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San Pedro Sula, Honduras: Nearly a War Zone

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Author: Sarah Kinosian


In December 2014 the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) and Center for International Policy (CIP) traveled to Honduras to investigate how the country is responding to the needs of its citizens. This is the fifth post in a series of seven detailing what we found. See here for the entire report.

For the fourth year running San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city, has earned the title of most dangerous place on Earth outside of a war zone, with a 2014 murder rate of 171 per 100,000 people.

Entire blocks of the city are abandoned for fear of gangs. Nearly every citizen is forced to pay what has come to be known as a “war tax,” or extortion fees to the various street gangs that have overtaken the city.

The morgue says staff can barely perform autopsies fast enough to keep up with the number of bodies coming in. There is a tremendous backlog of work and a lack of equipment, staff and training make carrying out the heavy caseload nearly impossible.

Source: Reuters/Edgar GarridoSource: Reuters/Edgar GarridoMany corpses end up in mass graves, either because they cannot be identified or their loved ones fear gang reprisal if they claim them. The morgue has a room with a wall covered with the faces of those disappeared. Source: Reuters/Edgar GarridoWhile most victims have been shot, more and more bodies are being found tortured and tied up in plastic bags. Those killed tend to be young men, but more female victims are coming in this year than before.

The violence in San Pedro Sula has overwhelmed local institutions, making the city a hub for impunity. Poorly trained police with limited resources cannot keep up with the skyrocketing murder rates. An estimated 97% of all homicides in San Pedro Sula go unsolved, not including the crimes that go unreported. A forensic analyst told us that crime scenes are often not preserved and investigations fall short.

The grave situation in San Pedro Sula is largely a result of criminal violence between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs. The Honduran newspaper La Prensa reports the city is split relatively evenly between the two.

According to the San Pedro Sula Violence Observatory, Mexican cartels from the Sinaloa and Michoacán states complicate matters by contracting some of the city’s smaller gangs waging war on the MS13. The problem started around 2000, when the government criminalized gang membership, causing the bigger crime syndicates within Honduras and in Mexico and Colombia to offer protection, absorbing many of the members of smaller gangs.

The toll that this violence takes on the city can be felt. Many children are orphaned because their parents were killed or left to the United States to find work or flee the gangs. These children become prey for the gangs, who patrol schools to extort teachers, sell sex and recruit children to join their ranks.

Last year’s child migrant humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is a symptom of this dynamic. The majority of the more than 18,000 Honduran children apprehended at the border attempting to enter the United States were from San Pedro Sula. Upon return, the crime they intended to flee is typically waiting for them.  For the most part, they are offered no protection, according to the nongovernmental child protection agency Casa Alianza, which is able to offer refuge to only a tiny fraction of those in danger.  Two hundred children died from beatings, suffocation, or gun violence between January and September 2014, the city morgue’s forensic pathologist told the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.

According to LGBTI activists, transgender sex workers are targeted routinely by the gangs, pressured to sell quotas of drugs.  When they don’t reach the gangs’ quotas they are threatened or harmed, causing many to flee and undergo a dangerous journey made even more treacherous by being transgender.

A recent survey on perceptions of security suggests Hondurans are getting used to the sky-high levels of crime and violence submerging their neighborhoods – about 66.4% of Hondurans responded to feeling safe in their community compared to some 51% of respondents in Costa Rica, a country that registers much lower levels of violence and murder.

Contributing to the migration and devastating violence is a gross distortion in income distribution.  A recent report released by the World Bank found Honduras is among the ten countries on earth with the worst income inequality. The richest 10% of the Honduran citizens own more than 40% of the country’s wealth and continue to get wealthier. Two-thirds of the population of Honduras lives on $2.50 a day.

In San Pedro Sula, there are few economic opportunities outside of the maquila industry that once boomed. Although unions’ campaigns are gradually achieving small advances in workers’ rights, there are often too few or no bathroom or water breaks. Pregnant women are often harassed, and many workers are paid for their output, resulting in wages below the minimum wage.

According to a local crime reporter, the government touted the introduction of the Policía Militar or Military Police (PMOP). As the PMOP patrolled the streets in an area that citizens had abandoned due to fear, families began to filter back in, but then the Military Police were rotated out. The families fled again once violent crime returned. Because the Military Police is not the institution that could investigate or prosecute crime, underlying problems in San Pedro Sula’s worst neighborhoods are generally left unsolved.

Local civilian police forces salaries are low, and their rundown cars cannot keep up with the new, polished vehicles driven by organized crime members. At end of their shifts they are required to leave their weapon at the station. Last March, gang members viciously murdered a 34-year-old transit policeman, a father of two. His body was discovered decapitated. Without adequate funding, the muscle of civilian forces continues to dwindle, often leaving them defenseless against marauding cartels. Although police in Honduras have long histories of corruption and abuse, the frustration within civilian forces is palpable.Source: CIA World Factbook

Source: CIA World FactbookREUTERS/Daniel LeClairBoth the Military Police and civilian police face allegations of abuses and excessive use of force in San Pedro Sula.  Military Police responding to shots fired allegedly shot and killed a man, and wounded another man and a pregnant woman.  The pregnant woman lost her baby.  The survivors asserted that one of them had fired shots in the air to scare away thieves attempting a robbery as they were preparing favors for a baby shower in their house. Then the Military Police opened fire on them. After the shooting, the Military Police allegedly picked up the shells to clean up the scene of the crime before the regular police arrived.

The problem in San Pedro Sula does not just lie with law enforcement. The Honduran government is not investing in services that help its citizens. Not even primary schooling is available to all citizens. Fees for books and other services keep poor children from completing grade school.

To try and target the problems driving this violence, the Honduran government, along with Guatemala and El Salvador, has released its Alliance for Prosperity plan, designed to increase infrastructure and entice foreign investment. The Obama administration just announced it would ask Congress for $1 billion for Central America to help fund the initiative, but details about security strategy are scarce.

It remains to be seen exactly how this money will be spent. Looking at San Pedro Sula, a dramatic change in political will would be needed for any initiative of this nature to be successful. Funding could be helpful but only if there is a government willing to reform its police, push for justice and invest in education, jobs programs, violence prevention, health, child protection services, and community development needed to protect its poorer citizens.

This blog is re-posted from the Security Assitance Monitor.