I vary my routes. I try not to fall victim to the permanent sense of danger that hangs over the capital, where the conversation is invariably about whose relative was just killed, or what atrocity happened on the corner. Yet I constantly check the rear and side mirrors of Jose’s car for approaching motorcycles. Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, and paid gunmen almost always travel by motorcycle to make a quick getaway through impossible traffic.
The violence is a stark contrast to the friendly feel of a land where many have a Caribbean attitude about life, happy and easygoing. Once you leave the cities, the landscape is amazing — wild, healthy, and savage, from the waterfalls of La Tigra National park, just half an hour from the capital, to the islands of the Caribbean and the world’s second largest coral reef.
Our babysitter, Wendy, sells Avon products door-to-door to make extra money after her child’s father disappeared on his clandestine journey to the U.S. to find work.
Last month, she was on her way to deposit her Avon earnings in the bank when a robber pointed a knife at her waist and told her to hand over the cash. He took 5,000 lempiras — about $250 — which was everything she had earned, including the money she owed Avon.
Again last week, Wendy encountered thieves, this time as she left my house about 7:30 p.m. Half a block away, she passed a group of basketball players just as three gunmen threw them up against a wall, stealing their money and phones. ‘‘They looked like police,’’ she said of the gunmen.
Two days later, a neighbor in her poor barrio of ramshackle huts and dirt roads was robbed by an armed drug addict. The neighbor escaped, went home for his own gun and returned to kill the drug addict. ‘‘Police thanked him for the favor,’’ Wendy said.
My best friend here is a man named German who studied art and opened a tattoo parlor with a business partner. They were talented and developed a good clientele, particularly among youths looking to leave the street gangs and get rid of the signature tattoos. German learned how to convert numbers such as 18 into pirate ships, and to turn other gang symbols into random designs. He saw this as a kind of social service, removing a stigma from the skin of a gangster who wanted to return to civilian life, and he asked to borrow a camera of mine to take pictures of their work.
Some days later, German’s partner was walking home when a black car drew near. He tried to run until the front-seat passenger screamed at him to halt. ‘‘Get in and put this on,’’ the man said, handing him a black hood.
They took him to a dark room where they removed the hood and claimed he spied on them. They tortured him for several hours before letting him go, with a broken rib.
My friend closed his shop and moved to a new house. He knows they are looking for him.
German comes from a family of means. Here, violence is democratic.
Honduran officials receive aid from the U.S. to fight the trafficking of cocaine headed for the U.S. market. The country has 640 kilometers (400 miles) of northern Caribbean coastline, with plenty of tree cover and great uninhabited stretches for moving drugs. It is flanked by the port town of Puerto Lempira in the east and San Pedro Sula in the west.
While Hondurans blame their police for much of the crime, police say they are overwhelmed and outgunned by the drug traffickers and criminals. AP photographer Esteban Felix and I decided to see this for ourselves, and rode with police in San Pedro Sula, the country’s largest and wealthiest city.
In one night, we saw the bodies of two bus drivers who had been killed for refusing to pay a cut to gangs, a police officer executed on a highway with a single shot to the head, and three people shot dead in a pool hall for what was described as ‘‘a settling of accounts.’’
The hospital emergency room looked like a scene out of a civil war, with mop-wielding orderlies failing to keep up with the blood pooling on the floor.
The owner of the bus company urged his employees to remove the drivers’ bodies and collect the fares from the bloodied bus before police did. Once again, I made the mistake of asking a question, this time of the owner of the bus company. He turned in anger and ordered me not to publish what I had seen, while asking me repeatedly, ‘‘Where are you staying?’’
Needless to say, I did not stay the night in San Pedro Sula.
I returned to the capital, which, despite the violence, has become my home. My two-year-old daughter can say Tegucigalpa — which is not easy. And every time she sees the flag, she waves and says ‘‘Honduras,’’ as she was taught in her preschool.Continued...