is sparsely populated and an ideal launch point for speedboats that deliver drugs north to the US.

The massacre underscores Honduras' dubious distinction as the country with the highest murder rate in the world, most of it fueled by drug trafficking and gang violence. In a poor country of just under 8 million people, slightly smaller than New York City, Honduras has already recorded 3,000 homicides in the first half of this year, the government stated. According to report by the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), Honduras witnessed 7,172 murders in 2012 – the most violent year ever recorded and an increase of 68 killings from 2011. (Interestingly, homicides in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala have been dropping over the past five or six years).

As a result, Honduras averages about 85.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants (versus figures of about 22.7 for Mexico and only 4.2 for the U.S.). In fact, Honduras is about twice as dangerous as Venezuela, a country that regularly draws headlines for its own epidemic of bloodshed. While much of the unceasing carnage is directly tied to the illegal drug trade and disproportionately afflicts the poor, the middle-class, politicians and journalists have been brutally gunned down in Honduras over the years.

But at the heart of the violence, of course, lies the wildly lucrative illegal drug trade. According to a report in the Associated Press, 20 to 25 tons of cocaine, or about half the amount that arrives in the U.S. monthly, is offloaded in Honduras. But the socials ills Honduras suffers from -- narcotics trafficking, widespread poverty, the easy availability of handguns, an ineffective legal system and police corruption – are also shared by its Central American neighbors. So, why has the bloodshed scarred Honduras to such a horrific degree?

At least two major factors have contributed to the carnage in confluence with the aforementioned conditions: a flurry of political killings sparked by the 2009 coup against the democratically elected government of former President Manuel Zelaya and the influx of drug barons flushed out of Mexico by former President Felipe Calderon's massive war against the cartels there. “Zelaya's overthrow created a vacuum in security in which military and police were now focused more on political protest, and also led to a freeze in international aid that markedly worsened socio-economic conditions,” said Mark Ungar, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York.

The 2009 coup, asserts professor Aaron Schneider, gave the Honduran military more political and economic leverage, at the same time as the state and political elites lost their legitimacy, resources and the capacity to govern large parts of the country. “Mexican drug syndicates found a useful combination of poorly governed territory, easily corrupted military and police forces, well-established but easily co-opted gangs, and the opportunities of great wealth to be accumulated by selling drugs in the U.S.,” said Schneider, a Tulane University political science professor.

Honduras' geographic location makes it an ideal transit hub for drugs -- the World Bank estimates that almost 90 percent of all drug-laden planes and sea vessels bound for the U.S. pass through Central America, particularly Honduras. Schneider explained that Honduras has also been victimized by a series of policy mistakes and international factors that have pushed up murder rates in the country to surreal levels. “The number one cause throughout [Central America] is weak development and weak democracy, in which weakness means that violence is a resource to be used in both market and political competition,” he said. “This is most clearly expressed in the drug sector, as it is an illicit commodity, heightening the importance of coercion as a tool in capturing wealth and preserving political power.”

There is also a proliferation of guns in Honduras. The U.N. estimates that there exist at least 800,000 guns in Honduras -- one for every 10 people -- a legacy of both prior civil wars and loose gun laws. The National Commissioner for Human Rights reported that only about 258,000 of those weapons are registered, meaning the majority are illegal and likely were bought in Central America's booming black market. Moreover, a huge stockpile of military weapons are believed to have fallen into the hands of drug cartels and corrupt security officials.

As a result, at least 80 percent of homicides in Honduras were committed with illegal handguns. Guns originating in Honduras have also found their way into Mexico and Guatemala. However, as Schneider mentioned, none of this bloodshed would be possible without the complicity (and in some cases, direct participation) of corrupt police, military and government officials. President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who took office in January 2010, removed dozens of corrupt police officers from the force, on the heels of reports from the U.S. and U.N. that Honduran police have committed grave human rights abuses and participated directly in the nation's violent drug business.

However, Lobo's regime is itself filled with military figures and others who initiated the 2009 coup against Zelaya and has been criticized for intensifying repression in Honduras. Under Lobo, whose election is suspected of having been driven by fraud, scores of opposition figures have been jailed or have simply disappeared. Mark Ungar wrote in the New York Times that drug trafficking and corruption at the highest levels goes hand in hand. “The country is saturated by gang violence. Drug traffickers control many of the state agencies responsible for fighting the gangs, as well as the territory of the country’s six northern states,” he wrote. “In trying to contain criminal violence, organized crime and gangs, Honduras has eroded its own legal foundation.”

Indeed, Honduras' legal system is plagued by corruption, apathy and incompetence. For example, in 2006, of the more than 63,000 criminal complaints that were filed, only about 1,000 ultimately resulted in a conviction. Exacerbating Honduras’ woes is widespread indigence. Two-thirds of the Honduran population is trapped in poverty – making the lucrative drug trade an attractive option for many destitute young men and women. Rural poverty is particularly severe in Honduras – according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, three-fourths of the country's rural folk (who account for more than half the total population) live in extreme poverty, that is, they are unable to meet basic needs. With high rates of infant mortality, child malnutrition and illiteracy, IFAD classifies Honduras as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, behind only Haiti.

Accompanying the rampant crime and violence, Honduras' prisons are overcrowded, leading to a number of tragedies. A fire at the Comayagua prison once killed more than 300 inmates. Similar incidents have plagued other prisons across the country. Ironically, many incarcerated Hondurans are never even charged with a crime, or are awaiting trial for misdemeanors, suggesting that serious drug traffickers go unpunished -- and may even be protected by corrupt police and judges. Ungar commented that Honduran jails are overcrowded because there is a high rate of arrest and a low rate of conviction. “The police use their powers of detention, but detentions are followed up by slow, often incomplete investigations, leading many people to wait in prison for years, and for the easier targets – i.e., drug mules, petty criminals -- to be caught,” he noted.

Indeed, Schneider contends that while police aggressively pursue small-time drug dealers, the big traffickers who are free to operate and profit are sometimes under the protection of corrupt segments of the government and security agencies. “The police are not lax in prosecuting drug dealers,” he said. “In Honduras, there have been multiple attempts to apply more and more harsh tactics and sentences. The drug dealers who are not in jail are those who are part of the state or have corrupted the state enough to stay out of jail. Add to this the completely inadequate resources dedicated to jails, the inadequate justice system, and the lack of alternatives to incarceration, and the jails are overflowing.”

But some Hondurans blame the U.S. for the relentless drug-related violence in Central America. “Efforts to combat narco-trafficking in Honduras and the crime and violence that it fuels can have only a limited impact so long as there is an insatiable demand for and consumption of illegal drugs in the United States,” wrote Marco Cáceres, editor of the Honduran Weekly newspaper. “This is a market-driven problem that can only be resolved by dealing with its source: the U.S. consumer.”

Migdonia Ayestas of UNAH told National Public Radio that the weak government struggled to provide basic services, and that every other day the government declares a state of emergency about one thing or another. "We are on the brink of becoming a failed state," she said.