In the last decade, meanwhile, Mexican cartels have increasingly looked to Honduras, as well as the gangs, for distribution. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 25 to 30 tons of cocaine, or one-third of the world's volume, now moves through Honduras every month. "Honduras is by far the world's largest primary transshipment point for cocaine," a U.S. official told the Washington Post. And not just transshipment: Last year, anti-narcotics police raided a cocaine-processing lab in the mountains outside San Pedro Sula, reportedly the first facility of its kind in Central America.
The country's politics have struggled -- and failed -- to keep up with the explosion of gangs and drugs. By the time President Carlos Roberto Flores, a Liberal Party stalwart and former newspaper owner, entered office in 1998, the gangs were an overweening social anxiety and a cause célèbre in the media. Flores introduced the first official anti-gang measures, including a liberal-minded reintegration program that met with moderate success. But the violence increased. A group of the country's conservative industrialists and landowners hated Flores and saw to it that his successor came from different stock.
Ricardo Maduro, the Stanford University-educated chairman of the Central Bank of Honduras, was their choice. In 1997, Maduro's son was kidnapped and murdered, a crime that went unsolved and catapulted him, backed by the National Party, into political life. He won the presidency in 2002 and, once in office, introduced a zero-tolerance policy toward the gangs that went well with his name -- the campaign was called Mano Dura, or Iron Fist. He combined military divisions with the police, brought in former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to advise, and enjoyed the support of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration. In 2004, Maduro and his public security minister, Óscar Álvarez, implemented sweeping anti-gang laws. Indiscriminate dragnets in the barrios brought in scores of young men arrested on little or no evidence. The prisons swelled. According to an organization that works with street children in Honduras, Casa Alianza, thousands of boys were killed by the authorities. Casa Alianza called Maduro's law a "selective policy of extermination." The result, ironically, was not just an incalculable increase in rancor between the public and the government, but also a calculable increase in violence: Between 2005 and 2010 the homicide rate in Honduras more than doubled.
Judges were instructed to get tough on gang members, according to Guillermo López, formerly the chief criminal justice in San Pedro Sula. I met him in a small office used by human rights lawyers, where he recounted to me a meeting in which a Maduro administration official instructed López and his colleagues to use even the slightest evidence in gang-related cases. The mere supposition of affiliation should be enough to convict, the official told them, and supposition could be based on as little as a tattoo. López told me he refused to go along with the orders. "In most of the cases, there was no proof," he said.
The pressures on judges eased somewhat as Maduro was replaced by President Zelaya. But after the 2009 coup, López was dismissed by Lobo, whom U.S. President Barack Obama recently praised for his "restoration of democratic practices."
Lobo also reinstated Álvarez as public security minister. But even he started speaking up. Last fall, Álvarez declared that at least 20 police commanders in Honduras were allied with drug-trafficking organizations (how he arrived at that number he didn't say). Days later he resigned. That was shortly before the widow of a retired Honduran Army general told reporters that police on a motorcycle had assassinated her husband. A motorcycle assassin also killed a former adviser to the security ministry who was an outspoken critic of police corruption. The Honduran Congress's response has been to ban passengers on motorcycles.
The irony, López told me, is that even as people are charged with being gang members without supporting evidence, actual gang members and other well-funded criminals bribe prosecutors and judges to drop the cases against them. The government has yet to bring a major organized-crime case against the leadership of either Mara Salvatrucha or 18th Street, and it's no wonder, López added: The police aren't just committing a lot of the crimes, but have almost no capacity to solve the crimes they aren't committing. The impunity rate in Honduras -- crimes that go unprosecuted -- is more than 90 percent.