If you want to see both the potential and the peril in Latin America, you could not do better than to visit Honduras and Colombia, as I did in mid-May: The former is Exhibit A for all that is wrong with the region, from drug trafficking and violence to governmental corruption; the latter a showcase of what can be done to bring even the most embattled country back from the brink.

First, the bad news. Honduras owns a dubious distinction, of the highest murder rate in the world. In 2012, according to the United Nations, it suffered 85.5 homicides per 100,000 residents compared with a global median of 8.8. The rate in the United States is under 5 homicides per 100,000; in Canada it is under 2. Mexico is far more violent but even its homicide rate is less than a third of Honduras’s—24 per 100,000. San Pedro Sula, a city in northern Honduras, is ground zero for this epidemic of violence—its murder rate is 169 per 100,000, making it the most violent city on the planet. More than 7,100 people were murdered in the entire country (population 7.7 million) in 2012, and there has been no abatement of that trend this year. Even in the capital, Tegucigalpa, visitors are warned not to walk outside their hotel.

Honduras is the original banana republic—it was home in the early 20th century to banana plantations owned by two giant American corporations, United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) and Standard Fruit Company (now Dole), which dominated the country’s political and economic life. Today it is a cocaine republic, not a major grower of coca but the leading transshipment point for cocaine coming from Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia to the United States.

The State Department estimates that “more than 80 percent of the primary flow of the cocaine trafficked to the United States first transited through the Central American corridor in 2012,” and “as much as 87 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights departing South America first land in Honduras.” Honduras is ideally placed midway between the Andes and North America—single-engine aircraft can make it there from Venezuela without refueling. U.S. officials in Tegucigalpa estimate that 20 to 30 tons of cocaine pass through Honduras every month, mainly along the remote Atlantic coast where roads are few but jungle landing strips for cocaine-carrying aircraft and makeshift ports for cocaine-carrying fast boats proliferate.

Not all of the cocaine moves by air or sea; some of it is transported via the Pan-American Highway into Mexico and then to the United States. Powerful street gangs have developed in Honduras such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang. Their membership is estimated at more than 36,000, and their tentacles reach into the United States—not least because some of their members are former illegal immigrants who have been arrested and deported to Honduras, where they have few social ties outside the criminal gangs. (Some 32,000 Hondurans a year are deported from the United States—the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service runs six to eight full flights a week to Honduras.) As in Mexico, turf battles among gangs produce horrendous casualties and considerable collateral damage.

The government in Tegucigalpa seems helpless to stop this onslaught of criminality—not least because so many officials and their relatives are believed to benefit from the drug trade. Narco-trafficking is one of the few sources of revenue and employment in this desperately poor country whose per capita income, according to the World Bank, is less than $2,000 a year and where more than 59 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

It is no coincidence that Honduras is not only the most violent country on earth but also one of the most corrupt, ranking 133 out of 177 in Transparency International’s survey of international corruption. That makes it the most corrupt country in Central America, a region not exactly noted for good government (with the possible exception of Costa Rica). The police are particularly suspect. In one notorious case in 2011, Honduran police officers kidnapped and killed the son of a prominent academic. The result is what one U.S. embassy official calls a “culture of impunity” for drug traffickers.

Battling back are the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. armed forces, which have made C-TOC (Countering Transnational Organized Crime) their top priority in the region. They have not enjoyed notable success so far. Their most ambitious initiative, Operation Anvil, was launched on a trial basis between May and July 2012. It was designed to use U.S. and Colombian intelligence to guide specially vetted Honduran security forces, accompanied by DEA advisers, to interdict narcotics aircraft landing along the Atlantic coast. The State Department employed its own helicopters, flown by Guatemalan pilots, to transport police strike forces, while the U.S. military’s Joint Task Force Bravo, based at Soto Cano airbase in Honduras, supported the operation with fuel and logistics.

Anvil did result in the seizure of 2.5 tons of narcotics and seven arrests, but it also created a public relations fiasco when aggressive FAST teams (Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams), composed of DEA agents redeployed from Afghanistan who were supposed to be acting only as advisers, opened fire and killed suspects. The Honduran air force compounded the woes by using intelligence generated by Colombia and the United States to shoot down two small planes without positively identifying them as drug runners. U.S. and Honduran officials have been planning a follow-on operation—Anvil II—but so far it has not passed beyond the planning phase even as murder and drug trafficking reach new heights.

The situation in Honduras might appear hopeless were it not for the fact that Colombia was arguably just as besieged a decade ago and has since made a miraculous comeback. Since the 1960s Colombia has battled the Marxist rebels of FARC (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), in league with narco-traffickers. In addition, the 1980s saw the rise of the powerful Medellin and Cali cartels led by notorious drug barons such as Pablo Escobar. Although the cartels declined in the 1990s, drug production continued to increase and FARC got stronger. By 2000, FARC controlled an area the size of Switzerland and had surrounded Bogotá. It was considered unsafe to drive outside the capital. Kidnappings and bombings were common. Corruption was rife. The country was in the throes of what the Washington Post described as a “comprehensive social and political breakdown.”

Today the situation is very different. Bogotá is a bustling city where the most common dangers are pickpocketing and mugging—not kidnapping and murder. FARC still exists but is no longer an existential threat. Its ranks have been much reduced (from over 20,000 full-time fighters to fewer than 10,000), many of its top leaders have been killed or captured, and it is now engaged in peace talks in Havana with the Colombian government. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of homicides in Colombia fell 43 percent, the number of kidnappings 95 percent, the number of terrorist acts 47 percent, the amount of cocaine generated 72 percent. In no small part because of this improvement in security, the unemployment rate has declined 53 percent while foreign investment has risen 385 percent, tourism 98 percent, and GDP 65 percent. (All figures are from Colombia’s Ministry of National Defense except for the fall of cocaine production, which comes from the U.S. embassy in Bogotá.)

Colombia faces continuing challenges—in particular the need to consolidate gains against the FARC by providing governmental services in remote, hard-to-reach parts of the country far from its metropolitan centers. But so significant is the change from 2000 that Colombia has become active in training thousands of foreign police officers in its military schools and sending advisers to countries such as Mexico to help them emulate the Colombian example.

Why did Colombia succeed where Honduras has so far failed? U.S. aid is part of the story—$8 billion worth over the past decade, providing everything from helicopters to trainers that improved the performance of the Colombian armed forces. But, as Washington has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, generous foreign spending can all too easily be wasted. The fact that the Colombians have made such good use of the money is due to the inspired leadership provided by Álvaro Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010, and since then by his former defense minister and successor, Juan Manuel Santos.

Uribe is a charismatic, transformational figure, similar in his impact to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He took on not only the FARC but also right-wing militias and corrupt government officials. He pushed through a war tax and expanded the size and effectiveness of the military, enabling the armed forces to undertake an effective counterinsurgency campaign. Santos is not as flamboyant, but he is more diplomatic—a George H. W. Bush or a John Major. (A better analogy might be to William Howard Taft, since Uribe, like Theodore Roosevelt, still pines for power and has clashed publicly with his former protégé.) Santos has reached out to countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela that Uribe confronted over their support for FARC; Santos’s quiet suasion has helped persuade Ecuador, though not yet Venezuela, to stop cooperating with the rebels. Like the elder Bush at the end of the Cold War, he has the opportunity now to use his negotiating skills to secure a victory that his predecessor made possible with bold and aggressive action.

The obvious implication is that Honduras needs Colombian-style leadership. Easier said than done. The previous incumbent, leftist Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a coup in 2009. The current officeholder, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, is more conservative but no more effective. The United States is not going to swap Honduran leaders like an empire of old, but it can still play an effective role in identifying and assisting honest officials (yes, some exist) in the Honduran government. Perhaps someday Honduras will find its own Uribe. If that were to happen, the United States should extend as much assistance as possible. Until that day, however, U.S. aid will have to be limited so as not to assist the corrupt elements of the Honduran government. In Colombia, on the other hand, the United States needs to be careful not to cut off its aid too soon, as the Obama administration appears in danger of doing. For all of its success, Bogotá still needs help to ensure that FARC and its narco-trafficker allies do not stage a dismaying comeback.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible Armies.

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