There are no television shows about the most dangerous city in the world. It's not New Orleans, Detroit, or even Ciudad Juárez. It is San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city with nearly 900,000 people in the northwestern corner of Honduras.
San Pedro Sula is the most dangerous city in the world and is not growing safer, principally because of the relocation of powerful and dangerous Mexican cartels. There were 169 homicides per 100,000 people in San Pedro Sula in 2012, mainly because of drug-related violence. San Pedro Sula and other cities in Central America (especially in Northern Central America — Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala) are not on an upward trajectory.
Today, a major operational shift is happening within the powerful Mexican cartels. As any monopolist would try to do, they are always trying to expand their territory and not get in trouble with the law. They achieved their first huge victory in the 1980s when they out-muscled their rival Colombian cartels, and began to dominate the northbound cocaine trade routes, principally through the Caribbean.
In the 1990s through the 2000s, Mexican cartels shifted their transit routes from sea to land. We saw the large increase in drug smuggling across the Mexican border and the exploitation of "drug mules," rising murder rates in border towns, and widespread citizen insecurity across Mexico.
Over time, the United States's and Mexico's governments have gotten more sophisticated, spent much more money, and devoted a gross number of resources to catch the drugs before they cross the Rio Grande. However, the cartels have always been one step ahead of them. The cartels responded to tightened security measures by making one large structural change: changing the entry points of their product to Central America. This was when violence began to explode across Central America, and what has ultimately led to San Pedro Sula's unfortunate nickname as "the murder capital of the world."
The unorganized governments of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Belize are no match for the powerful Mexican cartels. They have very little money, infrastructure, and power compared to the highly organized and violent Mexican cartel leaders. Cartels stopped shipping cocaine directly to Mexico, paid the necessary bribes, made arrangements with farmers and landholders, and began shipping their product to safe Central American territory instead. It is estimated that they made this shift around 2006, when the Mexican government issued a new national security strategy that made the risks of direct shipment too large to ignore.
The cartels' presence in Central America has skyrocketed — as has violence. In late 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a threat assessment analyzing the influence of cartels in Central America, "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean." The report highlighted some information about the deeply entrenched presence of Mexican cartels in Central America:
- 62 clandestine air landing strips were found in Honduras in 2012.
- Both Honduran and Guatemalan land is occupied by the Zetas and Pacific cartels, who engage in routine bloody territory disputes.
- The cartels transported $4 billion worth of cocaine from Guatemala to Mexico in 2010, $1 billion more than all of Central America invested in 2010 in the fight against organized crime.
Is the cartels' strategy working? Absolutely. The investments in new clandestine locations, time-intensive networking and relationship building, and loss of men in territory disputes were all worth it for them. The cartels are still making billions of dollars of profits, and succeeded in moving a weak link of their operation (the flight from cocaine-producing countries, typically Bolivia, Peru, or Colombia) out of Mexico and into countries with even weaker policing and infrastructure.
Sadly, there is little reason for optimism for San Pedro Sula and other cities in Honduras and Guatemala. As long as rival cartels are fighting over land, there will be violence. Even sadder still is that the revenue generated from these operations is benefiting cartel members and friends of the cartels, while the local economies are shelling out more and more of their limited dollars to try to pay for the disintegrating state of citizen security.
How much longer will San Pedro Sula be the murder capital of the world? While it is possible that a neighboring city in Central America could surpass it, San Pedro Sula has my vote to remain Number 1 for the foreseeable future. The only time the region will see a long-lasting reduction crime, assuming the current state of global drug prohibition, is when the cartels get out entirely, or if one cartel monopolizes the entire trade.
The one thing that we can be sure of, however, is that there will continue to be Honduran bloodshed until policymakers figure out how to get the power out of the hands of the Mexican cartel kingpins and back into their own.