MEXICO CITY, Mexico — A battle this week that killed at least 17 people in a remote corner of the Caribbean coast of Honduras underscores the deteriorating security situation in what already ranks among the world's deadliest countries.
The fight between two alleged cocaine smuggling gangs claimed the lives of an undisclosed number of women and children, and killed the leaders of both groups, officials said.
It came as the Honduran military took control of the country's violent gang-controlled prison systems and amid a national debate over militarizing public security altogether.
Honduras, along with neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, has a become major transshipment point for South American cocaine routed through Mexico toward US consumers. Drug trafficking intensified the already rampant violence, much of it between local street gangs known as maras.
“The security situation remains dire throughout the region and is at a crisis level in Honduras,” Eric Olson, an expert on regional violence at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, told a US congressional committee recently. “Organized crime in all its many manifestations — transnational drug traffickers; criminal transportation networks; and even youth gangs — continue to prosper.”
Analysts describe a ”balloon effect” over Central America. Squeeze drug traffickers in one place — as the authorities have done in Mexico these past seven years — and they surge elsewhere. The more graphic descritpion is of a flooding stream: drug trafficking, like flowing water, will always finds a new channel of lesser resistance.
Botton line: Very bad things are bound to happen when guns and millions of dollars worth of illicit merchandise get dumped into impoverished places with poor to non-existent policing.
“The problem of Honduras is basically drug trafficking combined with the fights between gangs for territorial control,” Migdonia Ayestas, director of the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University, said. “The trafficking situation is much worse along the coast and near the borders.”
In response, the US government has sent money and advisers to the region. But that effort has floundered.
“The results have been minimal to say the least,” said Adriana Beltran, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.
Mexican smuggling gangs, principally the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, have grown increasingly active throughout the region, especially along Honduras' northern Caribbean coast. The Mexican mobsters have allied with local smuggling groups and the maras, whose longstanding rivalry had already turned Central America's “northern triangle” countries into a slaughterhouse.
Officials blame the Zetas for the May 2011 decapitation of 27 workers at a farm in Guatemala's Peten region, near the Mexican border. Mexican authorities this year have moved to beef up the notoriously porous Guatemalan border, including the installation of rapid-response bases staffed with scores of combat ready marines.
"With a few exceptions, Central America’s borders remain mostly underdeveloped, isolated, difficult to access and therefore hard to patrol or protect, and easily penetrable by migrants, criminal groups, licit and illicit commerce," Olson told the congressional committee in late July. "With limited resources and major violence in urban areas, the peripheries have often been overlooked by central governments."
Honduras' Caribbean coast, including the city of San Pedro Sula, stands as the most violent corner of this murderous place, with per capita murder rates 33 times that of the United States.
Military and police officials say Monday's pre-dawn carnage started when a gang led by a Nicaraguan mobster nicknamed “El Muco” disputed possession of some 700 pounds of cocaine with another group in the hamlet of Brus Laguna. El Muco, identified in the press as Victor Francis Centeno, reportedly was killed along with rivals Fredy and Julio Ramos.
Flanking one of the many small bays and estuaries that dot the wild coastline, Brus Laguna boasts one of the region's few real airports. Commandos on a US Drug Enforcement Administration operation 15 months ago killed four apparently innocent villagers at Ajuas, not far from Brus Laguna.
Both the lawlessness and the poverty that feeds it have convinced many Hondurans that their country is a lost cause. As many as 100,000 of them, mostly young men, are clearing out, heading through Mexico to illegally cross the US border.
“Those of my age who are still alive, it's because we have left,” migrant Antonio Torres, 27, from a town near Honduras' northern coast, said at a refuge near Mexico City. “It's always been bad but now the gangs are taking everything.”