Before departing on my trip to Honduras last summer, I conducted much research into this fascinating Central American nation, for I was beyond intrigued and wanted to do nothing more than find out as much as I could about the history, culture and current affairs/political issues of this country. I had never been to Latin America before, yet upon deciding a year previous that I wanted to explore possibilities of charitable work in this part of the world – I applied to an NGO working in Central America and Africa whereupon I was beyond overjoyed to find myself accepted onto a three month long placement during the summer of 2014. Honduras to me was definitely the most noticeable, or rather most meaningful, turning point in my life. I have a lot to owe Honduras, for Honduras was ‘good to me’. She treated me well; her sons and daughters making me feel at all times welcome and most importantly at home. I gained many good friends and felt the crucial sense of belonging that so drives each and every human spirit. I have never experienced that before, I have never been so readily excepted as an outsider and taken in as one of ‘them’. Many a Honduran, which of course made me feel as if I had a place amongst their people, addressed me as ‘hermano’. I fell in love with Honduras, y los Catrachos tambien.
Upon typing ‘Honduras’ into the Google search bar, as I did when researching, one is most likely to be laden with search results focusing entirely on violence or football – one or the other. Honduras, like all Central American nations, suffers from high levels of violence - this is undoubtedly true. The country also has a national football team. Yet those two factors do not represent Honduras, or the Honduran people as a whole. There is an awful lot more to their country. Mara Salvatrucha and Calle Dieciocho are the two independent street gangs terrorizing the Honduran populace. They do so with a violence that goes beyond human belief, for instance, executing schoolchildren [by way of firearm and machete] that wish not to join a gang. These groups originated in Los Angeles, California, around the late 1980’s. Around that time there was a great influx of Central American migration to the United States, with immigrants perilously scraping their way from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras in particular. Done so to escape brutal civil wars and economic ruin [induced by natural disasters for instance such as the famous Hurricane Mitch in Honduras] the Central Americans settled in parts of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, those states being the main areas of concentration. However, many factors stood against them. With jobs scarce and anti-Hispanic racism high, the Central Americans found themselves competing against a more powerful, well-established Mexican workforce – with the Mexicans not taking kindly to their new competition from the south. The Honduran and Salvadoran immigrants in particular were very much the ‘under dogs’, having to protect themselves from both Mexican and African American dislike on the violent streets of poor neighbourhoods in which they settled on masse. It was for these reasons that ‘Mara Salvatrucha’ [‘Salvadoran army ants’ in Salvadoran slang] and 18th Street [Calle Dieciocho] were formed, by means of protection and stability. The Central American criminals quickly gained superiority over other gangs due to the unparalleled violence they deployed, thus making them fill up jails and penitentiaries at a rapid pace.
After many years of gang violence President Bill Clinton’s administration decided to simply deport en masse these criminals back to their countries of origin. With the bulk of them having been born and raised in the US, these extremely dangerous gangsters had never seen their mother country before and so upon arriving in vast numbers [for both gangs had spread roughly from LA to Houston over the years] they introduced American gang culture into the war torn, poverty stricken streets of Central American cities. With weapons easily available after the many civil wars in this region, it wasn’t long before countries like Honduras fell victim to all out gang war between the two rivals [Las Maras and the 18th] as the streets of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa became blood baths. Over the course of a decade, made worse by the drugs trade in which Colombian and Mexican cartels pay Honduran gangs to move narcotics for them, from the 1990’s to present day the gang violence has spiralled out of control. The sheer lack of opportunity and subsequent poverty affecting the Honduran people has made getting involved con los narcos the one and only option to feed themselves and their families. The Colombian Cartels have been flying cocaine from South America into Central American nations for years. It was in fact the powerful Honduran trafficker Juan Matta-Ballesteros [nicknamed ‘El Negro’] who established a crucial link between the Medellin Cartel of Colombia [set up by the infamous Pablo Escobar] and the Guadalajara Cartel of Mexico in the 1990’s. Since then Colombian Cartels have worked with gangs and peasants [the latter are paid well by their jefes Colombianos to deforest zones and construct secret landing strips in remote areas] in landing drugs. With such an overwhelming number of street gangs in Honduras, there is no problem in finding ‘business associates’ to covertly move the cocaine through Honduras to Guatemalan, Belizean or Salvadoran ‘partners’ [traditionally] whereupon it reaches Mexico and falls into the hands of Cartels who take it onto the USA – end destination of all trafficked narcotics. Being a multi billion dollar a year industry there is a lot of greed amongst the massive myriad of criminal networks, meaning Honduran gangs fight each other for control of business. There have also been many incidents of Nicaraguan/Salvadoran traffickers trying to ‘rip off’ their Honduran counterparts and visa versa at arranged meetings along the rural borders. The Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua for instance, has been the scene of many reported gunfights. With so many involved and so many being forced into involvement, such as children and adolescents – the Honduran government has many problems to tackle, not just the issue of drugs being flown in. Many adolescent boys in particular are migrating illegally to the US again now to escape the gangs. The reason being, that in some regions of Honduras both MS-13 and 18th Street demand a son from each and every family. If families refuse, mothers and daughters are gang raped, male members tortured, beaten and shot and the eldest [or only] son decapitated as a punishment. Schoolchildren are greeted outside of inner city schools by gangsters who take them to pre arranged ‘kids parties’ set up by the gangs in an attempt to lure children into gang affiliation. Soft drinks, cakes, music etc are used at these parties with the innocent children being led into thinking gang life is all fun and games. Yet those who see through it or simply don’t want to join are tortured and executed in the most horrific fashion. This goes on not just in Honduras, but in many of the Central American nations previously mentioned – a truly disgusting state of affairs. The gangs have made truces in recent years, yet with no improvements on unemployment and the poverty situation still gravely evident, the only avenue of generating any income is through the ever-thriving Latin American drugs trade. In fact, current or ex gang members stand very little chance of employment anyway on account of being easily recognized by their gang tattoos – inked all over the body from head to toe in many frightening cases. The gang crisis has ruined countless lives and still continues to do so daily, with the majority of Hondurans viewing their country’s circumstances as depressingly irreversible.
Talking upon the subject of crime in Honduras
Some may say at first, for people like to contradict and disagree more often than not, that a period of three months is not long enough to gain a full understanding into Honduran affairs and the daily issues affecting Los Hondurenos. Well, they may think that, yet whoever says so has not lived my experiences. Whilst in Honduras, I saw an awful lot, learnt an awful lot and experienced an awful lot. In three months I saw much of the country, visiting and staying in places such as La Valle de Angeles, Gracias, Santa Rosa, La Asomada, El Tablon, Tela and Tegucigalpa – to name a few. From the rugged western highlands to the Caribbean coast then the capital city, I feel as if I am experienced enough to have something to say for myself. I wouldn’t be writing this if not. My fellow British volunteers and I stayed in the struggling rural communities, whereupon I gained a valuable insight into day-to-day life for farming peoples. I recall a conversation upon my second or third day in Honduras with a lovely lady by the name of Glenda. She enjoyed my conversation [likewise I thoroughly enjoyed hers] about everything written beforehand concerning the gangs/drugs trade. We spoke in mixed English and Spanish. Glenda was from Tegucigalpa, the capital. She agreed entirely with me on all I had to say, as did other Hondurans that I met around that time, which went to prove I was well informed and understood the issues well. When speaking about the gangs [las maras] with fellow young people of Honduras, they all spoke of the criminals with contempt, yet explained the reasons such as sheer poverty for why these groups exist in their country. I made a good friend, a Honduran volunteer living in one such rural community. His father had left his mother a long time ago for a younger woman. She [his mother] was a kind, affectionate lady yet half blind and very old. The family struggled, for this volunteer was the only male in the household, therefore the only one capable of generating income. In his struggle to stand up and provide for his mother, the young man one day told me his secret – that he was selling marijuana in the community. I was the only person he told and I couldn’t help but feel terribly sorry for his circumstances for like so many young people, there are no jobs, no state funded employment schemes, thus making illegal activities an only source of employment. I asked if he had a boss to which he replied ‘si, yo tengo’. He was not part of a gang, for MS-13 and Calle 18 are not present in this part of Honduras, meaning he only worked for himself with his boss getting a large cut I imagine. I did however notice ‘Mara 13’ gratified on a wall in Gracias town, the place we lived for most of our time in Honduras, yet I assume this was just the work of some local teenagers as Gracias is muy tranquilo. Another friend I made from the capital, a young man called Jorge, has actually had some very frightening experiences with criminals. He told us his two stories. The first was when he was held up by two gunmen near his university and robbed and the second, was when masked gunmen broke into his family’s home in Tegucigalpa, robbing them all. Over my time there I met more people from ‘Teguz’, I recall some university students we met telling me in very good English, that the capital is quote ‘really f***** up – there are six year olds holding guns and selling drugs’ All the tall tales I heard though, and all the stories I read in the Honduran papers on gang violence, were occurring in either Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, the two main cities. The gangs and the violence are contained in both these cities, occasionally breaking out into other regions. Every country in the world has dangerous cities. When I saw Tegucigalpa for instance, I must say it was a city gripped with fear, no happy or remotely pleasant atmosphere with an emphasis on security like nowhere else I have been. Gated complexes, armed guards and blacked out vehicles being all that characterized my short stay there. It was more than evident this city has many serious problems. London though, frankly, is just as relatively similar in dangers along with Liverpool and Manchester. From the Eastern European crime groups pimping trafficked girls as young as nine years in secret brothels to Black Caribbean street gangs constantly warring amongst each other – it’s not as if England is without it’s problems. Why is it that here in the UK the pages of newspapers are laden every single week with stories of paedophiles and sex offenders? I’m sure the constant onslaught of convicted ex BBC employees of the 1970’s/80’s era, such as the likes of Jimmy Saville, could easily bear testament to this. Is England dubbed ‘sex offender capital of the world?’ No. Should it be? Well why not, if Honduras has been labelled ‘the murder capital of the world’. The fact of the matter is all the nations in Central America are enduring the same problems with high murder rates due to gang related activities. You cannot tell me though, that Honduras has more murders than nearby Mexico as just one example, a place where Cartels string hundreds of rivals up lampposts or leave hundreds of beheaded corpses on streets in their attempts to terrorize both populace and authorities. I have never heard or read of anything that extreme in Honduras. I made this point to some Hondurans and they agreed. All those countries trail extremely close to each other in the murder rates, it just so happens that Honduras ‘sat on top’ for a while, this is no excuse to single the place out though and dub it something overtly sensationalist like ‘Honduras – the murder capital of the world’. If you ask me, this title implies that the majority of Hondurans are little more than murderers, for what else could they be if their country is the ‘murder capital’. Compare this to the example I made about England, should we be called the ‘Paedophile capital’ just because we seem to have as much sex offence cases as Honduras probably has reported homicides? Off all the people I met in Honduras and of all the conversations we had on the subject of crime in Honduras, everything was about either San Pedro Sula or Teguz. I feel that in three months, if Honduras really was this terribly danger-ridden place – then I would have definitely experienced something bad. Yet I did not. I heard of a schizophrenic man stabbing his brother one time in one of his ‘fits’ and of a momentary fight in our neighbourhood, apparently some female volunteers saw two men fighting in which one produced a handgun and pistol whipped his opponent once before running away. The latter is fairly shocking, but I’ve seen and heard of much worse on a night out in England. In my area, in a nearby housing estate, a man once stabbed his wife to death because she had not made his ‘tea’ ready when he returned home from a day’s work. Just as shocking, no?
It is not as if and I’m sure many are thinking, I was this western tourist being paraded around in the presence of security at all times, frequenting places extremely low risk before returning to some hotel. No, for the best part of our placement, us British volunteers lived within a Honduran residential area, staying occasionally with Honduran volunteers and their families in the rural communities. I always felt completely safe, nothing less. Personally, I do not look at all particularly English or gringo. My skin is not dark, yet my features are, such as dark brown/black hair and similar thick eyebrows combined with green eyes and noticeable facial hair when unshaven. I dressed down at all times, baggy shorts and jeans, t-shirts, flannel shirts, vests or topless – I was able to blend in and look Latino, just mas blanco. British volunteers even said that if my skin was very dark, they would definitely think me Honduran, yet after time I tanned well and looked more so. The point I am trying to make is that if I was able to freely roam the Honduran streets in La Valle, Gracias, Santa Rosa, Tela [a wonderful Caribbean town] and Teguz even, alone and unmolested day and night then I really can’t agree that Honduras is completely dangerous. If I strolled in the same fashion though areas of London or even parts of Brighton [which is nearer to where I live] I know full well it would all end in tears for me, quite potentially. I will come back to this in my conclusion later. I think people have to put things in perspective, there a places in Honduras with much danger and violence yet the same can be said for every nation on earth.
Mis experiencias bonitas en Honduras
To contrast the negative images, here is a short description of another side to Honduras – a side not talked about.
It is a nation teeming in natural beauty; for instance, inland Honduras is predominantly mountainous or covered in on-going hill terrain. These heavily forested mountains stretch up into the clouds, whereupon one can actually see the tops of Pine trees poke out through the misty haze. The haze gathers upon each and every mountaintop. They form low hanging clouds. Honduras itself as mentioned, is covered almost entirely by this astonishing mountain landscape. I recall standing at the top of one of the gargantuan hilltops of the Mount Celaque region in Lempira department. A waterfall erupted majestically from across the deep gorge lying between the opposite mountain and us. I have never stood as quite so literally upon the edge of a cliff like I did then, nor have I encountered such a deep drop from any cliff top. An ocean could have fitted itself within that vast expanse, the overwhelming ‘drop’ that held such height one could not possibly see the bottom of the gorge below. I dread to think how high up we actually were in those beautiful mountains. The small group of us just stood in silence, with our eyes upon the entire landscape. Filled with admiration, it was like gazing at a never-ending oil painting, I myself could simply not believe the amount of trees. The sheer mass of Pine trees ‘bodged’ and packed together in a wild, timeless formation looked almost akin to a modelled set. It looked as if someone ‘almighty’ had created the mountains, one could imagine that he or she possessed an abundance of standard model conifer trees and just wedged each of them into an endless onslaught of greenery. The trees in the Honduran mountains stand by the thousands. Picture a place where the majority of towns are surrounded by hills, which reach upward into the skies until their tops disappear, and then extend themselves into the distance as far as the eye can see. This is certainly true of the large town ‘Gracias’, situated within Lempira department, western Honduras. It was in this place, that I spent the bulk of my time during those glorious three months of the summer.
Tela was also a lovely place, yet very different to Gracias.
A large town, basking in Caribbean climate with its tropical atmosphere, Tela was historically important as a place from which bananas were exported from Honduran banana plantations to New Orleans, whereupon the fruit was distributed across the USA. It is a truly unique place, with its’ interesting and peculiar blend of mixed Spanish/American style architecture and typically Caribbean surroundings, such as palm tree lined beaches and tropical jungles. The streets are packed every day with an onrush of people, made up of mixed ethnicities from the black Garifuna to Honduran mestizos. The restaurants and bars teem with life whilst market stalls vende all manner of things, from coconuts to striking regional clothing. It was the Garifuna though, that really captured me, as I found their culture and way of life nothing short of admirable. They are of African descent, black skinned, and by now an indigenous group in their own right, inhabiting the coastlines of Nicaragua, Honduras and Belize. The descendents of escaped slaves, La Garifuna have a remarkable history and unique culture created over many centuries inhabiting this part of the Caribbean as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. Never have I come across a people so laid back and peaceful, it appeared that every time you passed some Garifuna, man or woman, boy or girl, they beamed great smiles at you. I will never forget the one night that I visited one such isolated Garifuna community - for me it was definitely a ‘paradise on earth’. Still to this day, the Garifuna fight to upkeep their way of life, living in beautifully constructed split cane and palm thatched homes upon the white sanded beaches, jungle in the background, Caribbean sea out beyond. They fish and hunt extensively, an old Garifuna man took the small group of us Hondurans and Brits on a canoe tour of his lake, which was a wonderful experience. The huge lake lay behind their homes, with the houses standing on a patch of land/semi beach between the sea and the lake. It was a marvelous night, especially after having been made a fantastic Garifuna dish by an elderly woman, which was eaten within a candle lit hut on the beach at night. Tela, like Gracias, is an untouched place, full of character and best of all completely detached from the outside world. I sincerely hope that both places remain that way, for the impressions they made on me will surely last forever.
Those two places are very diverse and that is perhaps the overall point that I am trying to make. Honduras is a great country, with much variation and differences from region to region. I can only speak from my experiences, which of Honduras were all entirely wonderful without anything negative for me, on a personal basis. I’m sure others might disagree. I have read of terrible experiences endured by other travellers, from women being assaulted in the islands of Roatan [an English speaking domain] and forgive me, stupid western tourists not dressing down and being shot for not handing over cameras and such at gunpoint. If I were to, of course, head into dangerous neighbourhoods of San Pedro Sula or Teguz, then yes something bad would befall me. The same though would occur if I were to do the same in South Central Los Angeles or Peckham, South London. I simply feel that on the subject of violence and gang crime, people need to take this into perspective and apply the same common sense when traveling Honduras, as they would do any other country in the world.
The fact of the matter is I do not attempt to disguise any of the problems in Honduras, for there are many as in all of Latin America. I am not saying for a moment that organized crime is not on the rampage in Honduras, or that the murder rates are not high, that woman are not mistreated by many and that poverty doesn’t exist. From indigenous groups being viciously confronted when campaigning for their rights, to powerful landowners seizing control of the local peasant populace and secret security forces assassinating journalists – Honduras suffers greatly every day. The Manuel Zelaya coup of 2009, a CIA backed military overthrow of the predominantly popular yet left wing inclined president, has left the country and its people very disillusioned and full of anger. Many Hondurans I spoke to, from my 19-year-old friend Javier to a middle-aged father, told me that in their minds the current president Juan Orlando Hernandez is no more than un ladrone or ‘a thief’. They explained that he takes money from the everyday workingman, yet puts nothing back into the economy – or into creating jobs for the Honduran people. Manuel Zelaya was spoken of much better, he seemed to be a popular leader, yet the might of US foreign intervention intervened ousting him back in 2009, with the ex presidente now in Costa Rican exile. For the young people that I met, the future in terms of employment looks bleak. With their parents being farmers, many told that their families only have enough money to eat. If a young man has no work in the fields, for his father perhaps cannot afford to employ his sons – then they make no money. It really is as simple as that and with most children/adolescents leaving school in such communities around the age of 14, there is an emphasis put on amongst the young generation to study more. Collegios of course, cost money. Being a patriarchal society, women find themselves at home – therefore it may [as was the case with many families I visited] be only an eldest daughter who gets the chance to study at a college, for many parents do this as an attempt to try and better their child’s life – having been studied this may increase chances of future employment.
The Honduran people though are full of life; they were from those that I lived amongst, the warmest, affectionate and kind-hearted people I have ever come across. I witnessed no remotely bad behavior towards women, some catcalling yes, but nothing frankly very serious. Perhaps in fairness this is my opinion as a young man, it may be different for young ladies, however I do not think ‘hola linda!’ or ‘hello pretty’ is too offensive when men chant this to passing girls. They are being complemented after all. The young men I met, in fact all men in general, harboured no ill intentions towards women, they encouraged no violence towards las mujeres, which again in a period of three months it makes me question to what extent does this ‘violence against women’ exist in Honduras? I am not saying it does not, in the cities and rurally notably amongst the working classes – yet for Honduras to have such a reputation for gang violence, violence against women and for me to have not witnessed any of this – I question it. In England, I have experienced the contrary, with it being beyond obvious – I recall a local ‘character’ in my area who had no problem smacking his wife and child on a public bus. I have known schoolchildren that came to school with cigarette burns upon the arm – ‘donated’ by their mothers. I am sure that if I spent as much time in Honduras, as I have in England, then I would probably see something similar yet having seen the way Hondurans interact as families in all honesty, I almost doubt it. The many women I met on the other hand, of all ages, were in my experiences the happiest females I have ever come across. I would not be wrong in saying that they all seemed to ‘enjoy being women’. There was a lovely sisterly relationship between all the Honduran women we came across, they expected men to look after them, meaning they do not hesitate ever to reciprocate that by means of maintaining the home, cooking and raising children. Most of the Hondurans I met were of rural, very ‘working class backgrounds with little exposure to the outer area and certainly not the outside world. Jorge once described traveling for most Hondurans as ‘un sueno impossible’ due to lack of money and opportunity, which is very sad. Yet even without any experience, they spoke of things unknown to them such as the western world with nothing but respect and intrigue, many young men knew all the English football teams and who played for them as I find the Hondurans are fascinated and want to learn – quite the contrary to English people frankly, how many have even heard of Honduras? Not many, for before I departed last summer I had to endure astounding ignorance, with most people of all ages here in East Sussex saying ‘Honduras- what’s that?’ The worst sorts of comments made were along the lines of ‘Honduras – is that one of these Aid’s countries?’ and ‘it’s near Mexico [that’s how I explained it] – why are you going to help a load of drug dealers?’ these are the perceptions of Honduras amongst the people of East Sussex, which is why this article I believe this article is of some importance. I feel that if Latin nations like Honduras are consistently in the headlines for it’s negative aspects, then the ignorance that so thrives amongst many in the UK [upon having job interviews in London once returned some employers actually asked ‘so Honduras, where is that – it’s a country isn’t it’] will only become worse if Honduras is presented in the media as none other than ‘the murder capital of the world’. There are many things to be celebrated. Honduras for instance is beginning to work with other countries and NGO’s in bettering the coffee exportation business thus creating a wider market for this 100% Honduran product. I can now buy café Hondureno from Tesco's just as I can Kenyan or Italian. On the subject of coffee and indeed gangs [something I am in much support of] there is in fact a new commercial out now with coffee companies showcasing their marvellous creation of ‘coffee gangs’! Ex gang members male and female, now have work, leaving behind their dark pasts to be employed as coffee harvesters. Both ex MS-13 and 18th street member’s work alongside each other in what is definitely a great initiative – just the sort of initiative Honduras and its neighbours vitally need. The Honduran tourism board is also trying to establish itself more thoroughly – I met one such young man, a good friend, who enjoyed his entrepreneurial tour guide business from which he is doing very well. My friend Javier is also trying to gain work experience in his local radio station, aged 19 and he had his own daily program for his life ambition is to be a broadcaster. Many young Hondurans posses this entrepreneurial spirit, they simply need the tools in which to proceed with their ideas, i.e. foreign investment [notably the USA] not into training security forces that turn violent on the populace in their war on gangs, but perhaps more into creating jobs in the coffee export, banana export or tourism industries. If light is never shed on the dark, then what hope is there of dispelling the latter? That is the point that I am trying to make, on the subject of Honduras and the Hondurans.
Dedicated to Kelvin,
Video: credits entirely to our filmmaker Evie Oldfield, ex co volunteer in Honduras. It is her videography, not mine.
Photos: Most belong to Emma Hooper, the photography is thanks to her. She captured many wonderful moments.