When considering general safety for travelers visiting a foreign country, how do the Central American countries compare (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama)? Are some significantly more safe or dangerous than others, or are they all in similar situations?
All of the capital cities are dodgy, but some only in certain areas.
I haven't been to Central America for about five years now so some of this may be out of date. I make it sound a bit scary but in fact I love it and would definitely go back. Since the question is about safety I didn't include too many anecdotes of good experiences (-;
I spent four and a half months backpacking in the 7 countries you mentioned in 2009. Just based on my own experience I would say the difference in how dangerous a place felt was not between the countries but between places within each country, or even parts of a city.
Some parts of the bigger cities should be avoided, especially at night. However many smaller but more touristy places also have some petty crime.
I did not have any real problems but some sketchy experiences in Belize City at night and Tegucigalpa walking with my backpack through a rough neighborhood.
Judging on that I had to say Belize and Honduras are less safe. Other places with a bad reputation are Guatemala City, Managua and Colon (Panama) but I did not have any problems there.
Costa Rica is usually considered more safe than the others and has a much better tourist infrastructure.
Overall I would say, by just briefly visiting the countries you are not more likely to be a victim of crime in one country than another one. It comes down to where you go, how you behave and how (un)lucky you are.
I think Nicaragua is a relative safe country. You can read the information provide by travel.state.gov It is acquire but also consider that like any country there are good places and others are not a good idea. They focus about the bad stuff because they are talking about the crime and safety.
I have traveled to US and met a lot of people who have visited Nicaragua and said it is a wonderful place and they want to go back. I have met foreigners who have even decided to live here because they fall in love with Nicaragua. It would be ideal if you have a friend from the region. I took my roommate to visit Nicaragua and she wants to come back. People in Nicaragua are very nice towards to foreigners.
Being from central america I have not traveled a lot in the other countries. So I am afraid I will not be a reliable source. Before going to any country in central america I will see if there is an embassy from your country. Embassy are doing a very good job in helping their citizens. The US embassy in Nicaragua has very goods services for us citizens and they also have a Facebook page that you can take a look.
Hope it helps to someone