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Places like Mexico and Pakistan often receive attention for being violent. But according to the United Nations, the world's most violent country is now the small Central American nation of Honduras. The U.S. Peace Corps has even withdrawn its volunteers. Drug trafficking, political instability and Honduran history have all contributed to the problem. In the first of a two-part series on violence in Honduras, Annie Murphy reports on police corruption.

ANNIE MURPHY, BYLINE: The National Autonomous University is the largest university in Honduras. It's a sprawling campus of concrete buildings and tropical plants. It's filled with students on break between classes. They sit on benches, drink bottles of soda and chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS TALKING)

MURPHY: But here, tucked in between the palm trees, some are gathered around a homemade memorial to two murdered students, Alejandro Vargas - the son of the rector of the university - and his friend Carlos Pineda, who were killed in October - not by Honduras' notorious gangs or drug traffickers, but by the police. The memorial is a long roll of white paper taped to a wall where friends leave photos and write messages in colored marker. Isaac Trejo is skinny and tall, and he lingers with his hands in his pockets. Despite the heat, he wears black jeans and high-tops. He says violent run-ins with police have become commonplace.

ISAAC TREJO: (Through Translator) It's normal, and everybody knows it. They don't respect the law. They can go and attack anyone they want. For them, the rules don't exist.

MURPHY: While police violence is commonplace, this case is high-profile and has galvanized Honduras, largely because of who Alejandro Vargas' mother is. Within site of the memorial, his mother, Julieta Castellano, sits in her office. She has dark hair cut right at her chin and soft hollows under her eyes. In addition to working as the rector of the university, she's a widely respected expert on violence. She became part of the commission that took on the case of her own son's murder. She became part of the commission that took on the case of her own son's murder. She says it met strong resistance.

JULIETA CASTELLANO: (Through Translator) The police obstructed the investigation. The head of homicide threatened the prosecutors on the case. He's the person who is in charge of investigating murders. And he told the prosecutors that they had to stop investigating; that they didn't know what sort of trouble they were getting into.

MURPHY: Eight officers were arrested but the police released four, despite striking evidence. The investigation found Alejandro's blood and hair in patrol cars. Tape on security cameras showed the boys being followed by police shortly before they were killed. And area guards testified that they heard gunshots, right after they heard Alejandro's friend, Carlos, begging the police for mercy.

CASTELLANO: (Through Translator) Their response was to take Carlos, still alive, along with the body of my son - because reports show he was dead by that point - 13 kilometers to the south of the city, where he was killed, too.

MURPHY: For 25 years, Maria Luisa Borjas was a high-ranking police official, and was eventually put in charge of investigations within the force. She says she was pushed out of her job, her son thrown in jail, and an attempt made on her husband's life when she began to uncover just how serious police corruption had become.

MARIA LUISA BORJAS: (Through Translator) Everyone here knows that each day young men turn up dead, with their hands bound, and the famous execution shot to the base of the skull. And the majority of people that come forward, they say that it was the police that had taken those young men away.

MURPHY: The government says it's doing everything it can. Following the murders, high-level officials were fired, and the military was also sent into the streets as part of a move called Operation Lightening.

Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla.

POMPEYO BONILLA: (Through Translator) Not all the police are bad. But unfortunately, we do have to accept that corruption is a reality because in the last three years Honduras has become a major stop for drug trafficking.

MURPHY: But according to Berta Oliva, the head of the Honduras Human Rights Commission, it's about more than just drugs.

BERTA OLIVA: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: She says today's problems go back to the 1980s when the United States was using Honduras as a base for training and arming groups to fight leftists in the region. Disappearing people became part of our security culture, she says. We were supposed to have been living in democracy. So that's what our democracy became, she says, one that kills and tortures its citizens.

Officials who were trained during that era still influence how the police and military are run today, say both Oliva and Borjas. And the U.S. still gives aid for law enforcement, with at least $50 million going to Honduras since 2008.

OLIVA: (Through Translator) We've asked the U.S. to stop giving aid to security forces here. And we're going to keep asking them to stop.

MURPHY: In an interview, U.S. officials declined to comment on tape. But they pointed out that times have changed, and stressed that today the relationship with Honduran security forces is totally different because all aid is tightly controlled and legal - things like training and materials.

But even Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla says that the Honduran government is in over its head.

BONILLA: (Through Translator) There's been a lot of aid but it hasn't been well coordinated. We haven't established clear and precise guidelines for ourselves. We don't have a security policy in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

MURPHY: Which is why many here, including Isaac Trejo - that classmate of the murdered students - believes Honduras is on its way to being a failed state.

TREJO: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: At some point the police will totally lose legitimacy, he says, and you're going to see even more lawlessness. That's when a society breaks down. And once that happens, he says, the state itself loses legitimacy and that's what is happening here.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy.

SIMON: And Annie Murphy's series continues tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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