An exclusive extract from Blood Barrios by Alberto Arce, discussing the violence which engulfs Honduras.
A little known war
San Pedro Sula hasn’t always been where it is. Centuries ago Spanish colonialists, wanting to protect the city from constant pirate attacks, decided to move it. Today, the city is in the north of the country, about an hour from the Caribbean coast.
San Pedro Sula is organized in a grid running more horizontal than vertical; like most colonial cities, it has no skyscrapers. Outside of the city center, urbanism grows in concentric circles of poverty and marginalization, neighborhoods divorced from the downtown by highways. According to a mathematician friend of mine, these isolated barrios have levels of violence and homicide that would – if there were the slightest fall in the birthrate – completely depopulate the city in eighty-seven years.
The three-hour ride from Tegucigalpa to the Sula Valley is best done, for safety reasons, during the day. To get through the drive you have to manage traffic jams, climb over mountains, speed by an American military base, cruise through a few prairies, eat fish at Lake Yojoa, and, in the final stretch, hit a twenty-kilometer straightaway that spits you into a stunning view of the most beautiful and violent city in Honduras.
The mayor of San Pedro Sula, Juan Carlos Zúñiga, a stout and elegant young man with a finely groomed beard, used to be a surgeon. He doesn’t hesitate to recognize that his city is threatened by a violence the authorities are incapable of combating. Moving the entire city again wouldn’t even work; the violence in Honduras is inescapable.
My interview with the mayor is brief and formulaic. Zúñiga is tired of hearing the epithet, “most dangerous city in the world,” and tries to focus on details. He does what he can, according to the manual of international cooperation, which urges him to follow certain protocols and take specified actions, but which, so far, hasn’t helped. Surrounded by aides and sitting in his office on an ugly, beat-up sofa (which I read as an attempt to present a welcoming vibe) the mayor, like a broken record, churns out statistics and name-drops public projects so mechanically that once he mentions the second shelter for runaway kids, I zone out and start rereading my notes.
And my notes, I find, are full of dead bodies:
- In Honduras there are between eighty-five and ninety-one homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, depending on the local or international count. This is the favorite statistic for journalists who love to define Honduras as “the most dangerous country in the world.”
- In San Pedro Sula there are 166 homicides a year per 100,000 inhabitants. This is another favorite statistic for journalists who love to define San Pedro Sula as “the most dangerous city in the world.”
- The World Health Organization defines violence as epidemic if there are more than eight homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. A typical European country, like Spain, doesn’t reach one homicide per 100,000 inhabitants.
Journalists are pushed to report on the most dangerous cities, the fattest officials, and the last survivor from the trenches of Normandy.
With these statistics, it makes more sense to visit the hospital than the mayor’s office.
The Mario Catarino Rivas Hospital looks like a war hospital, one of those places that incites both solidarity and indignity at an international level. Honduras is suffering a forgotten and low-intensity war. The tiny old rooms in the hospital are stained with blood nobody has the time to clean up. There aren’t even enough stretchers for incoming patients, and family or friends need to carry patients themselves from cars into the waiting room, or from bed to bed, or from cushion on the floor to cushion on the floor. Family members also have to wash and feed the patients themselves, buy them medicine, bandages, syringes. And to witness all this you just need to walk through the doors. With all the chaos of Honduras, needing to ask for permission is rare. The doctors have too many problems to worry about hiding anything from the press.
The doctors working in the ER that night were all student residents. Natalia Galdámez was one of them. She looked at her admittance sheet of patients who had arrived since ten that night: nineteen patients with violent injuries, most of them men between fifteen and twenty-five years old, suffering from gunshot or machete wounds. The story is always that a stranger came and, without a word of explanation, shot them — they need to fill the questionnaire box with something.
A number of the new patients that night were victims of a shootout in the Choloma pool hall. The son of one of the victims offered to take us to where, according to him, three other bodies were still sprawled on the floor. There are so many shootouts in the city that we were practically guaranteed to find bloodshed. We go. Half an hour later, we got out of the taxi we realized that the police hadn’t even shown up yet, and the only people brave enough to poke their heads through the half-open door of the pool hall were a pair of teenagers with dead family members inside.
It’s hard to forget the smell of blood poured out on the baize of a pool table, the size of a shotgun wound, the cups of cane liquor spilled next to the bodies, the seeming irrelevance of death, the hours that it takes to collect the bodies, the ease with which one could, if one wanted or felt it was necessary, walk in and collect all the shotgun shells. It’s impossible not to be affected by the way in which evil impregnates the nights of San Pedro Sula. It’s impossible not to become furious when you realize you can’t get the right angle for a good photograph of the bodies. It’s impossible not to be frightened in front of the bodies, the silence, the darkness, the death, the kids in the doorway and the sensation that you’d be dead if the shooters returned. It does happen. They do come back.
Despite it all, and against all logic, with the hotel an hour away and the nearest gas station a half-hour down the road, the need to piss pushed me to step into a dark corner. I whipped my head in every direction. My ears rang with terror that someone was going to appear from the shadows and catch me in a dead-end alley. I hugged the wall, took a few steps into the shadows to the only spot in which I could pee without straying too far from the others, yet not too close to the bodies that taking a piss would be disrespectful. Lifting my gaze, I spotted a little window covered over in black plastic with a hole in the middle, just big enough to see the dead bodies inside. This was the photograph we were looking for. The perfect angle.
“Esteban! Come see this!”
“God dang! That’s it. Come on, move,” he said, sneaking up to the window without looking at me.
“Should I make the hole wider?,” I asked. “It’s just plastic. I could pull the whole thing off.”
“Don’t even think about touching it. We can’t move anything to take a photo.”
Esteban Félix taught me a lot about journalism in the following two years. His photograph of the cadavers seen through the hole in black plastic earned him a World Press Photo award.
Back at the hospital, chatting with the doctor, we witnessed Natalia and her colleagues save the life of a man who’d been nearly scalped by a machete. Next, the residents removed a kidney from an old man shot in the stomach. They put the organ in a plastic bag and gave it to the man’s nephew so he could take it somewhere else for analysis – an expense the hospital can’t afford. Natalia, like many people in San Pedro, was fed up, exhausted. She said that with her experience she’d rather work in a war zone than stay in her own city dressing the wounds of a silent war, a war nobody wants to call a war.
Honduras is a small country cursed by geography – falling directly in the path of drugs heading to the United States; a mule country in service of American cocaine consumers; a territory rented out for the pleasure of others. San Pedro Sula is a rest stop and inn along the supply chain that leads to Manhattan bars and Harvard parties. A gram of cocaine in Honduras costs ten dollars; in Mexico it costs thirty dollars. In New York, the same gram costs a hundred dollars. “If they didn’t do drugs, we wouldn’t be going through what we’re going through,” is the way that most locals explain it. In our moments of nihilism, on long Honduran nights, we remember that every line cut on the table is another death in Honduras.
San Pedro Sula shares, along with La Ceiba and the Department of Cortés, in the border with Guatemala, a homicide rate twice as high as the national average, and 100 times higher than the average of any European country.
According to a UN study, thirteen percent of the Honduras GDP is tied to drug trafficking. Though in the past cocaine made it to the US directly from Colombia, in recent years it’s been channeled through Honduras. The trend was especially accentuated after the institutional crisis that followed the 2009 coup d’état.
In 2009, on the eve of his referendum on a constituent assembly to change the constitution, President Manuel Zelaya was pushed out of bed by the barrel of a gun. His attempt at constitutional change was considered by many to be inspired by Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez. That was when those in charge of maintaining the law plunged into complete chaos. They focused their efforts on establishing a new government and repressing the opposition instead of stopping the “narco-flights.” The United States and the European Union subsequently suspended their drug trafficking assistance programs. Not a single country in the world recognized the coup government. One of the immediate consequences of the coup was a sort of cocaine gold rush. Planes loaded with the drug took direct flights through Honduras. Since the coup, ninety percent of cocaine entering the United States passes through Central America.
Emilio Ulloa manages security for Dole, the largest banana company in the world and largest landowner in the Caribbean. With the open sincerity of a witness who feels his hands are tied, he explains how the company’s fumigation plane runways were used as narco-runways at least four times before the coup, between 2006 and 2008. Groups of up to forty heavily armed men came in trucks, overpowered and restrained the single guard, who typically carried nothing but a revolver, and unloaded the merchandise from the plane. “The fight was never fair,” he complained. “The narcos attack and there isn’t even resistance.” It’s asymmetrical warfare. On one side, the poorly outfitted and miserably paid Honduran police; on the other side, well-armed killers guarding multi-million dollar shipments.
More than just another strand of disorder, drug trafficking is the dynamo that sparks all the violence the country suffers. It works like a multinational company generating employment through local subcontracting; a multinational so powerful that it ends up penetrating and corrupting all existing state structures.
Thanks to cocaine, the border between common delinquency and organized crime has evaporated in recent years. Assassinations, trafficking crimes, and the “settling of accounts” are now carried out by the gangs that used to steal cellphones and rob banks. This shift is taking place, in part, because cartels are paying for smuggling in drugs instead of in dollars. It’s both easier and cheaper for them. In order to maintain control over their workers, owners have long paid them in products or discounts. The result is a low-intensity war between gangs – bands of small-time dealers, extortionists, and security forces that cross back and forth over the thin line between law and criminality.
In Honduras we have yet to see a war for control of the trafficking routes, as we’ve seen in Mexico between competing cartels. Isolated incidents aside, there aren’t massacres of twelve or more people, or systematic decapitations, or bodies dissolved in acid, as we’ve seen in Mexico. But what we do see in Honduras, just as we see in Mexico, is innocent victims caught in the crossfire between the army, the narcos, gangs and the police.
Blood Barrios: Dispatches from the World’s Deadliest Streets
Alberto Arce (Zed Books, 2018)
Translated by Daniela Ugaz and John Washington
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