On any average day, the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula bears all the hallmarks of a war zone.
The mortuaries overflow with bullet-ridden bodies, the hospital emergency rooms are inundated with the wounded.
But for those people who call San Pedra Sula – recently crown the world’s most violent city for the second year in a row – this is the daily reality of a region ripped apart by the drugs trade.
Tragedy: People observe the dead body of a family member who had died of gunshot wounds after being attacked by a gang while a patient lying on a stretcher covers his face at the emergency ward of a local hospital in San Pedro Sula
A collection of shocking photographs paints a truly gruesome picture of life in a city where vicious gangs and drug cartels who operate freely in an area of lawlessness, poverty and a decaying justice system.
Honduras’s second largest city has at least three murders reported each day in the coffee-exporting nation.
Arms trafficking has flooded the country with nearly 70per cent illegal firearms – 83.4per cent of homicides are by firearms, compared to 60per cent in the United States.
Gunmen have taken control of slums and villages, well aware that the police are ineffective and corrupt.
San Pedro Sula recorded 1,218 homicides in 2012 (a rate of 3.3 murders a day).
Reuters reported last year that San Pedro Sula is saddled with one of South America’s weakest economies – and nearly 70 per cent of the population live in poverty.
Many see crime as their only option. Or they leave, making the long trek to the United States.
Street gangs known as Maras have morphed into deadly organized crime syndicates, while Mexican drug traffickers buy up land and recruit their own squads of killers.
For those who run afoul of the law, justice can be a far horizon. Nearly half of the country’s prisoners have not been convicted and many wait years before they even get a hearing.
Others die in jailhouse stabbings, shootings or fires like the one which surged through the Comayagua prison in February 2012, trapping prisoners in their cells who were burned alive.
A disturbing investigation by the Associated Press earlier this month found that rogue police death squads are operating with impunity across Honduras, taking the law into their own hands and acting as judge, jury and executioner.
Despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Honduras aimed at professionalising the country’s police, the AP has learned in the past three-years, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula.
The country’s National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the notorious 18th street gang.
In the past year, police were alleged to have been involved in the deaths of a prominent Honduran radio journalist and the son of a former police chief – but neither killing has been solved.
Even the country’s top police chief has been charged with being complicit.
In 2002, a police internal affairs report accused then police prison inspector Juan Carlos Bonilla of three extrajudicial killings – and linked him to 11 more deaths and disappearances that it said were part of a police policy of ‘social cleansing.’
Last year, Bonilla was chosen to lead the national police force despite unanswered questions about his past.
The U.S. Congress decided to withhold State Department funding to the police while they investigated the 2002 internal affairs report.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said last week that the department is constantly reviewing information about people and institutions receiving support in Honduras, and so far, the state department can and will continue funding and training the Honduran police.
All but about $11million has since been released based on a Congressional agreement with the State Department over how counter-drug operations involving the U.S. and investigations into civilian casualties are carried out.
‘It has been made clear to the State Department that no units under General Bonilla’s control should receive U.S. assistance without credible information refuting the serious allegations against him,’ said Sen Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations.
As far back as 1988, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights condemned Honduras for failing to document the fate of detainees and for allowing police to obstruct judges investigating cases, ‘including threatening them and denying the disappearances.’
Bonilla was appointed police chief last May after his predecessor, Gen. Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, was ousted amid charges that police were involved in the kidnapping and the killing of one of Honduras’ best-known journalists, Alfredo Villatoro.
Honduras made a failed attempt to purge its National Police of corrupt officers after some were implicated in the 2011 murder of the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
Between May and November, hundreds of police officers underwent background checks and polygraphs. By the end of the year, 33 of them were removed, but the Constitutional Court stopped the purge, ruling that it violated officers’ rights.
Read more: Daily Mail UK