There are rules for living in the neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Everyone knows them: There are places you do not go without permission. When driving, it is best to leave the windows of the car down so gang members can see who is inside. And, it is safest to stay home after dark, leaving the streets to the armed men and drug dealers who kill easily.
Honduras’ second-largest city is where many recent caravans of migrants have formed to head north to Mexico and then to the United States. The people in the caravans are fleeing violence, poverty and corruption.
The northern district of San Pedro Sula is home to nearly 230,000 people. Just 50 police officers watch over its 189 neighborhoods.
The most dangerous neighborhoods are Planeta, Lomas del Carmen and La Rivera Hernandez. Police inspector Wilmer López says he has arrested gang members as young as 9 years old.
Police officers carry handguns, and soldiers armed with assault rifles follow them closely. “They make us feel safer,” López said.
On a recent night, reporters with the Associated Press joined police as they drove through some of the most dangerous parts of San Pedro Sula.
López said nine different gangs are known to operate in this part of town. They include the well-known 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Both formed more than 20 years ago in Los Angeles, California. They spread to Central America after the United States deported some of their members. The gangs grew into very violent transnational organizations that cause the high death rate and other crimes in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They are famous for the bodies and graffiti they leave behind.
On this night, the area is mostly peaceful. Police check identification cards at drinking places. But by 6 in the morning, police find the first body of the day -- just behind the Rivera Hernandez police station.
San Pedro Sula was the world’s most murderous city from 2011 to 2014.
At a small restaurant, news comes on the television that a man at a nearby tire shop has been killed. The man’s body appears on camera. People in the restaurant keep eating.
“People are not shocked when someone gets killed,” said Salvador Nasralla. He is a former opposition presidential candidate.
The National Civil Police say killings have dropped a lot nationally in recent years. In 2011, the rate was 86 killings for every 100,000 people. Last year, the rate was 41 per 100,000 residents. But the country still has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
In San Pedro Sula, some say violence has decreased since about 800 gang members got moved from a prison in the city to a prison in the western mountains. In the first prison, they continued to run their criminal dealings.
People from all over Honduras go to San Pedro Sula whenever a new migrant caravan is about to leave.
Lara is a 27-year-old laborer. He left San Pedro Sula, even though he had a good job there helping build a church. The gangs, he said, were trying to force him and his friends to join.
“They are collecting young people to work for them,” Lara said. He added, “it’s not voluntary, and if you say, ‘No,’ they kill you.”
Many Hondurans blame the country’s problems on President Juan Orlando Hernández. He was re-elected in 2018 even though the country’s constitution bans second terms. Hernandez promised Hondurans a “better life.” But he has been unable to deliver that promise for the country’s poorest and most endangered people.
The United States has threatened the Northern Triangle countries with security and humanitarian aid cuts if they do not stop the caravans of migrants. But, observers say the move could have an opposite effect if jobs and anti-poverty programs suffer.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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Words in This Story
caravan - n. a group of vehicles (such as cars or wagons) traveling together
graffiti - n. pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall, building, etc.
restaurant - n. a place where you can buy and eat a meal
resident - n. someone who lives in a particular place