Central America is the world's latest drugs hot-spot: up to 90% of the South American cocaine bound for the US now transits the region, most of it passing through the so-called 'northern triangle' of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The three countries are plagued by the highest peacetime murder rates in the world, as powerful cartels from Mexico have moved south into a region already destabilised by years of civil war, plagued by gangs and corruption, and with authorities too weak to control large swathes of territory. Ineffective tax regimes mean that governments have few resources with which to restore security.
With a bloody drug war raging in Mexico since 2006, drug-trafficking organisations have also become a de facto political power on the Central American isthmus, killing officials and levying 'war taxes' on people and businesses. In the northern triangle, the Sinaloa and Zetas cartels control most of the international trade while delegating transportation, killings and vendettas to smaller local gangs, including mafia-like families known as maras.
The combination of drug and street violence - the pattern of which differs slightly in each of the three northern triangle countries - has contributed to 33,000 homicides across Central America since 2010. Some of the violence in the region has been political. After the coup that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, for example, there have been assassinations of activists and journalists. However, the vast preponderance of murders has been at the hands of the cartels and maras.
The Zetas cartel is a relative newcomer to Central America, and its attempts to establish itself in a market long dominated by powerful families and the Sinaloa cartel, has ratcheted up the violence. Formed in the late 1990s by former members of Mexico's elite Airborne Special Forces Group, it is especially brutal. Whereas the Sinaloa has been open to negotiations with its trafficking partners and has provided social benefits such as jobs and health care for local communities, the Zetas cartel rarely negotiates. Its fighters are better-armed and more likely to resort to violence to resolve disputes.
The maras are another singular phenomenon. Founded in Los Angeles and other US cities by refugees from civil wars in El Salvador (1979-92) and Guatemala (1965-96), they became a scourge across the northern triangle after gang members were deported back to the region. Identified by members' prominent tattoos, gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and the Mara 18 were already involved in murder, rape and extortion before becoming embroiled in the drug trade.
The drug-infested Mosquito Coast
To add to the equation, Central America's famous rainforests and jungles have offered safe havens for drug-trafficking groups. In particular, the remote and sparsely unpopulated La Mosquitia region, on the northern coast of Honduras, has become a major landing zone for illegal drug flights and a transhipment point for maritime and river vessels carrying drugs.
If Honduras's defence minister is correct that 87% of all cocaine entering the US goes via his country, up to 140 tonnes may follow this route. This has concerned Washington enough for it to announce a $2 million naval base (to be operated by Honduran forces) in the Bay Islands, just north of Mosquitia, and three forward bases across the country, to help stop trafficking. The US Drug Enforcement Administration also operates a Foreign-Deployed Advisory Support Team.