The Most Dangerous City in the World Is Not Where You Think It Is

There's a war brewing in Central America.
Soldiers stand guard over 350kg (771.6 pounds) of cocaine at Honduras Navy building in Tegucigalpa. (Jorge Cabrera/Reuters)

Orlan Chavez was a quiet but efficient civil servant, a prosecutor known for successfully investigating money-laundering schemes run by Honduran politicians. In April, he was killed for doing his job, shot seven times by unknown attackers as he made his way home. In the days leading up to his assassination in the capital, Tegucigalpa, his office had seized several properties of Jose Miguel "Chepe" Handal Perez. Perez was running for the country's congress and was singled out as a "kingpin" by the U.S. Treasury Department for shifting tons of cocaine between Colombia and Mexico.

Though Chavez's assassination was tragic, it was treated like a statistic in Honduras. Since his brutal killing there have been no arrests, no public outcry, and virtually no media coverage. The country's top money laundering prosecutor was murdered in broad daylight, and it is likely that no one will ever know who did it.

Such is the situation in Honduras and among its neighbors. Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala -- known collectively as the Northern Triangle -- feature the world´s highest violent death rates. Honduras is by far the worst. After registering 170 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, San Pedro Sula, the country's second largest city, is considered the most dangerous on the planet, based on murders per capita. (Syria was not included in the study because of uncertainty over the precise number of conflict-related deaths.) The country has a murder rate nearly four times that of Mexico, whose violence gets far more media attention.

These countries are experiencing wars in all but name, and the international community has done little to prevent the unfolding disaster .

Although the last Central American civil war ended in the mid-1990s, the Northern Triangle bears many of the hallmarks of warfare. Some settings almost certainly meet the intensity criterion, measured by the number of casualties, types of weaponry used, and levels of destruction. They are also affected by highly organized armed groups that control people and territory, carry out operations with military-like precision, and even negotiate peace agreements and ceasefires. In many areas, gangs have replaced guerrillas and rule with staggering ruthlessness.

During one recent rampage, a well-armed criminal group caravanned through northern Guatemala. Their killing spree started out slowly: over a three-day period, they kidnapped and murdered four people. But after making their way to a rival's farm, they killed at least 27 more laborers, cutting them to pieces and smearing menacing messages on the walls with the victims' blood.

In extreme cases, these armed groups are substituting for the state as the sole arbiter of disagreements between citizens. Many set themselves up as one of the few defenses against the onslaught of the myriad criminal organizations that plague poor, under-serviced Central American neighborhoods. Along the way, some of the larger gangs have become power brokers, managing political campaigns and getting out the vote in collusion with local and national parties. In extreme cases, they set up their own political organizations with the power to sway domestic and even international agendas.

Such is the case in El Salvador, where the most prominent parties have protected high-ranking traffickers, presumably in return for sizeable campaign contributions. The extent of this kind of corruption came to light during an infamous case in 2007, when three members of the Central American Parliament were killed, along with their bodyguard, by alleged drug traffickers as they drove from San Salvador to Guatemala City. Surprisingly, four of the suspected killers, all policemen, were captured. However, each of them was assassinated in their jail cell days later .

Throughout the region, violent gangs consort with some of the most powerful bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and politicians. They provide start-up capital, secure contracts, finance campaigns, and keep pesky investigators at bay on behalf of their partners. It is ordinarily a symbiotic relationship and with complicity reaching the highest levels of power.

Presented by

Robert Muggah and Steven Dudley

Robert Muggah is research director of the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute, a drug-policy think tank, and a principal of the SecDev Group, a Canadian cybersecurity firm. Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime, which researches organized crime in the Americas.

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