In the most murderous part of the most murderous country in the world, the families of murdered sons and husbands and sisters meet each month in a concrete building next to the Nuestra Senora de Guada­lupe church.

They sit in plastic chairs, leaning forward to speak, and the anguish pours out. There is the dread of birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas. Or knowing who the killer is, and that he will not be arrested, and the perversity of that.

The group had 10 families when it started three years ago. Today it has 60, and all but one of their cases remain unsolved.

“We are living in constant fear,” said Blanca Alvarez, wearing a pin bearing a portrait of her dead son, Jason, shot in a carjacking in 2006. “We have had marches for peace, wearing white, releasing white balloons into the air. Nothing is going to change here. Nothing.”

Honduras had 82.1 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, the highest per-capita rate in the world, according to a global homicide report published by the United Nations in October that included estimates for Iraq and Afghanistan. Security concerns prompted the U.S. Peace Corps to announce last week that it would pull all 158 volunteers out of Honduras.

As in Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras’s neighbors in the Northern Triangle region of Central America, the homicide problem goes back decades. But as Mexico’s billionaire drug mafias expand their smuggling networks deeper into Central America to evade stiffer enforcement in Mexico and the Caribbean, violence has exploded, as if the cocaine were gasoline tossed on a fire.

Honduras’s grim tally reached 6,239 killings in 2010, compared with 2,417 in 2005, and researchers say the count will be even higher this year. The largest number of homicides occurred here around San Pedro Sula, a once-booming manufacturing center that is fast becoming the Ciudad Juarez of Central America.

That troubled city on the U.S.-Mexico border and San Pedro Sula share more than a reputation for low-wage assembly plants and fratricidal violence. They are at opposite ends of the billion-dollar smuggling chain that extends from the north coast of Honduras to the United States.

It starts on the isolated beaches and jungle airstrips of Honduras’s Mosquitia region, where 95 percent of the suspected drug flights from South America to Central America land, according to U.S. narcotics agents. U.S. radar detected 90 such flights into Honduras last year, compared with 24 in 2008, marking a major shift in trafficking patterns that indicates a strong preference for the country’s rugged geography and feeble institutions.

In March, authorities raided a cocaine processing lab in the mountains near San Pedro Sula. The facility was the first of its kind in Central America, capable of churning out a ton of powder each month by combining imported coca paste with hydrochloric acid and other chemicals.

Then, in July, a semi-
submersible “narco submarine” with $180 million worth of cocaine was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters off Honduras, the first such craft detected in the Caribbean. Since then, three more have been busted.

Honduran lawmakers voted overwhelmingly last month to deploy the country’s military against drug traffickers, adopting the security strategy charted by Mexican President Felipe Calderon with mixed results.

Overall, U.S. officials estimate that 25 to 30 tons of cocaine arrive in Honduras each month by air and sea — one-third of the world’s total volume — before continuing north into Mexico through Guatemala and Belize on fast boats, fishing vessels or cargo trucks.

“Honduras is by far the world’s largest primary transshipment point for cocaine,” said a U.S. official working here who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security protocols.

Shepherding the precious merchandise is a dangerous but lucrative occupation, as the payoff to local smugglers for receiving an average-size planeload of 500 kilograms and delivering it to Guatemala can be $1 million. Honduran police commanders say smugglers are also increasingly paying their contacts in raw product rather than cash, driving up local drug-dealing and the lethal violence that accompanies it.

‘Total impunity’

Researchers caution that the surge in killings here cannot be attributed entirely to narcotics trafficking. As in Ciudad Juarez, drug-fueled violence appears to have fostered an overall climate of impunity, in which bullets settle the slightest dispute and anyone can literally get away with murder.

Journalists, labor activists and gays also are apparently being killed at elevated rates, and political violence has flared since the 2009 coup that deposed leftist President Manuel Zelaya. Then there are the thousands of other Hondurans who seemingly have nothing to do with the drug trade who have been slain in carjackings, muggings and hotheaded feuds.

“You always imagine that your parent will die of old age, not murder,” said Claudia Castillo, whose father, who drove a grocery delivery truck, was killed last December in San Pedro Sula for falling behind on extortion payments, which gang members here call the impuesto de guerra (“war tax”). He had been mugged, assaulted or shot at on at least eight other occasions, Castillo said, including an incident a few months before his death in which teenage gangsters ordered him to dance and fired at his feet.

“We begged him to quit, but he said he had to pay for us to go to college,” Castillo said. After burying him, her family moved to another neighborhood after receiving new threats from the gang.

At nearly every business here, from Burger King to the smallest mini-market, armed men with 12-gauge shotguns stand guard. Those who can afford it barricade their families behind razor wire, 10-foot walls and electrified fencing.

“If a person kills someone and the next day they’re sitting in a restaurant drinking coffee as if nothing happened, then that person feels they have permission to kill anyone they want,” said Jose Antonio Canales, a priest who works with the support group for victims’ families. “There is total impunity.”

Gang warfare

For much of the 20th century, Canales said, the north coast of Honduras was a place of opportunity, drawing workers to the vast banana plantations owned by U.S. fruit companies. In the 1980s, as civil wars raged in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras and especially the San Pedro Sula area were held up as a model of export-driven development, attracting waves of workers to the assembly plants known as maquilas.

“People came from all over, but when they didn’t find opportunity, the pockets of misery formed,” Canales said. “Then a lot of kids were raised by a single mom or a grandmother because their parents were in the United States.”

The transnational gangs MS-13 and 18th Street took root in the city’s slums and have been warring ever since, reinforced by deported criminals from Los Angeles street gangs and U.S. prisons.

The United States has been drawn deep into Honduras’s counter-drug fight, spending at least $50 million on security assistance since 2008, according to U.S. officials.

“This is a poor country where 65 percent of the people live in poverty and the government’s law enforcement budget cannot begin to compare to the funds that drug trafficking organizations have,” U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske said in an interview here. “It’s clear the country needs help.”

Armed American drug agents are on the front lines of anti-narcotics operations, launching helicopter raids into the jungles of Mosquitia from the Soto Cano air base, where the United States has a large military presence. U.S. advisers are teaching police how to gather evidence and are helping modernize Honduras’s ghoulish prison system. The United States has provided armored vehicles to protect judges from assassination and sophisticated mobile X-ray equipment that can scan vehicle cargo at checkpoints and border crossings.

But setbacks have undercut recent security improvements. On Dec. 7, former security minister Alfredo Landaverde — an outspoken critic of growing police corruption tied to organized crime — was gunned down in his car, a day after assassins pumped 37 bullets into the vehicle of radio journalist Luz Marina Paz Villalobos. Since then, Honduras’s Congress has banned all motorcycle drivers from carrying passengers, because both victims were slain by hit men riding on the backs of motorbikes.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a good or a bad person here, or if you’re someone with a future,” said Irwin Santos, whose brother Deybis — a university student — was killed in 2008 in San Pedro Sula. “In the end, you become just another statistic.”

This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.