Honduras: ‘We are burying kids all the time’*
By Rory Carroll
HONDURAS FIGHTING CRIME Maras revel in bloodshed. Nihilism permeates their rap songs and tattoos, including one with three points, symbolising hospital, prison, morgue. Photograph: AP
Merlin Rodriguez was never convincing as a gangster. She had the tattoos and affected the swagger but was too slight, too fragile, to really look the part. Troubled by rows at home, the 15-year-old drifted through the slums of Honduras and hung out with members of the “Dieciocho”, one of the most feared gangs in central America.
Merlin adopted the slang and body language, all slouch, loose limbs and attitude. Her dream was to be an actor, she told friends, and playing an apprentice gang member felt like a role. It was her first and last. One humid October night Rodriguez disappeared and a week later her body, near those of two other girls, was found half-submerged in a stream in the Manzanales mountains. Fish and vultures had destroyed her features; she was identified by her jeans and underwear.
Merlin’s brutal end was an authentic gangster’s fate: murdered and dumped, the corpse bagged by police and transported to the judicial morgue in the capital Tegucigalpa. Even for a place of death, it is grim. The morgue’s fridge is a battered, grubby container surrounded by rusting vehicles and weeds in a hospital junk yard. It seeps desolation. Inside the container yellowing feet poke from grey-white sheets. The faces are clammy masks, a shocking number are teenagers.
“I don’t know why my daughter died,” whispers Merlin’s father, Milton. “I don’t even know how she died.” He tries to answer questions but his voice cracks and lapses into silence. Friends said Milton was a devoted father who tried to broker peace between his strong-willed daughter and his second wife, Merlin’s stepmother. When Merlin ran away, he would find her, bring her home, try to start anew. Now his child’s remains were in a fridge filled with dead strangers and he had no words.
Rising Death Toll
What are the words for what is happening in Honduras? Slaughter, tragedy, waste? On average three young people are murdered daily – more than 1,000 a year. The annual death toll is almost 6,000, an extraordinarily high number, which makes this central American backwater of 7 million far more murderous than Mexico. “We are burying kids all the time,” says José Manuel Capellín, the head of Casa Alianza, a charity for street children. “It’s horrific, the figures are going up and up and up.”
Part of the explanation for the death toll is political. A rightwing coup that ousted president Manuel Zelaya last year is still being played out via assassinations of activists and journalists. But most are purely criminal and linked to the phenomenon known as “maras” – youth gangs that form a chain of drugs, extortion and violence stretching from Los Angeles to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Central America faded from the international news radar when its civil wars wound down in the 1990s but the gangs, with membership estimated at 70,000 to 200,000, are fuelling death rates to match the years of guerrilla and counterinsurgency slaughter.
Maras revel in a reputation for feral bloodshed and self-destruction. Nihilism permeates their rap songs and copious tattoos, including one with three points, symbolising hospital, prison, morgue. With those the destinations on offer, outsiders can wonder why anybody signs up.
“Drugs, guns, girls: it’s not a bad package,” grins Jorge Medina, a rake-thin, fidgety 17-year-old gangster. He is affable but hyperactive, or maybe he has consumed too much white powder. His eyes seem to track an invisible fly. “You may only last one or two years, but it makes you someone.”
Slums and Social Exclusion
Even for Latin America, Tegucigalpa’s slums are a sight – glue-sniffers sprawled on rubbish dumps, children begging amid potholes and sewage – but gangs rule turf like prized kingdoms. They levy a toll known as “peaje” on pedestrians and motorists and extort a “war tax” from businesses.
In addition to peddling drugs, they rob buses and raid rival fiefdoms. “That’s when the rifles and Uzis come out,” says Medina, forming his hand in the shape of a gun. Medina is not his real name: he is on the run after stealing 1.5kg of cocaine from the Dieciocho. “If they catch me, this,” he says, drawing a line under his throat.
Initiation rituals involve a group beating if the recruit is male, or having sex with everyone if she is female. Studies suggest 3% to 15% of youths in gang-affected communities join a gang, with ages ranging from seven to 30. An El Salvador study found that 61% joined to “hang out” with gang member friends, and 21% to escape family problems.
Machismo, narco-trafficking, social exclusion, plentiful weapons and the aftermath of war all sustain the mara phenomenon, but it landed with plane-loads of gangsters deported from the US. The two main groups, Dieciocho (Spanish for 18) and Salvatrucha, originated in LA and exploded in central America when Con Air dumped 46,000 convicts between 1998-2005.
Nicaragua was lucky: its emigrants headed for Miami, where black and Cuban gangs shunned central Americans, and the country remains an oasis of relative calm. LA’s more culturally open-minded gangs, in contrast, recruited the children of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Many had never set foot in central America until being deported.
Influx of Gangs links to descendents of LA Immigrants
With no family restraints, the arrivals proved much more brutal than traditional local gangs known as pandillas, says Dennis Rodgers, a University of Manchester anthropologist and mara expert. Rival gang members have been beheaded and burned – notably during prison riots – and bus-loads of civilians have been massacred to intimidate authorities and extort money from drivers. Suspected gang members dumped human heads in front of Guatemala’s congress along with notes telling the government to halt a crackdown on organised crime.
Successive governments responded with “cero tolerancia” and “mano dura” (hard hand), which means sending soldiers and police on raids into the slums, shooting gang members who “resisted arrest” and jailing others for long stretches. Mara members responded by hiding tattoos and wearing merely baggy as opposed to extra-baggy jeans but otherwise continued robbing and killing as before.
Briefly it seemed El Salvador would try something new. Mauricio Funes, a young progressive, swept to presidency last year promising change. Authorities would reach out to the maras and offer education, social welfare, jobs, hope, he said. A year later, in the wake of public uproar over mara violence, the experiment seems to be over and it is back to the mano dura. A post-coup government in Honduras has also set aside talk of “social development” and put Oscar Alvarez, a former justice minister with a hardline reputation, back on the job.
Casa Alianza estimates that in Honduras inter-gang clashes account for 40% of killings. Imagine Lord Of The Flies with cocaine and Glocks. Private security guards are estimated to account for 25%. These are poorly paid men – in some cases moonlighting police – who guard buses, liquor stores, supermarkets and other gang targets. In the crime-weary capital, shooting a suspect is more likely to earn applause than prosecution, so guards tend towards the trigger-happy.
Contract assassins – “sicarios” – account for 15%. For just a few hundred dollars, sometimes less, they will pump bullets into your problem. Some are gang members, some are police. Targets range from wealthy businessmen who have crossed a colleague to drug-sniffing kids bothering a neighbourhood. The fundamental problem, Capellín says, is the state’s inability to deter and investigate crime. “There is total impunity.” Of the thousands of youth murders in the past decade, fewer than 50 had been solved.
Links to Narco-trafficking
From Mexico down to South America, senior politicians and police commanders say the maras are links in the narco-trafficking chain and must be eradicated. But critics argue that the heavy-handed deployment of police and soldiers is a strategy that has failed across the region. “They talk about insecurity but tackle the symptoms and not the causes,” Capellín says. “What about families’ insecurity about food, health care, housing, work?”
“Gangs have become convenient scapegoats on which to blame the problems,” says Rodgers, “and through which those in power attempt to maintain an unequal status quo.”
He accused authorities of hyping the mara phenomenon. “I don’t think there is much coordination between them. They are local foot soldiers, hired guns for the cartels.” Rodgers scoffs at papers from US military colleges branding them a strategic threat and a Honduran government claim linking maras to al-Qaida. Roberto Barrios, an anthropologist of South Illinois University Carbondale, says despite their undoubted brutality, the maras had been turned into a “fetishised evil” to disguise states’ institutional failures.
Hyped or not, it was the mara phenomenon that ended Merlin Rodriguez’s young life. As a supposed “marera”, she could be deemed, according to some authorities’ self-serving logic, as one less gangster rather than one more murder victim. The cynicism is grotesque. Merlin, nicknamed Cumbia by friends because of her love of dancing, was not the type to inspire dread. After drifting through the slums of Danli, her home town, she migrated to the streets of Tegucigalpa and was taken in by Casa Alianza in February 2008. For a few months all went well. Rodriguez mixed with the shelter’s 150 other youths, helped paint a mural – friends point out her brush strokes – and was visited by her father. “Cumbia wasn’t loud or shouting for attention, but she always wanted to dance and sing,” says Patricia Lopez, 14.
An independent spirit – or maybe drugs – lured her back on to the streets, each time for longer stretches before she was reeled back in, each time more haggard. “She was emotionally unstable and had low self-esteem,” says Irma Benavides, a doctor who treated her. Members of the Dieciocho mara appeared to offer the companionship she craved. “I don’t think she was a full-fledged member, more a hanger-on.”
She drifted out of the shelter for the last time in summer 2009. By autumn she was spotted in a slum in Danli looking gaunt. By October she was dead. Exactly who killed her, and why, remains unclear. Her father did not know. Nor did Casa Alianza, though it had heard that two suspects were caught. Calls to the police did not shed light.
“I can’t tell you about her death, just about the girl I knew,” says Nelly Garcia, a social worker who tried to keep her off the streets. “Merlin was so young, so expressive.” Garcia slowly flips through a thin yellow folder with a few loose sheets detailing Merlin’s life. She gazes at the photo – a child with brown eyes and the trace of a smile – then snaps the folder shut. “We lost her.”