(CNN) -- The Peace Corps is slashing operations in Honduras and scaling back in El Salvador and Guatemala, citing security concerns in a region beset by violence linked to the lucrative drug trade.
The U.S. program currently has 158 volunteers serving in Honduras. They are all scheduled to come home early next year on administrative leave, and the Peace Corps "will review the safety and security climate in Honduras before continuing with volunteer operations," the agency said in a statement issued this week.
In a similar but less severe move, the Peace Corps canceled its January training classes for new volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala. It said it will enhance support to the 113 volunteers in El Salvador and the 222 volunteers currently serving in Guatemala.
"The safety and security of all Peace Corps volunteers is the agency's highest priority," said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. He added that the program will conduct a "full review" of its operations in Honduras, where homicide rates more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, according to a recent U.N. report.
Much like its neighbor to the north, Mexico, Central America is struggling to get a grip on violent crime. Drug cartels use the region as a strategic way station between South America, where most of the world's coca is grown, and North America, a major cocaine market.
Coca is the raw ingredient for cocaine.
The Peace Corps has operated since 1963 in Honduras and Guatemala, sending more than 5,500 and 4,800 Americans to serve in each country, respectively. It operated in El Salvador between 1962 and 1979, and returned in 1993.