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Honduras coup spotlights Latin America's growing instability

Unrest has also erupted in Guatemala and Nicaragua in the past year, and the region is dealing with powerful organized crime and drug traffickers.

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And in Nicaragua, protests erupted in November when President Daniel Ortega was widely condemned for fixing municipal elections in favor of his Sandinista party. His detractors say he is installing an authoritarian regime.

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Beyond Central America, trouble is brewing. In Mexico, drug traffickers are so brazen that they have threatened school teachers, telling them to hand over Christmas bonuses, and openly recruit new members in banners hung up in cities. More than 6,200 were killed in Mexico last year, double the number of the year before, and the threat shows no sign of abating. Somewhat perversely, if it does decline, many analysts expect the problem to spill even further into Central America.

"There is a cumulative impact and the perception that Latin America is out of control," says Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

World's reaction shaped by region's volatility

In Honduras, Mr. Shifter says that few can defend the ouster of Zelaya as within the bounds of constitutionality, but that the world's strong reaction must also be understood in context.

"If everything were well, calm, and settled in the region, it may not have generated the same kind of reaction," he says. "But we run the risk of not taking Latin America seriously anymore. And whatever one might think about Zelaya, there is a sense that things have gone far enough."

Roberto Micheletti, who was sworn in as interim president of Honduras Sunday, refuses to call what happened here a coup, and says that, despite a curfew, the situation in the country is stable, with citizens going about their daily lives. Indeed, despite protests and the presence of soldiers roaming the streets and guarding a half-empty presidential palace, the rhythms of city life in Tegucigalpa seem normal.

But some citizens look with sadness, and a degree of fear, on what is happening in their country. "This is a tragedy," says Jorge Coca, a security guard at a hotel, as he watches protesters set up a road barricade. "Both sides are acting illegally. This has never happened before in this country."

Casas-Zamora says that weak institutions are behind several conflicts in the region, but that for now they are specific to the domestic issues of each country. Still, it could have a wider impact, especially on investment, as many outside do not distinguish the countries of Central America.

"The crises are localized," he says, "but at some point, the effects begin to spillover, and could end up hurting countries that are not unstable."