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 in 2011 called one of the largest missions in the world.
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.
Last month, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Kristina Edmunson, a Peace Corps spokeswoman in Washington, said the moves stemmed from “comprehensive safety and security concerns” rather than any specific threat or incident.
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 18 days after a Dec. 3 armed robbery in a bus where a female volunteer was shot in the leg 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 was from Texas.
The U.S. also announced it was suspended training for new volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala, meaning that when existing volunteers end their missions, the operations end. El Salvador has 113 volunteers, and Guatemala, 222. The U.S. embassies in those countries did not respond to requests for comment.
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. said.
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. The Niger decision came 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.
It is most significant suspension of Peace Corps activities in Central America since the 1980s, when several Central American nations were torn by civil wars.
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.
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.