TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — 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It is the first time Peace Corps missions have been withdrawn from Central America since civil wars swept the region in the 1970s and 1980s.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.
On Wednesday, Lobo met with senior U.S. officials to speak about security. The U.S. agreed to send a team of experts to help the Honduras government with "citizen security issues," said a State Department news statement. The U.S. Embassy in Honduras did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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 after a Peace Corps volunteer was shot in the leg during an armed robbery on Dec. 3 aboard a bus 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 is from Texas.
Most areas of San Pedro Sula, like other specially 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.
Also, on Jan. 24, 2011, a Peace Corps volunteer was robbed and raped near the village of Duyure in southern Honduras. Three men were found guilty of rape and robbery in that case, according to an employee of the regional court in the southern city of Choluteca who was not authorized to be quoted by name. Sentencing is scheduled for February; the three men face up to 26 years in prison. The volunteer was apparently assaulted while hiking in a remote area.
The U.S. also announced it had suspended some 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 U.S. Embassy in Guatemala said in a statement the suspension only applied to the January Peace Corps class. Further reviews will determine future training in that nation.
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. has said.
Numerous non-governmental aid groups work in the region and the Peace Corps decision has raised concerns that they could also be affected.
"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. In Niger, volunteers were evacuated 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.
Sarah Smith, a 25-year-old health volunteer who lived in the town of Taulabe, said she was once robbed and knew a friend got her computer stolen at gunpoint.
"Just about everyone had something happened to them at some level," she said Wednesday.
Smith said she also received an email regarding the pullout and, although the bus attack was not cited as the reason, "it was in the back of our minds," said Smith, back in Cincinnati after a nearly two-year mission.
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.
It was not clear what effect the volunteers' departure would have on the Corps' 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.
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 from Mexico City and Romina Ruiz-Goiriena from Guatemala City.
(This version CORRECTS Adds the U.S. sending technical experts for citizen security issues. Corrects spelling of specially)