By Ioan Grillo
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - It took just seconds to ignite the fire that killed more than 350 inmates in a Honduran prison on Valentine's Day, but the country's messy spiral into lawlessness has been years in the making.
One of the world's worst prison fires has turned a spotlight on the crime, corruption and weak government that has made Honduras a case study for a nation in crisis.
Once a treasured hub for U.S. geopolitical interests in Central America, it is better known today as the world's most murderous country.
Rampant lawlessness, poverty and a crumbling justice system has left the coffee-exporting nation of some 8 million people battered by ultra-violent gangs and drug cartels.
Gunmen have taken control of slums and villages, well aware that the police are ineffective and corrupt.
"Our neighborhoods have become war zones," says Jennifer Castellanos, whose son was gunned down in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' most violent city. "Where is the government to protect us?"
Often, it is working with the perpetrators.
In November, President Porfirio Lobo of the conservative National Party, fired his police chiefs and arrested another 176 officers on murder, kidnap and drug charges.
"We have to get rid of the rotten apples," Lobo said.
But critics say the corruption is systemic.
Saddled with one of the weakest economies in the Western hemisphere, nearly 70 percent 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, trapping prisoners screaming in their cells as they burned alive.
One bone-thin gang member calling himself Flavio is typical of a new generation of street thugs driving the violence in Honduras.
Growing up with a poor single mother in a slum in the bustling capital Tegucigalpa, Flavio joined a Mara gang and left home before he had barely entered his teens.
Flavio became a leader in his crew, known as "the one that carries the voice", and would co-ordinate with other bosses.
"This is not just street gangs. This is organized crime," Flavio says, his voice just above a whisper, betraying the melodic lilt of Honduran ghettos.
He asked not to be identified for fear of assassination.
Mara gangs began as immigrants fighting for survival in Los Angeles in the 1980s. But as members were deported to Central America, they found hungry new recruits in their homelands.
Flavio's gang controlled rackets in their slum such as crack cocaine sales and car theft, which they defended with an arsenal of weapons including automatic rifles and plastic explosives.
Maras used to adorn their faces with tattoos, but the new generation abandoned the practice, focusing on making money.
"I don't have visible tattoos and I just wear normal clothes. I want to look like anyone else," said Flavio.
Once you have joined the Maras you have to murder and intimidate just to survive, Flavio said.
"This is the life of the streets," he said. "Once you are in, you can't get out of this."
The transformation of Maras into more organized crime syndicates has been central to Honduras' demise.
As well as trafficking drugs, many gangs bleed businesses by levying a so-called "war tax" or extortion payments in the territories they control.
Many taxi drivers are forced to pay criminals about $30 a week, small shops about $50. Most Hondurans earn less than the official minimum wage of about $300 a month. War taxes became widespread in 2008 and have since mushroomed to endemic levels.
"The Maras tax almost every taxi and bus in Honduras' major cities," says Congress' vice president, Marvin Ponce, who sits on the security committee. "If you add it all up, you can see that it is a multi-million dollar business."
Even more feared than the Maras are Mexican drug cartels, which in recent years have extended their reach in Honduras.
Small planes fly cocaine from Colombia into airstrips hidden in Honduran jungle and old banana plantations, from where Mexican gangsters smuggle it on towards the United States.
Mexico's wealthiest Sinaloa Cartel and the notoriously violent Zetas gang have both built up empires in Honduras, recruiting local hitmen and buying up jungle properties.
Increasingly powerful and profitable, Mexican cartels spread their tentacles south as the government launched a military crackdown on them in their homeland five years ago.
"The drug war in Mexico is really hurting us," said Ponce.
The rise in violence in Honduras has been steep.
In 2004, Honduras had 32 murders per 100,000 residents, less than El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia or Venezuela, according to the Honduran Observatory on Violence project.
By 2008, the homicide rate had shot up to 58 per 100,000. But it was only after a military coup against a Stetson-wearing leftist president, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009 that Honduras became the most murderous country on the planet.
In 2010, there were 82 homicides per 100,000, or more than 16 times the rate in the United States. Last year, the rate is believed to have increased to 85 homicides per 100,000.
A rough economic ride has also been major factor.
Honduras has traditionally based its economy on vast fruit plantations, inspiring the term 'banana republic' in the 1904 novel "Cabbages and Kings."
While it diversified to build sweat shops in the 1980s, its infrastructure was badly damaged by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
The 2009 coup further shook the economy, with many countries slashing aid and trade to Honduras.
"The international reaction to crisis in 2009 was extremely damaging to us," says Jose Torribio, a congressional deputy. "We are just beginning to recover from it this year."
Critics say the coup seriously exacerbated the problems in Honduras, with political violence adding to criminal killings.
Several protesters were shot dead during confrontations over the coup in 2009 and scores of activists have been slain since. The motives for the killings were not always clear.
Luis Sosa, a head of the teacher's union, alleges that hit squads work for local power brokers to silence their critics.
"There has been continued repression since the coup," said Sosa, who is facing court charges of public disorder for leading anti-coup protests. "There is political terror in Honduras."
Journalists have also been frequent targets. A Honduran press group lists cases of 24 journalists who have been murdered since 2003, making it one of the world's most dangerous place for reporters.
Local radio reporter Oscar Bonilla said journalists are mainly concerned about attacks by organized crime but also fear they could be gunned down by corrupt police.
"It is a very violent and intimidating environment. You know what you say could cost you your life," Bonilla said. "You often have to censor yourself and not tell the whole story."
The turmoil threatens a regional ally of the United States. With a strategic position in the heart of Central America, Honduras has long been valued by the U.S. military.
In the 1980s, it was used to train U.S.-backed Contra rebels fighting a civil war next door in Nicaragua. The largest U.S. contingent of troops in Central America is still there, based in the Palmerola compound just 10 miles from the Comayagua prison.
The Joint Task Force Bravo uses Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters for anti-narcotics missions. But so far the U.S. drug operations have been unable to quell the violence.
Torribio, the congressman, thinks Honduras hit rock bottom last year, and can turn the corner working with Washington.
"It's unfair to talk about a total collapse in security," he said. "With reforms in the police and a better world economy, we will make progress."
However, Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University, says that Honduras is on a road to nowhere.
"Desperate people do desperate things. Think of Somalia, think of the pirates along the African coast. Why do they do that, because it's fun? No: there's no options."
(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia and Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray)