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The spillover effects of Mexico's drug war are taking a grim toll in Central America. The region has the highest homicide rate in the world, according to a new U.N. report, as traffickers move more and more U.S.-bound cocaine through Central America's struggling and weak states.
Nick Miroff has this story from Honduras, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Operation Lightning is Honduras's response to the murder problem.
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MIROFF: Police armed with Israeli-made Galil assault rifles ride on the backs of motorcycles and search cars at checkpoints here in San Pedro Sula, Honduras's second largest city and a major drug trafficking center.
There were 82 homicides per 100,000 residents in this country last year, the highest murder rate in the world, and more died in the San Pedro Sula area than anywhere else.
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MIROFF: U.S. officials here say 95 percent of suspected drug flights, from South America to Central America, now land in the jungles along Honduras's lawless Caribbean coast. Entire villages of men, women and children work for the traffickers unloading the lucrative cargo. As the cocaine continues on to Guatemala and Belize and into Mexico, it generates great wealth and even more violence.
Honduran Police Commander Luis Alonso Savas said more and more of the cocaine is staying behind, as local traffickers get paid in raw product.
LUIS ALONSO SAVAS: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: Our country used to be just a trans-shipment point and a stop along the route, said Savas. Now we're also a market for the drugs, and that's making things worse.
More drugs on the street mean more murders in San Pedro Sula, a manufacturing hub where the global recession has led to layoffs at the low-wage assembly plants here, that churn out sportswear and other clothing for export to the United States.
Ada Cantarero is a sociologist who directs a research center tracking the local murder count, likely to pass 2,000 this year.
ADA CANTARERO: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: Most people in San Pedro Sula have migrated here from somewhere else, Cantarero said. They've been uprooted from their hometowns and often don't even know their neighbors, which makes community violence prevention strategies even more difficult.
Drug trafficking doesn't explain all of the killing here. But it has created a climate of corruption and impunity that seems to be fueling even more violence. Journalists, gays, and left-wing activists are also being slain in elevated numbers, researchers say. Others are dying in robberies, carjackings and petty feuds.
U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske said the fear and insecurity have a destabilizing effect on the entire country.
AMBASSADOR LISA KUBISKE: If you have a country where people don't think they can find a job, or that the only job they can find is with the drug trade, and if you think that people are fleeing the country because of security - which is something we're beginning to hear about anecdotally now - where do they go? They...
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KUBISKE: ...frequently, in this case, go to the United States.
MIROFF: The U.S. has spent some $50 million on security assistance to Honduras since 2008, with hundreds of millions more allocated by Congress for regional anti-narcotics aid. Armed U.S. agents play a lead role in the drug fight here, launching helicopter raids on jungle landing strips with Honduran police.
But since 2008, the number of suspected drug flights into the country has quadrupled. And earlier this year, police busted a cocaine-processing lab near San Pedro Sula, the first of its kind detected outside South America, and a sign that the cartels are digging in deeper.
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MIROFF: At the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Church in this middle-class neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, the families of murder victims gather before Mass to unburden their grief. Many were left without husbands or sons in killings that seemingly had nothing to do with the drug trade.
Nancy Paz's husband was shot on his way home from work last year.
NANCY PAZ: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: Something changed in me that afternoon when the police gave me the news, Paz said. I got in the car with my children to go see their father's body, but I turned around and took them home. I couldn't let them see their father like that, dumped in a ditch like a dog.
Paz's support group had 10 families when it started three years ago. Today it has 60. And of all their murder cases, they say only one has been solved.
For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.