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Story highlights

Honduran city has been dubbed "the murder capital of the world"

Fueled by the drug trade, rival gangs duel in San Pedro Sula for recruits, territory and cash

From January to June of this year, the city had 538 homicides

Even the city's director of forensic medicine was given two full-time bodyguards

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San Pedro Sula, Honduras CNN  — 

At the morgue in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, a grim new tally greets Dr. Hector Hernandez every morning.

On Monday, the number was four.

On Tuesday, five.

Some are riddled with bullets; in one case 72 bullet wounds. Others are bound by their hands and feet and strangled.

The ceaseless river of bodies flowing through the morgue in San Pedro Sula is a sobering testament to one reason so many people leave Central America to risk it all on a long, perilous journey to the United States. In a country with rampant crime and little economic opportunity, even the prospect of a dangerous journey is overshadowed by the potential reward of a new life north of the border.

Hernandez, the city’s director of forensic medicine, needs no reminder.

One of the most troubling cases for him came in a week ago: a 13-year-old girl with her throat slit ear to ear. Her body was found in a shallow grave in a backyard. The circumstances of her death are still under investigation.

Each body brought in tells of brutality and violence, of the city’s devastating gang activity.

Fueled by the drug trade, rival gangs duel here for recruits, territory and cash. From January to June of this year, the city experienced 538 homicides. A gun was used in 423 deaths.

It’s these tragic figures that have led to the city being dubbed “the murder capital of the world.”

The saddest room

The small room where families learn of their loved ones’ fate has a crucifix, auditorium-style seats and a wall filled with pictures of the city’s missing.

Sisters Albertina Eriquez and Suyapa Arguete sit in two of those seats. Their eyes are red and swollen with tears.

A terrible call came over the weekend. Eriquez’s son and Arguete’s nephew, Jorge Villalobo, 24, was found dead. His wife and three children, ages 12, 6 and 2, were on a Disney vacation in the United States, and Villalobo was to join them soon.

A gunman or gunmen had another idea. Villalobo’s body was one of the four brought in Monday.

Hernandez suspects Villalobo, a businessman who family members say fought extortion from the gangs, was robbed and died from gunshot wounds.

The gangs are watching

Hernandez doesn’t take chances with his own security. When he was promoted to his current position about a year ago, he was given two full-time bodyguards. His family left the city for their own protection.

In fact, Hernandez says the mere act of claiming a body or attending a funeral can make people here a target for gang members who stalk the morgue and cemetery looking for their next mark.

Forty-eight bodies are unclaimed at the morgue. After 30 days, they’ll be buried in the city’s public cemetery.

DNA, dental records and fingerprints are retained for the day when a loved one shows up or a killer is caught.

Leave or die

Hernandez says he believes the situation is getting a bit better. In May, the worst month, the body tally hovered around nine per day, he said.

Yet the fear pulsating through San Pedro Sula remains.

Villalobo’s aunt says that people in the roughest neighborhoods leave Honduras because they “don’t have another option.”

Hernandez says he believes many families haven’t claimed their loved ones’ bodies because they believe their family members have migrated.

One day, they may learn the awful truth in one of the saddest places in San Pedro Sula.

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CNNE’s Ana Melgar contributed to this report.