“All calm here on the Avenida. Do you read me?” A young man in his twenties is speaking into a walkie talkie. The streets are empty, engulfed in impenetrable darkness. A boy enjoys the cool night air: “You see that tree? That’s MS13 territory, I’m really scared of going there, you know?”. Rivera Hernandez sprawls out across the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, the industrial capital of Honduras. It is a labyrinthine expanse, interconnected like an electric circuit in constant conflict. An area housing 150,000 people where six gangs have established their own small universes, naming each community with numbers or letters. People once used to refer to Rivera as a war zone. With the passing of time, and bloodshed, it has come to be considered a sort of normalized insurrection.
During the day an eerie calm reigns over Rivera. Soldiers wearing balaclavas patrol the streets in pick-ups. “Sometimes it all seems so peaceful,” says Daniel Pacheko, an Evangelical pastor who is very active in the area. “But everything can change in a matter of minutes.” Pacheko walks a tightrope, keeping a fine balance. He has earned the respect of the Rivera gangs through his attempts to negotiate with the security forces to avoid bloodshed, in a relentless attempt to curb violence amongst youngsters. He succeeded in redeveloping entire areas and what was once a “Botadero” (a corpse disposal area) is now a football field where every day boys of an age most at risk of being recruited by gangs train.
“The devil finds work for idle hands,” explains 26-year-old Kevin Lopez, who together with Pacheko is in charge of a prevention program for youngsters at risk and organizes soccer tournaments. At 15 Kevin was about to be lured into Barrio 18: “I started as a lookout, but then I realized it was not the right life for me. I saw a lot of my friends end up as corpses on the streets.” He describes how when he moved here with his family it was very different: “There were gangs but it wasn’t like it is now. You could walk anywhere freely, now you can’t leave the neighbourhood you live in or you’ll be killed instantly.”
Honduras is currently one of the world’s most violent countries, excluding war zones. Violence is carried out by transnational groups of criminals, drug traffickers, corrupt security forces and gangs. And it is the gangs that are the main perpetrators in this circle of crime that characterizes the more marginal areas such as Rivera Hernandez.
The level of violence and corruption in present-day Honduras enables the gangs to have a vast operational capacity which, amongst numerous other consequences, is causing the population to flee en masse. And in all this the United States has had a pivotal role. As from the 1980s the American Department of State considered Honduras a hub in the Cold War context, vital in carrying out operations in Central America and the Caribbean. It was especially crucial for its strategic position between El Salvador and Nicaragua, which at the time were experiencing violent civil wars. Finally, it was also important for its proximity to Cuba.
In this context Honduras, together with other countries in Central America, were subjected to a systematic suppression of civil rights. Paramilitary groups were formed with the CIA’s logistic support (in particular the feared Battalion 316), 2,000 students were killed and many political activists disappeared. With the end of the Cold War the vast clandestine network which had developed to support the different parties in conflict simply switched to organized crime. More recently, in 2009, the US supported the military coup against democratically elected Manuel Zelaya, and backed Juan Orlando’s government, which was confirmed in November 2017 at elections considered fraudulent and which stirred widespread protests among the population.
Today Honduras is a corrupt state run by a military oligarchy which systematically tries to suppress all dissent and where 70% of the population lives in poverty. The gangs take advantage of this misery to infiltrate part of the community.
The presence of the maras or pandillas in Honduras can be traced back to the 1980s when, according to Honduran intelligence, there were up to 300 groups. Their operational capacity was very limited and focused on competing to gain control of the territory, however without reaching the peaks of violence characterizing them today. When in 1996 the American government began to repatriate migrants who had been active in criminal gangs in the US – in particular from the so-called Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) – the situation changed drastically. The arrival in Honduras of members of MS13 and Barrio 18 introduced new cultural elements and brought with it the violent rivalry between the two groups which had been exacerbated in the US. San Pedro Sula is the perfect example of how transnational gang structures merged with local groups. At the start of 2000 the clash between MS13 and Barrio 18 brought on a wave of violence which led the government to create élite units and introduce new laws which made affiliation with these groups illegal. Security forces interpreted the crime of affiliation very loosely, associating it with factors of class and generation.
“The other night I was drinking a soda on this corner when a Policia Militar pick-up drove by and abruptly slammed on the brakes. The first thing I did was run. I could feel the bullets brushing past me, I managed to hide between the metal sheets in a garden and I could see the flashing torches as they searched for me,” recounts Moises Cubas, 18 years old, the son of farm workers, born and raised in an area of Rivera under the control of the Barrio gang. His family moved to the city in search of a better life, but Moises grew up alongside the neighborhood’s homeboys – as the gang members of are called – and nurtures profound respect for Barrio 18.
The government of Honduras has labelled them terrorist groups and is waging a war against them in the country’s poorer areas. Where there is no state representation, as in Rivera Hernandez, the gangs become the community’s only institutions. They govern the territory by extortion and kill anyone who refuses to pay or is unable to do so. The gangs have no defining ideology: the members only try to avoid being killed or captured and often end up becoming “family” for thousands of abandoned youngsters fending for themselves and with no financial prospects.
A skeletal figure comes out of the bushes brandishing a Kalashnikov. “Tonight it’s your turn to hold on to the AK, no complaining,” says Erik. The heat is stifling and Jacob drifts off staring into emptiness. The Military Police Units and those of the Anti-pandilla (anti-gang) group have carried out patrols all through the night in the La Planeta and Cerrito Lindo areas, Rivera territories under the control of Barrio 18.
The first time I met Erik he told me how a few months earlier he had managed to escape from a detention center for minors in Tegucigalpa, where he was detained for the murder of a bus driver who had refused to pay extortion money. “We had already warned him three times. It was necessary,” he tells me, his eye unflinching.
The spiral of violence these youngsters live in leaves them few ways out. In many cases the only alternative is to emigrate or run away, given that the economic fabric is not able to absorb them into the work force. Those who remain lack any real life chances. These “criminals” are little more than adolescents and, although their familiarity with violence seems to stifle any hopes for a different future, they continue to nurture dreams which will take them beyond the barren horizon of Rivera Hernandez.
In Honduras the violent death of youngsters at the hands of other youngsters reflects the violence inherent in Honduran society. Dramatically aware of the lack of any future in their own country, youths kill their peers as if it were a game and seem unperturbed by their own social death. The sole alternative is escape: migration offers the only opportunity to avoid the oblivion that their country condemns them to. Those who stay are condemned to live like “lost children” on an island of violence and terror.