TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras' Congress voted on Tuesday to deploy the army to fight encroaching Mexican drug cartels in a bid to curb violence in the world's most murderous country.
By an overwhelming majority, lawmakers decided to follow a model used by Mexican President Felipe Calderon who launched an army-backed campaign against powerful drug gangs soon after taking office in late-2006.
Since then, more than 45,000 people have died in drug violence in Mexico. But on a per capita basis, the small nation of Honduras far out paced every other country in the world in homicides with 82 murders per 100,000 people last year according to the United Nations.
Around 20 people are killed in Honduras every day.
Officials blame the bulk of the murders on cartels smuggling South American cocaine through Central America to consumers in the United States. Honduras also struggles with violent youth street gangs that extort local businesses with death threats.
"This legislation will allow the armed forces to take on policing roles to confront organized crime and drug traffickers operating across the country," congressman Oswaldo Ramos from the ruling conservative party said.
Some rights activists worry the military is not prepared to combat civilian crimes and have accused Mexican soldiers of torture and disappearances in the drug war.
The concerns are heightened in Honduras, where the military helped oust leftist President Manuel Zelaya in a 2009 coup.
"We have serious doubts about the implications of sending the army to do policework," said leftist congressman Sergio Castellanos. "They are not prepared to deal with civilians and this will only strengthen their position in society after the coup," he said.
The move is popular though, and polls have shown people feel safer with soldiers patrolling the streets.
(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Jackie Frank)