No Country for Young Men
Two of the most violent cities in the world are in Honduras. How can everyday life be in a place practically consumed by violence? To what extent is it possible to have a “normal” life when insecurity dictates your day to day?
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Translation by Patrick Moseley
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Let’s start here, the day I met Rosa…
[Rosa]: I expected a fat man. No, no, no. And older, but you’re a little baby, as we say. Yeah. [Laughs]
[Daniel]: Yes, she’s referring to me. She had never seen me in person, not even a picture of me. We had only talked on the phone and I had told her that I was a journalist. Rosa is from Honduras. She’s fifty-odd years old and 30 years ago she immigrated to the US.
We’re in Hempstead, where she lives. An area in Long Island, in the suburbs of New York. It’s just after 5 am and we’re walking fast…
[Rosa]: And how are you?
[Daniel]: Fine, fine. I got here without any problems.
[Rosa]: Oh, sorry…I made you…I’m going to make you run!
[Daniel]: No, no, no. Don’t worry.
[Rosa]: I’m always walking like this. Because I can’t get out of the house earlier, because I have a pet and a mission: I feed all the little alley cats.
[Daniel]: Rosa is a domestic worker. They day we met, I went along with her to one of the houses she cleans. It’s a two hour trip. You have to take two buses and a train to get there. She does this four times a week. Rain or cold…
[Rosa]: It’s really hard.
[Daniel]: Day after day after day
[Rosa]: You get tired, you really do. I’m already tired. I get home in the afternoon and there comes a moment when I tell me daughter, “I’m gonna pass out.”
[Daniel]: But Rosa doesn’t rest. She can’t. She’s not only supporting herself, but she has to take care of her daughter and four grandchildren, who are in Honduras.
[Rosa]: I send them money for food, $160 for food. I send that $160 dollars two days a week. Monday and Thursday.
And on top of that there’s school and college. There’s money for transportation for the kids and their safety.
[Daniel]: You’ve probably already heard of this. Immigrants sending money back to their countries. The “remittances” you might’ve heard about it.
In 2016, remittances sent to Latin America and the Caribbean were in excess of 70 billion dollars. The highest figure ever recorded.
The case of Honduras is an example of how important this flow of money is. In 2016, remittances amounted to more than $3.9 billion dollars. It was the primary source of income in the country, ahead of exporting coffee and manufacturing. More than 80% of that income is sent from the US, where more than a million documented and undocumented Hondurans live.
And well, the numbers are surprising, but I wanted to understand more deeply how this money affects people’s lives. The story of Rosa and her family shows that, sometimes, this money…means the world.
Like thousands of Central Americans, Rosa left Honduras in search of a better life for her children. She worked at a chemical plant and she made $7 dollars a week. Her husband spent most of their money on alcohol. The situation was very precarious.
[Rosa]: What I wanted with all my heart was for my children to go to school. That they not end up like me. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t get an education. And I thought once we got to the United States, everything would be different for them.
[Daniel] Before leaving Honduras, she asked some of her husband’s relatives if she could stay with them in Brooklyn. On top of that, she asked her brother to loan her 500 lempiras —about $250 US dollars at the time—. Later, she met up with a family of 11 that was going to make the journey on foot with a coyote.
She went without her children. She left them with her mother. The plan: when she got a job in the US, she would send her money to take care of them.
[Rosa]: Because I knew that there were 4 children who needed food, clothes and shoes.
[Daniel]: And it has been like that for 30 years.
Her children grew. One moved to the US and lives with her. The other three are in Honduras. Rosa tells me she still sends them money. But now she only pays all of the expenses for one of her daughters and her 4 children, because her daughter is in an impossible situation.
Impossible and quite common, unfortunately.
A gang has moved into her neighborhood.
[Rosa]: The gang members are in charge. They check people’s cars. If they don’t like someone, they pull that person out of their car. My daughter, for taking care of her girls, has even received threats.
[Crying] They told me that the gang members are outside of the house selling drugs. And I’m afraid they’ll take my girls or do something to the boy.
[Daniel]: Rosa describes it literally like a hostage situation.
And if you listen to the news, in a way, you can imagine it.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORTS)
[Journalist]: The battle for territory between gangs and confrontations with the police have turned many sections of San Pedro Sula into a no man’s land.
[Journalist]: The structures they’re fighting against are so powerful that part of the population remains overcome.
[Journalist]: Pandilla 18 gave the residents of two densely populated neighborhoods a 24-48 hour period to vacate their homes.
[Journalist]: At least 4,500 minors dropped out of school in 2013, almost all have done so due to harassment from the gangs.
[Daniel]: Honduras’ situation is not isolated, of course. The three countries that together are known as the “Northern Triangle”—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras—are all competing for the title of most violent country in the world.
In 2013, it was Honduras. They had a murder rate higher than 77.6 people killed per 100 thousand. Some years are lower, but the figures are horrific. Always.
Studies from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other organizations point to poverty, the drug trade and gangs as the source of the problem.
And when you hear Rosa’s family’s situation, you wonder, what must daily life be like in a place that is practically consumed by violence. In a place like her daughter’s neighborhood. To what extent is it possible to have a normal life? With the things we take for granted: going out to buy groceries, kids going to school, parents going to work…
I went to Tegucigalpa in June of last year to meet Rosa’s daughter: Let’s call her Amalia. For safety reasons we aren’t using her real name. She lives in a neighborhood not too far from downtown, but she preferred that we meet at my hotel, so as to avoid any risk.
She arrived with two of her daughters, who are still in school.
This is Amalia.
[Amalia]: Before it was peaceful in the neighborhood. Everyone knew each other, everyone who lived here had lived here our whole lives.
[Daniel]: But a few years ago a gang called Mara Salvatrucha moved in. And they started to establish a kind of government. A control.
[Amalia]: The members of the gang say they’ve looked into all of us: who we live with, uh, who visits us, they have pictures of us, where we go, when we come home, when we leave, who we come home with, who we leave with.
[Daniel]: An authoritarian government.
[Amalia]: Sometimes, if a person comes in on foot and not in a car, they lift up their shirt to see who they are, if they have tattoos, if they’re from…Pandilla 18.
[Daniel]: La Pandilla 18, or Barrio 18, is a rival gang. And if a member of that gang goes into the neighborhood, they wind up dead. Plain and simple. It’s a way of maintaining control over a territory.
And thousands of families are caught in the gangs’ crossfire. That changes the dynamics inside the neighborhood. Normal, everyday things all of a sudden become high risk scenarios.
For example, the mere fact that a child goes to school in a rival gang’s neighborhood could result in threats. Or worse.
And there are also situations like Amalia’s…
It happened in December a few years ago. She was walking with her daughter across a bridge that leads into the neighborhood.
[Amalia]: When I see that there’s a taxi parked there, I turn around and I only took two steps when I could feel a car…tear through me.
[Daniel]: She was sprawled out on the ground.
[Amalia]: I said, “No…I’m fine, nothing happened to me.” I tried to stand up…and I couldn’t. When I tried to stand up for the second time, I saw my foot practically torn from my…from my leg.
So I got really upset, and I started to shout and cry.
[Daniel]: The taxi had stopped. The driver was a young man.
[Amalia]: And I asked him…why he had done that. At the time he didn’t say anything. Right then, he didn’t wait for the police to come.
He put me in the taxi he was driving and took me to the hospital. On the way, I asked him why he had done it. And all he said was: “Listen, lady”, he says, “If it wasn’t you, it’d be me”.
[Daniel]: A gang member.
[Amalia]: So the way I understood it was they told him: “Do something to her.” Because here, in order to go up the ranks in the gangs, you have to kill.
[Daniel]: It was a test. He didn’t kill her, but he showed the others in the gang that he was willing to do it.
Imagine living with that kind of senseless violence.
Amalia was in the hospital for several months. They had to operate from the knee down to the ankle. Her leg was in very bad shape. It’s very hard for her to walk and it makes it hard for her to work. So now she takes care of her children at home.
And as for reporting it to the police, things get complicated. They aren’t constantly patrolling these neighborhoods; but, on top of that, it’s common for many police to be viewed as accomplices to the gangs.
For example, in early 2017, it was discovered that nearly 100 officials with the National Police gave weapons to Salvatrucha and Pandilla 18.
[Amalia]: They’re involved with the gangs themselves. The military, the police…So you don’t feel confident filing a report. That’s the fear. You have to keep your mouth shut in this country.
[Daniel]: Her father and her brother confronted the man who ran her over in order to make him responsible for her hospital bills. And a few days later.
[Amalia]: He came practically with six…six thugs to my brother’s house to intimidate him. And he told them he didn’t have any money, that…that he couldn’t help me. He wanted my brother to sign a paper we he had given me…he only have 3,000 limpiras.
[Daniel]: A little more than $125 US dollars. Obviously, it wasn’t enough. But…
[Amalia]: So, to keep my kids safe, it was better for me…I didn’t proceed with the suit.
[Daniel]: And this gangster continued to be her neighbor.
[Amalia]: I had a run in with him a short while back. And what he told me was he was going to…he was going to run me over again. So, I can’t… I can’t report him because I’m scared…of something happening to my kids. Because he knows all about them.
I don’t let him see that I’m afraid. But I am. And I’m afraid that he’s going to do something to them.
[Daniel]: After our conversation, that same afternoon, Amalia agreed to let me come see her neighborhood. We went in a taxi with a driver that the family trusts. And we go in, like in all neighborhoods controlled by gangs, with the windows down. So they can see your face, so they know you’re not in another gang.
It’s a typical Tegucigalpa neighborhood. It’s on the bank of the river. There’s only one way in. The streets are unpaved. The houses are varied, which is to say, there are modestly built, two-story brick houses with gates…right next to small houses like Amalia’s. It has a calamine roof, as we say in my country. In Honduras they say zinc or can metal. Its green paint is wearing off and Amalia showed me how high the water from the river had reached when it overflowed during Hurricane Mitch, 20 years before. It was nearly up to my head.
They had a brave dog that barked frantically from inside. For protection, I imagine. And while we talked —Amalia, her son and I— they pointed out to me that gang members were already scoping us out from the street corner.
“That one” they said signaling with the corners of their eyes, “but don’t look. Don’t turn around.”
We left in a matter of minutes.
In such a suffocating situation, well, you start to understand why people leave. Why they emigrate.
The young people who make it to the US come from neighborhoods just like this one. But Amalia’s kids, Rosa’s grandchildren, told me they don’t want to leave. Not at all.
They want to build their lived here, in Honduras.
But then, why not move to another neighborhood?
[Amalia]: Because of the economic situation. We don’t have the money to pay for a house. And…and at least where I live, it’s an inheritance from my dad.
[Daniel]: And on top of that, she seemed pessimistic. She told me the situation is the same all over the city, in any neighborhood she could flee to. And it appears she’s right. The data confirms it.
In 2015, it’s estimated that 222 neighborhoods and suburbs of Tegucigalpa and Comayaguela were under a gang’s control.
And at least in her neighborhood she knows people. She has friends and relatives.
[Amalia]: If I have a problem, I go to my neighbor. I know they’re there. If I go somewhere else it’ll be worse.
[Daniel]: With no options left, Amalia has come up with methods, strategies to try to protect herself. Her and her children. For example…
[Amalia]: We don’t tell people that we have family in the US.
[Daniel]: And when she takes out the money her mother sends her.
[Amalia]: Sometime we are very careful, we change banks.
[Daniel]: So the gang won’t know where she goes to take out the money in case they’re watching her.
[Amalia]: We go out at simply as possible. We can’t…we can’t really get dressed up. Sometimes I bother a…a guy who has a car that’s like his private taxi.
[Daniel]: Also her children go to a private school, far from where they live, which ends up being rather expensive for them, with the small amount of money Rosa sends them. But they do it because, for Amalia, her children’s safety is the number one priority.
The whole system operates on trusted people. The same taxi I rode to the neighborhood in is the one that takes the girls to and from school. They never take cars from off the street.
And well, this is the bubble that Amalia has built around her family to keep them on the sidelines of this violence.
[Amalia]: I’m an overprotective mother. They must get angry a lot because they have to want more freedom, like other girls or boys. But it’s because we’re living in a country where you can’t…you can’t trust anyone anymore.
[Daniel]: Amalia talks to her mom every day. She knows about her race in the morning to take the bus to work. She knows about the pain in her back and feet…Maybe she doesn’t know everything. How hard it is to walk several blocks before the sun comes up in the rain or winter cold…how humiliating the work can be, the constant feeling of precariousness that Rosa deals with. That they can fire her, and the economic stability she had managed to build up on her own could vanish in an instant. It’s always been that way. Ever since Rosa arrived in the US.
[Rosa]: My first job was taking care of a girl. I was there for more than a year. But I had problems, because as the months went on, she wasn’t paying me, and what she offered me was turning me into migration authorities and saying that I had stolen clothes when, thank the Lord, I’m poor but I’m very honest. And she did it so she didn’t have to pay me. And she didn’t.
[Daniel]: A year of work and she didn’t pay you?
[Rosa]: No, she didn’t pay me for 6 months. At the time my children were going hungry. My family said that I was bad mother because I wasn’t sending money.
[Daniel]: And there was something I realized speaking with Rosa, and you can hear it in her voice…
[Rosa]: I’m not a bad mother because everything I have earned has been for my family up to now. Now I am fighting for my grandchildren, so they can graduate and move on with their lives.
[Daniel]: The guilt she feels. For having left. For having left her children when they were so young. Rosa knows why she did it: because she had to do it. But still she remembers those first months in the US, living in a small apartment in Brooklyn that she shared with other immigrants, looking for work. And the guilt she felt. That she still carries to this day…
That is part of the reason she sends money. It’s why she spends hours on the phone.
[Amalia]: Sometimes we only talk 15-20 minutes. Sometime we do vent and we talk for up to an hour. I tell her “Hold on, I’m going to borrow a phone card so we can keep talking,” and we keep talking.
[Rosa]: She cries and I tell her. “Mami, thank God that you’re alive to care for your children.” She tells me “but I’m not who I was before.” And she is in danger. And I tell her not to say anything. I even say: “like the Americans say: silence. Don’t say anything.”
There are days when I feel tired and sick but I leave it all behind for my grandchildren.
[Daniel]: And well, even crying, Amalia doesn’t tell her mom everything.
[Amalia]: Because she would worry more. She doesn’t know how a lot of things in this country are.
[Daniel]: And that’s how things are: two women, two generations, in two countries. Each one protecting the other from all the details. Not to worry them.
We’ll be right back.
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In the US, this is what you hear about Honduras: gangs, violence, migrant children. A country that’s casting out young people.
Before going there, I spoke with a lot of people: Hondurans in New York, in California, experts and analysts, diplomats, people who work and live in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. I asked all of them for the same thing, a little guidance: What should I look for when I visit the country?
And they always, always repeated to me that my biggest concern should be safety. My safety. Rosa herself warned me about it.
[Rosa]: I’m happy for you to meet my family, to meet my grandchildren and see my daughter. It’s like I were going to see them. But my daughter tells me that you need to be very careful, that we have to take care of you. That I need to tell you what you need to do.
[Daniel]: I wanted to tell a different story. And I couldn’t: it seemed like there was no other story. Plain and simple. There’s no issue more important to Hondurans than this one.
The insecurity they feel defines their politics, their culture, how they interact in the street. It limits what you can do on the day to day. Where you can go and with whom. In the long term, it can define the course of your life. The impact is incalculable.
Perhaps the place you can see it most clearly is in San Pedro Sula, the largest city in Honduras. The most violent.
At first glance, well, I should be honest: you don’t notice it. I mean, yes, there’s barbed wire on every house with walled in yards, but you see the same thing in Lima or Buenos Aires. There are guards, men with pistols and rifles in front of the restaurants, taquerias, bars and shops…But you get that in Mexico City or Bogota.
What many people in San Pedro told me is that you live—or rather, some people manage to live— in a parallel city. If you’re middle-class you can go months without seeing anything, not even hearing the rumor of the violence that so many people fear. You automatically take precautions without thinking about it.
That’s how a lot of people in San Pedro live. As if it were a normal city. Because of course, it is a normal city. In Latin America we have learned to live with insecurity, with such constant threats that they stop feeling like threats. No, it’s for nothing that of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, 40 are in Latin America. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary anymore.
Until the day you can’t ignore it.
[Ramón Barrios]: Ramón Barrios, university professor, professor of Penal Law, Constitutional Law, uh, Criminology…
[Daniel]: I met Ramón at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, at its headquarters in San Pedro Sula. It was stiflingly hot. The air was thick.
[Ramón]: Former sentencing court judge of 13 years, and…and one more citizen of this country.
[Daniel]: Former judge because he left his job shortly after the coup in 2009.
The day I visited his class, he was talking to his students about Greek philosophy. The students were all paying close attention, despite the heat.
And well, Ramón told me a story.
It starts with a streetlight not so far from his house. At an intersection that he goes through almost every day, on his way to work.
[Ramón]: Imagine you’re in any city in Latin America, a boy is selling newspapers at a streetlight.
[Daniel]: I’m sure you’ve seen that, at a stoplight not far from your house, whatever city you live in. Somehow or another you know this boy. Then…
[Ramón]: I buy the paper from a boy, I always do. And the other day I saw him wearing a new watch. This boy is 10 years old. This was two months ago. And so I ask him…why he had that new watch, that it was really nice.
And he told me: “My dad left it to me.” “And what happened to you dad?” I say, “why did he give you that watch?”
“He died yesterday. They killed him. When I went in for them to give me my dad’s body, what they gave me was this watch. So I understand that it’s an inheritance from my dad.”
That was the previous day. The next day, the boy was doing what he does every day: sell newspapers
[Daniel]: Ramón felt cold. Paralyzed. Then, there at the streetlight, the boy told Ramón his daily routine.
[Ramón]: He had to be there at 3 in the morning, because that’s when the papers are distributed. That boy, that 10 year old, is awake even before that, I mean, he had to be there at 3 am.
So he tells me that from 3 to 10 in the morning he sells newspapers every day. Then at 10 he closes his little shop, his newspaper window, and goes home to his mother, he gives her the money because at 12 he goes to school. He goes from 12 to 6 in the afternoon.
And at 6 he goes back because his mom sells pastries and he has to walk around his neighborhood from 6 to 8 selling pastries. And he told me proudly that now he’s the man of the house. But he doesn’t want to stop going to school. And he says he dreams of continuing to high school and coming here to the university.
In Honduran society that’s inspiring.
[Daniel]: It’s…amazing. It’s…I mean, that boy is a hero.
[Ramón]: And there are lots of kids who are heroes in Honduras, believe me. That is to say, growing up in these conditions in Honduras…here there is a multitude of heroes and…and..and.. And this is… If you go to any of other cities in Latin America you’ll find kids who are heroes.
[Daniel]: I believe it. A boy’s story in 90 seconds: his father dies, the next day he’s already working. He’s the man of the house at 10 years old. He dreams of going to college.
I came to Honduras by bus from Nicaragua. Hours looking out the window at such beautiful Central American countrysides: valleys of nearly phosphorescent green, and the horizon, mountains covered in dense, verdant, tropical trees. It was a journey that conveyed absolute peace.
Or well, almost. Because with everything they had told me about Honduras, all the fear they had put in me, I couldn’t stop thinking: How can such a beautiful place be so frightening?
My first night in Tegucigalpa, my friend, Jorge, invited me to dinner and we ended up at the house of another friend of his, in a neighborhood high on the hill, with a view of the city. All the lights shimmering there below, a beautiful sight.
And I had the same questions that night, while I looked out from the terrace.
That is to say: I knew I was in a dangerous city. But from there, from that terrace, it didn’t feel like it.
The dinner was not in my honor, or anything like that. It was a different occasion, the owner of the house was…
[Fernando Rey]: Hello, my name is Fernando Rey, Fer King. I’m a composer, singer-songwriter, musician, creative producer… And beside that I am a writer, a journalist.
[Daniel]: Well, Fernando lives in a musician’s house. Clearly. The front room is full of instruments, equipment, microphones, speakers, a half-assembled drum set. It was a noisy house, but a happy noise. A lot of laughter. With friends and children running around.
And when I got there, Fernando was preparing dinner for everyone.
[Fernando]: Well, uh, I called you all here and organized a…a friendly get-together. Uh, a small dinner, wine, some beers.
[Daniel]: But he had a specific reason for the get-together that I didn’t know about in the beginning. We were on the second or third bottle of wine when they told me about the song. We were there because Fernando needed us to sing. A chorus.
[Fernando]: A chorus that basically is made up of people who are indignant, if you could say that.
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE SONG “PURA MIERDA” [“PURE SH*T”])
[Song]: Pure sh*t!
[Fernando]: It’s a song of confidence. I believe it’s a song that tries to say what a lot of Hondurans are thinking and don’t dare to say.
[Daniel]: I’m a bad singer. Really bad. But Fer King, Jorge and everyone else assured me that we weren’t trying to sing well. But rather, to sing with emotion.
The chorus—what the others and I would be singing— went like this.
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE SONG “PURA MIERDA” [“PURE SH*T”])
[Song]: …And egotism: It’s made of sh*t! And your machismo: It’s made of shi*t!
[Fernando]: We’re tired. Tired of the lies, of the demagoguery, of the hypocrisy, of the moral duplicity. And of…of so many things, you know, I think that this song, well, it says it better than anyone. It’s a direct, visceral song… It’s violent.
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE SONG “PURA MIERDA” [“PURE SH*T”])
[Song]: It’s made of sh*t. Poetry…
[Fernando]: The atmosphere was really nice, really warm. Everyone worked really well together and knew what they were going for. And then, well, over there some people were nervous because they thought all of a sudden they weren’t going to be able to sing well and I told them: “Ok, it doesn’t matter how you sing. What matters is that you sing and have fun. So we’re going to have fun.”
[Daniel]: It was fun.
But I don’t know if I sang well that night. If my voice did anything. But I am still aware of one thing that remains very clear to me. It wasn’t easy to shout that chorus. Because I didn’t feel it. I had just got there. I still didn’t understand, at a visceral level, what living day to day in neighborhoods controlled by gangs is like. I hadn’t seen or talked to people who live terrorized by the police, or who have stopped believing in politicians or in their electoral process. People like Amalia.
I hadn’t understood the sacrifices that people make to get out. Or how they feel, sometimes, that their life is nothing more than a conspiracy against their dreams.
I hadn’t walked in downtown Tegucigalpa, with the feeling that someone was following me, taking in how such constant paranoia builds up and weighs on your shoulders: the stress manifesting as an aching muscle.
Now, when I look back on everything I saw during those three weeks in Honduras, I think that if I had been asked to sing the same song at the end of my trip, I would have given it my all.
This story was produced by me with help from Luis Fernando Vargas and edited by Camila Segura. Sound design is by Ryan Sweikert.
Many thanks to Jorge Andino and Jennifer Ávila. The fact-checking is by Daniel Villatoro.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Andrés Azpiri, Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Laura Pérez, Ana Prieto, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Silvia Viñas. Carolina Guerrero es la CEO.
Radio Ambulante in produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.