A woman’s body lay in the street, wrapped in a plastic Christmas-themed table cover, while the neighbours watched on. Some of them laughed. Others stared blankly, as the forensic team examined her body, in full view of everyone.
That was the scene one rainy afternoon, in a neighbourhood on the edge of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. And it’s a scene that’s replicated multiple times each and every day, earning Honduras the unenviable title of the ‘Murder Capital of the World’.
The woman’s body was taken to the only morgue in the city. Workers there deal with an average of 10 violent murders per day. That number peaks to 24 over the weekends. The doctor on the night shift told us his teams have sometimes been shot at when they go to collect the bodies.
It is no secret that Honduras has been on a violent downhill course ever since the 2009 coup that deposed democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya. Criminals, gangs, the police and the army routinely kill and terrorise innocent citizens, with minimal, if any, accountability.
Everywhere we went, we met people who have been affected by the violence. Leo Vallardes was Honduras’ first human rights commissioner. His son Rodrigo was murdered in 2009.
“My children said to me, ‘Papa, I think that’s Rodrigo.’ He had my wife’s nose, so I see this figure in the photo and I recognise my son’s nose, it was him. He was dead, they assassinated him, with a shot in the back of the neck,” Vallardes told me when we met.
There has never been an investigation into Rodrigo’s death, but Vallardes believes his son was killed by drug dealers.
“During the ’80s, you knew that the repression came from the armed forces. Now we don’t know if it’s the police or if it’s the organised crime. And since democracy isn’t working they think that force is the only solution. That’s why we have one of the highest rates of violent deaths,” he says.
Corruption runs deep through state institutions. When we spoke to the Honduran Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales, he acknowledged that some members of Congress have already been infiltrated by narco traffickers.
“Drug traffickers are investing money into the campaigns. So whoever gives money gets to ask the elected officials for favors. We are in danger of becoming a narco-state, an authoritarian state without liberty or democracy,” explained Vallardes.
This is the context within which the Obama administration is conducting its war on drugs. It’s been supporting the current Lobo government and arming the Honduran security forces in exchange for deploying them to the frontline of its war.
For many in Latin America, Honduras’ breakdown is a nightmare they’ve seen too many times before.
Ever since the late US President Ronald Reagan officially declared a War on Drugs in 1982, many across the continent have witnessed narco-traffickers gain political power in their government, their country become a battle ground, and their people die: First Bolivia and Peru, then Columbia and Mexico, and now, Honduras and El Salvador.
I spent two weeks with the Fault Lines team, covering the ongoing human rights crisis in Honduras. We wanted to understand what it means for the US to conduct its war on drugs in a country with weak state institutions and one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
You can catch our Fault Lines episode ‘The US and Honduras’ on Al Jazeera English at the following times (all GMT) : Tuesday, August 14: 22:30, Wednesday, August 15: 09:30 Thursday, August 16: 03:30 Friday, August 17: 16:30 Saturday, August 18: 22:30 Sunday, August 19: 0930 Monday, August 20: 03:30 Tuesday, August 21: 16:30.
Follow Zeina Awad on Twitter @Zeina_Awad