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Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 people. El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate, with 70 murders per 100,000 people, and Guatemala comes in close behind with 41 murders per 100,000 people.

Classified as Central America’s “northern triangle”, this region has long been rife with gangs and organised crime, and in recent years, infiltration by the drug trade has ratcheted up the violence even further.

Once the US Coast Guard shut down the Caribbean’s drug trafficking route in the 1990s, Mexico became the main middle man between the world’s biggest cocaine producers – Colombia, Peru and Bolivia – and the world’s biggest cocaine consumer – the United States. In recent years, countries in Central America have emerged as important land-based distribution points, especially as the cartels in Mexico face an increasing crackdown in the so-called war on drugs. Among other Mexican cartels, the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel are now fighting over territories in Central America.

Yet, the US and the UK have not issued travel warnings for Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. Canada and Australia only advise exercising “a high degree of caution”, while New Zealand notes that there is “some risk” in travelling to these nations. Meanwhile, cocaine-producing Colombia and cocaine-transiting Mexico are plagued by travel warnings. So why are there warnings for some narco-trafficking countries and not others?

Craig Bidois, a former UN security advisor who runs the New Zealand-based travel security firm Fear Free, said governments take many factors into consideration before instituting a travel warning, and crime is more likely to precipitate a travel warning if foreign nationals have been actually singled out as targets.

“A lot of the violence in these countries is violence between the different pandillas, or gangs,” explained Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert in illicit economies and a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, a US-based think tank. “There is the possibility of violence against tourists, but such violence is not going to be homicides.” The biggest concern for travellers is that high murder rates open the floodgates for other types of crime. Law enforcement officials overwhelmed with murder cases are strapped for resources, a vulnerability that pandillas take full advantage of.

“There is a lot of kidnapping, robbery, extortion – that’s something tourists need to be concerned about,” said Felbab-Brown. But even these crimes will not typically target run-of-the-mill tourists, since pandillas are more interested in prominent figures worth large sums of money. 

Drug enforcement agents estimate that 25 tons of cocaine pass through Honduras each month, and nearly 60% of all cocaine coming into the US has transited through Central America, according to the US government. In 2008, Central American countries seized three times the amount of cocaine that was found in Mexico and Colombia combined. The Guatemalan government approximates that two-fifths of the homicides in its country can be attributed to the drug trade.

But violent crime in the northern triangle is not entirely owed to drug trafficking. Street gangs in the northern triangle also fight deadly battles often unrelated to the drug trade. In the 1980s, many Salvadorans fleeing civil war emigrated to the United States city of Los Angeles, where gang activity was rampant. Clinging to their own, some formed new gangs. Then, in the 1990s, thousands of undocumented Salvadoran immigrants were deported back to their home country, bringing gang life with them. These gangs, or maras, spread through other northern Central American countries, as mara members moved back and forth between the US and El Salvador. The region’s poverty and instability made it particularly susceptible to this permeating gang culture.

At the hands of both narco and gang activity, people are dying at a higher rate today in Guatemala and El Salvador than during those countries’ civil wars.

And the violence is spilling over into the rest of Central America as well. Beautiful Belize has been infected by drug trafficking organisations and now has the sixth highest murder rate in the world. Yet the country is still a popular stopover for cruises, and, being that it is home to the world's second longest barrier reef, impressive eco-tourism attractions and relaxing white-sand beaches, tourism is still one of its top sources of revenue. The UK government recommends that tourists avoid certain parts of Belize City, including George Street and Kraal Road, which have been known to attract gang violence, especially at night.

Panama, the richest country in Central America, is relatively safe, drawing travellers to its national parks and beaches. But even Panama has seen its murder rate double in the past four years. Remote areas are sometimes used by drug traffickers from neighbouring Colombia, and for this reason, the Australian government warns against all travel to the Darien Gap, which begins at the end of the Pan American highway at Yaviza and ends at the Colombian border.

Despite bordering Honduras, Central America’s poorest country, Nicaragua, has a lower murder rate than every country in the region besides Costa Rica. Nicaraguan officials say this is because of the country’s robust law enforcement. But Felbab-Brown offered another explanation: “It’s not that Nicaragua has reduced violence [more than the other countries]; it’s that they have not experienced the same level of violence, the same formation of pandillas, and the same level of drug trafficking.”

But that could be changing. Two months ago, Julio César Osuna, a substitute magistrate on Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council, was arrested on charges of drug smuggling, money laundering and selling fake IDs to foreign drug traffickers. Osuna is allegedly connected with two Central American drug cartels, Los Charros and a cartel led by drug lord Alejandro Jiménez, who is currently under arrest for the alleged murder of Argentinian folk singer Facundo Cabral. If the crackdown on the drug trade is intensified in Central America’s northern triangle, violent drug trafficking could become more and more prevalent in Nicaragua.

For visitors to Nicaragua, the US government recommends taking extra precaution in urban areas, especially in the capital of Managua.

In Costa Rica, crime has also increased in the past few years, but the popular tourist destination remains the safest country in Central America. “If I was asked to visit a place in the region, I would go to Costa Rica,” said Bidois. “…[I]t is safer and more welcoming than most other nations in the area.”

Although it is the least safe part of Central America, the northern triangle does receive tourists seeking Mayan ruins, volcanoes, beaches and jungles. While safety is a concern all over the region, the Australian government has issued a travel warning urging tourists to reconsider their need to travel to the Péten section of northern Guatemala, a jungle area bordering Mexico that is known for narco activity. Throughout Guatemala, the US government recommends travelling in groups and with reputable tour operators.

Anywhere in Central America, travellers should take precautions. Bidois suggested that tourists register with their governments’ travel websites and get as much government-provided advice as possible. Visitors should stay alert and on guard in public places since pickpocketing, robberies, carjackings, assaults and ATM scamming are common in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Unmarked vehicles or unofficial taxis should be avoided entirely. Bidois also discouraged the use of public transportation in urban areas and warned that caution should be taken at beaches, especially in El Salvador. Always keep your belongings in hand, and try not to wear flashy clothing or jewellery that might make you stand out as a target. Lastly, Bidois highly recommended purchasing travel insurance for trips to Central America.

There are explicit travel warnings, though, for the bookends of this region – Colombia to the south and Mexico to the north. Although the safety situation has been improving in both countries over the past couple years, they are still hotspots for crime. In Mexico, cities near the border with the United States should especially be avoided. In Colombia, the tourist and business destinations of Bogota and Cartagena have become safer, but travellers should still always keep conscious of their surroundings, since there remains the potential for crime and violence.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

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