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.