The U.S. government's decision to pull out all its Peace Corps volunteers from Honduras for safety reasons is yet another blow to a nation still battered by a coup and recently labeled the world's most deadly country.
Neither U.S. nor Honduran officials have said what specifically prompted them to withdraw the 158 Peace Corps volunteers, which the U.S. State Department said was one of the largest missions in the world last year.
It is the first time Peace Corps missions have been withdrawn from Central America since civil wars swept the region in the 1970s and 1980s. The Corps closed operations in Nicaragua from 1979 to 1991 and in El Salvador from 1980 to 1993 for safety and security reasons, but has since returned to both countries.
But the wave of violence and drug cartel-related crime hitting the Central American country had affected volunteers working on HIV prevention, water sanitation and youth projects, President Porfirio Lobo acknowledged.
Monday's pullout also comes less than two months after U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reconsider sending police and military aid to Honduras as a response to human rights abuses.
"It's a welcome step toward the United States recognizing that they have a disastrous situation in Honduras," said Dana Frank, a University of California Santa Cruz history professor who has researched and traveled in Honduras.
The decision to pull out the entire delegation came 18 days after a Dec. 3 armed robbery in a bus where a female volunteer was shot in the leg in the violence-torn city of San Pedro Sula.
Hugo Velasquez, a spokesman for the country's National Police, said 27-year-old Lauren Robert was wounded along with two other people. One of the three alleged robbers was killed by a bus passenger, Velasquez said. The daily La Prensa said Robert was from Texas.
Most areas of San Pedro Sula, like other especially violent parts of Honduras, had been declared "banned or highly discouraged for volunteers," according to the June 2011 edition of the Corps' "Welcome Book." Also banned were "all beaches at night" and a large part of the country's Atlantic coast.
The U.S. also announced it was suspended training for new volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala, though they kept open the possibility of sending new teams of volunteers once a review of security conditions is finished. El Salvador has 113 volunteers, and there are 215 in Guatemala, where the head of the Peace Corps pledged the program would continue.
The three countries make up the so-called northern triangle of Central America, a region plagued by drug trafficking and gang violence. El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate with 66 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, the U.N. said.
Numerous non-governmental aid groups work in the region and the Peace Corps decision has raised concerns that they too could be affected.
'Not a good moment'
"This is not a good moment for Honduran NGOs," said Oscar Anibal Puerto, director of the Honduran Institute for Rural Development, which works on school construction and water projects, often with Spanish financing and sometimes in informal cooperation with Peace Corps volunteers.
He said financing from Spain has begun to dry up because of that country's debt crisis, and while the Peace Corps withdrawal "has not significantly affected us," he said he worried it could set an example for other donor countries to pull out.
But Puerto said he could understand the U.S. decision.
"Their concerns are justified, until the security situation in Honduras improves," he said. "Human values have been lost. Crime is the order of the day."
Honduras joins Kazakhstan and Niger as countries that have recently had their volunteers pulled out. The Kazakhstan decision followed reports of sexual assaults against volunteers. The Niger decision came after the kidnapping and murder of two French citizens claimed by an al-Qaida affiliate.
A U.N. report, released in October 2011, said Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world with 6,200 killings, or 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010.
"Violence affects all Hondurans. It wouldn't be surprising if Peace Corps members, too," said Jose Rolando Bu, president of a group that represents non-governmental agencies.
9 US citizens killed
Between June 2010 and June 2011, nine U.S. citizens were killed in Honduras, most in San Pedro Sula or northern coastal areas.
The Peace Corps had sent volunteers to Honduras since 1962, and around 1982 it was the largest mission in the world, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. sent more people to help after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
The volunteers in Honduras had been working on projects focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, water sanitation and youth development. It was not clear what effect their departure would have on those efforts; no other aid agency immediately announced any pullout based on security concerns.
Peace Corps volunteer Claire Krebs, an engineer from Houston, Texas, described her work in the mid-sized city of Choluteca on the Peace Corps Journals blog site. Krebs wrote that she surveyed, planned and designed water systems for rural Honduran villages, which involved visits to rural areas in the country's somewhat more tranquil southern region, where there were few apparent security problems.
Krebs was training Hondurans to do the work she was doing, but it was unclear if they could yet replace her.
Berman said in the Nov. 28, 2011, letter to Clinton that he worried that some murders in Honduras appeared to be politically motivated because high-profile victims included people related to or investigating abuses by police and security forces, or to the June 28, 2009, ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. The coup lead to the temporary diplomatic isolation of Honduras.
On Tuesday, a Honduran lawyer who had reported torture and human rights violations by police officers was killed by gunmen, authorities said.
Three men stormed into the office of Ricardo Rosales, 42, shot him dead and escaped, said Hector Turcios, the police chief of Tela, a city 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of the capital.
Rosales had told local press that officers had tortured jail inmates in his city.
Adriana Gomez Licon reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.