In Honduras, somebody dies a violent death every 74 minutes. The country has a murder rate more than four times that of Mexico, notorious for its mass abductions, summary executions and brutal intimidation by drug gangs. According to a UN Office of Drugs and Crime report in 2013 which analysed the intentional homicides of about 437,000 people around the world in 2012, Honduras has the world's highest murder rate with a staggering 90.4 homicides for every 100,000 people. A special police initiative called the Criminal Investigation Unit has been tasked with brining members of some of the most notorious gangs like the '28 de Marzo' and 'Mara Salvatrucha 13', originally formed in Los Angeles in the 1990s and exported to Central America, to heel. President Juan Orlando Hernandez was sworn in in January 2013 having promised a robust new approach to crime during his campaign. He showed his awareness of the challenges ahead when pointing out that 'Honduras is going through one of the most difficult periods when it comes to security. 80 % of the drugs heading to the United States go through the country leaving behind death, pain and mourning.' The civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s have left the region littered with weapons and unsecured military stockpiles have become a favourite source of arms for gangs further north in Mexico. Coupled with the drug trade that inevitably passes through Honduras on its way from production in South America to waiting customers in the United States, Honduras' proliferation of deadly weapons has caused a downward spiral into violence and crime.
Yet the will and the means to chip away at the climate of fear and impunity which rules the streets of the country's cities is evident, with forensic specialists and doctors compiling evidence that could lead to convictions and clear up unsolved murders. Semma Julissa Villaneveb, the director of Teguchigalpa's Forensic Science Centre, remains realistic but says that: 'We have four specialist doctors here, and only eight in the entire country. That is one specialist per million in the population - and that is not enough – especially with the levels of violent crime we are facing. My priority is to develop this institution and make it as strong as it can be. We are training new people and things will get better. We have had recent investment from the government through the funds provided by a new security tax as well as from funds confiscated from criminals.'
Every day scores of bodies are picked up and brought to the morgue for investigation. With two out of three children born in poverty and with a broken education system, the situation is unlikely to improve much any time soon. Half the population is unemployed and for many, the gangs offer the most lucrative opportunity to make money and survive, at least for a while. The gangs control neighbourhoods in the country's towns and cities and charge inhabitants and business people a 'war tax'. If they fail to pay, they are harassed or killed. Kidnappings for ransom are also common. Gangs fight each other for control of the neighbourhoods and the country's tourist industry, a vital source of income, has been bedevilled by armed attacks on tourist buses and resorts.
Sean Sutton went out on patrol with the men and women of the Criminal Investigation Unit in Tegucigalpa, the capital, to get a sense of the task confronting Honduras' law enforcement agencies.