Central America is under siege from Mexico’s powerful criminal mafias, who are fighting to control lucrative smuggling routes for U.S.-bound heroin and cocaine from South America.

In the region’s small, weak states, the cartels have found pliant politicians, ample money-laundering opportunities and vast tracts of unguarded jungles and cays for their trafficking operations. U.S. drug officials say more than 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States moves through these countries.

The billion-dollar business is enacting a terrible cost. Awash in guns and leftover munitions from the fratricidal conflicts of the Cold War, several Central American nations have soaring murder rates that are now several times higher than Mexico’s.

The traffickers’ corrupting influence has reached the highest levels of government in several countries, as Mexican gangsters burrow deeper into the region through the pockets of the ruling elite.

In June the Obama Administration pledged more than $200 million in new security assistance for Central America, but its leaders are pushing for more money, saying their sovereignty and stability are being undermined by the wealth and fearsome power of the cartels.

This project takes readers to several Central American countries to report on the expanding violence, and how governments in the region—and U.S. officials—are struggling to respond. The democratic gains of the past two decades are now increasingly endangered, as drug lords attempt to carve up Central America’s “banana republics” into narco-states.

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Nick Miroff is a correspondent for The Washington Post covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He is also a senior correspondent for GlobalPost and a contributor to...