Bodies of four slain men are seen in Tegucigalpa
Bodies of four slain men are seen in Tegucigalpa. Reuters

The small Central American nation of Honduras has gained the unfortunate notoriety of being the most dangerous place on earth.

According to the United Nations, Honduras now has the world's highest murder rate (four times greater than that of blood-soaked Mexico), with a homicide recorded every hour and 15 minutes, according to The National Commission for Human Rights.

In 2011, this tiny nation of only 8 million people recorded 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants (the highest rate on the planet), up from 82 in the prior year, and double the rate from just six years ago. In contrast, Mexico's rate is about 18 murders per 100,000 inhabitants -- it's about five in the U.S., while Britain records just one.

While much of the unceasing carnage is directly tied to the illegal drug trade and disproportionately afflicts the poor, the middle-class, politicians and even journalists have been brutally gunned down in Honduras.

In mid-May, thousands of people marched in the capital city of Tegucigalpa and other towns to protest the murders (all unsolved) of about 20 journalists over the past three years.

The crisis has reached a level where a politician named Ricardo Alvarez has even promised free funerals for murder victims whose families are too poor to pay for the ceremony.

Moreover, the violence forced the withdrawal of Peace Corps volunteers from the country in early 2012 after a number of attacks on their staff.

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. each per month, is offloaded in Honduras.

Earlier this year, the Honduran navy stopped a submarine off the coast carrying five tons of cocaine that was destined for American noses.

But the socials ills Honduras suffers from -- narcotics trafficking, widespread poverty, the easy availability of handguns, an ineffective legal system and police corruption -- are 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 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 the Tulane University political science professor.

Location Factor

Honduras' geographic location makes it an ideal transshipment point 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 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.”

Honduras is prone to particularly high levels of violence because its national coercive forces, the army and police, have long been penetrated and supported by international actors, specifically the U.S., making them poor protectors of Honduran national interests, Schneider noted.

“Given the opportunity to profit from the trade of licit and illicit commodities, Honduran coercive agents have stepped comfortably into the role of power-brokers between the state and drug syndicates,” he noted.

One Gun For Every 10 People

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, has 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.

Drug Trafficking In Tandem With Corruption

Mark Ungar wrote earlier this year in the New York Times that drug trafficking and corruption at the highest levels go 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. In February, a fire at the Comayagua prison 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 Honduran Weekly newspaper.

“This is a market-driven problem that can only be resolved by dealing with its source: the U.S. consumer.”

Some voices within the U.S. also hold Washington responsible for the Honduran bloodshed by supporting Lobo's government and providing military aid to Tegucigalpa.

Alex Main, senior associate for international policy with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the U.S. “bears a large part of responsibility for the institutional breakdown and soaring murder rate in Honduras,” citing that the U.S. continues to send Lobo millions of dollars, thereby upholding a corrupt and extremely violent regime of dubious legitimacy.

Late in 2011, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to consider suspending police and military aid to Honduras.

Ungar contends that the Honduran government is now taking significant against the drug traffickers, including stepped-up military activity, community policing at the local level, stronger laws (such as for seizure of property) and better investigation.

As a postscript, on May 31, the Honduras Weekly newspaper reported that 28 percent of the Honduran police force – some 4,000 officers -- will be fired as part of Lobo’s program of rooting out corruption and purging the force of alleged ties to drug cartels.

Congressman Augusto Cruz Asensio told the paper that the policemen who are losing their jobs represent corruption at various levels.

What we are looking to do is clean up the institution and give it credibility again so that the population can have confidence in the National Police, he said.

He added that the fired personnel will be replaced by new officers. In the meantime, Honduras will continue to rely on military forces to conduct police duties.