In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city that's just earned the title of the most dangerous in the Americas, few people dare go to the police with complaints. Rather, they view police officers with fear, scorn and disgust.
"Society has completely lost confidence in the police. The citizenry is more afraid of the police than the criminals," said Jhon Cesar Mejia, a federal prosecutor assigned to look into abuses by the state.
In recent months in Honduras, evidence has turned up of police units involved in murder-for-hire plots, drug trafficking, extortion, auto theft and kidnapping. Distress over police corruption has grown only more intense in the three months since the dean of Honduras' national university fingered police in the murder of her son and the widow of a slain national drug czar blamed police for his assassination.
Deep-rooted police corruption is just one reason for the deterioration of public security that's shredding the social fabric of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, a region known as the "Northern Triangle" of Central America.
Drug cartels have migrated to the Northern Triangle to escape heavy law enforcement pressure in Mexico and Colombia, flushing hundreds of millions of dollars in drug profits into the regional economy, buying off legislators, judges and army generals, and making weak institutions even weaker.
Soaring murder rates are the most tangible sign of the public security crisis.
This month, a nonprofit group in Mexico, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, said San Pedro Sula had overtaken Ciudad Juarez on Mexico's border with Texas as the most murderous city in the Americas. The 1,143 homicides that San Pedro Sula suffered last year was a rate of 158 murders per 100,000 residents, the group said.
Murder rates remain stubbornly high across the region. El Salvador tallied 4,354 murders last year, slightly under Guatemala's 5,618 and the 6,723 that Honduras registered. The Northern Triangle now approaches far more populous Mexico in the total number of homicides.
It's in Honduras, though, where the security crisis has most deeply altered the routines of the nation's 8 million people and tested the viability of the state.
In this modern manufacturing city, private armies of security guards protect the well off, who live in compounds with coils of concertina wire atop high walls.
Perched atop the walls of many gated compounds are turrets with gun ports. Inside are well-armed guards ready to fend off heavy assault.
Soaring crime is only one facet of the lawlessness.
"Around here, you only comply with the law if you want to. If you don't want to, you don't do so, and nothing happens," said Luis Larach, the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industries of Cortes, the state surrounding San Pedro Sula.
Larach said drug lords "have bought tremendous tracts, ranches, farms (and) coastlands" in Honduras, and the drug profits have filtered into sectors such as banking, construction, sports teams, restaurants, auto sales and private security.
In a sign of money laundering, he said, unknown companies are winning bids "on huge infrastructure projects, like highways and bridges, and no one knows where the money is coming from."
Unlike other parts of Central America, where organized crime has relied on enforcers recruited from street gangs and unemployed youth, in Honduras entire units of the national police appear to work for drug and crime groups, preying on the public and gunning down foes.
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