SAN PEDRO SULA recently surpassed Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to become the most dangerous city in the Americas. It may also be the most dangerous city in the world outside Syria. In addition to gang violence, assaults, robberies, and rape are routine, as is extrajudicial violence committed by the police and military. In just the first three months of this year, there were 1,709 killings in Honduras -- a murder rate 20 times that of the United States. In San Pedro Sula, it's 40 times. This murder capital of the world's murder capital sits in a valley near the mountainous border with Guatemala. To the west are the magnificent ruins of Copán, a Mayan royal city, and to the east the Caribbean Bay Islands, a popular scuba-diving destination. Both are crawling with U.S. and European tourists who come by way of San Pedro Sula's modest airport and see little of the city besides the Hilton, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Dunkin' Donuts on its garish main commercial strip before high-tailing it out of town. Beyond the strip, the city is a welter of barrios and industrial zones. Honduras is still one of Latin America's poorest countries, and its past as a proverbial banana republic is still everywhere in evidence. Plantations and shantytowns surround San Pedro Sula, into which there is only one highway. The country never fully recovered from Hurricane Mitch, which displaced more than a million Hondurans in 1998 and flat-lined the economy for a full year, or from devastating floods four years ago. Even before that, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that the country's black market made up well over 50 percent of the national economy.
In recent years, even Honduras has become a locus of globalization, however, and San Pedro Sula, studded with foreign-owned factories that have set up shop in search of cheap labor, represents two-thirds of the country's GDP. Increasingly, its residents don't have to migrate to the United States to find work. The unemployment rate in 2011 was an enviable 4.8 percent. This has led to the encouraging rise of a middle class; next to the new factories one often finds bulging communities of modest one-family houses. But they are gated and employ teams of guards. Some have installed barricades and barbed-wire fences. Indeed, armed guards stand in front of just about everything in Honduras. A Payless shoe store I passed regularly kept two men with 12-gauge shotguns and flak jackets on duty all day.
The violence is not confined to the gangs. In 2009, a group of industrialists allied with the military deposed the country's president, Manuel Zelaya, and soon after installed a wealthy landowner from the National Party, Porfirio Lobo Sosa (Pepe, as he is both affectionately and derisively known). Since then, attacks by the police on critics of the government have increased markedly, and the country has taken on both a lawlessness and a militarized air that amazes even jaded Hondurans. A Jesuit priest who runs a local radio station, Ismael Moreno, told me, "The overriding institutional criterion in Honduras is violence."
I met Moreno, a short, rotund man, in his office in an industrial satellite town of San Pedro Sula. Moreno, who also does outreach work with gangs, sweated and smiled as we talked. He got up from his desk and walked over to a map of Central America on the wall and began poking rural Honduras.
In the 1980s, he explained, landowning families like Lobo's began employing bands of former soldiers to keep in check campesinos, or rural workers, demanding better treatment. These paramilitary groups were easy to form and easy to arm: Guns left over from the civil wars and U.S. interventions in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador were pouring into Honduras (which the CIA used as a staging ground to aid the Contras). "To buy an AK-47 was as easy as buying a pair of shoes," Moreno told me. But these militias were less easy to disband. When the groups began looking for new sources of income, they allied with Colombian drug traffickers.
At the same time, another criminal phenomenon 2,000 miles away was taking shape that would soon plague the cities of Central America. In the 1980s, in the poor neighborhoods surrounding downtown Los Angeles, immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador, under assault from Mexican organized crime, formed their own gang: Mara Salvatrucha, a slang phrase whose meaning refers to guerrillas or fire ants, depending on whom you ask. It grew rapidly and soon developed a rivalry with 18th Street, a Mexican gang that had formed in the 1960s and had, unlike most Mexican gangs, taken on Central American members.
Both gangs became known for their ruthless violence, the fierce loyalty they inspired and demanded, and their elaborate iconography, tattoos, and lore. Both proliferated wildly. In the 1990s, the U.S. government began deporting gang members en masse, and Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street were re-exported to Central America, infesting cities like San Salvador, Guatemala City, and San Pedro Sula. They took over entire quarters and instituted a sort of martial law, collecting "war taxes" from local officials and businesses and even issuing permits for civilian traffic. One researcher I spoke with estimates there are 150,000 gang members in Honduras, a country with fewer citizens than New York City. More common estimates place the figure in the tens of thousands.