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.