TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – In violence-plagued Honduras, even schools are no sanctuary.
In fact, officials here say, they tend to be a headquarters of sorts for gangs, who feel so comfortable and in control within the walls of a school that they often shake down teachers for money, and find most of their new members there.
Gang prevention police distribute U.S.-funded pamphlets on manners and anger management in about two thirds of the 130 public schools of Tegucigalpa. Gang members, meanwhile, circulate catalogues of their girls offering sexual services for sale.
It can't exactly be said that street gangs are recruiting in Honduran schools because gangs in Honduras don't need to recruit. In a country of limited opportunities, more schoolchildren want to join the violent Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street and other newly formed gangs than the illegal bands can absorb.
What can be said is that, just as they control most of the neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa, street gangs rule over most public schools in the capital. Gangsters are students and students are gangsters, as are some of their parents. The gangs lay claim to buildings with graffiti, and monitor the movements of police who are trying to monitor them. When the government sends in the military to control a neighborhood and its schools, the ruling gang may lay low for a time, but they can't stay quiet for long or competitors will move in, setting off a wave of violence.
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"The schools are a base of organization for the gangs, and the point through which all children in the neighborhood pass," said Lt. Col. Santos Nolasco, spokesman for the joint military and police force in charge of security in the country of 8.2 million people.
Gangs rely on kids to do much of their illegal grunt work, knowing that even if they get caught, they won't face long jail sentences. More than a third of the estimated 5,000 gang members with criminal charges against in 2010 them were under 15-years old, according to a 2010 study, the only study that examines age in gangs. This year, police say they have detained more than 400 minors for gang activity, including some as young as 12 years old.
Poorly educated students may have to repeat a grade several times before passing exams, and police say some gangsters intentionally repeat years just to hold onto illegal operations in a school — their means of making a living. As a result, kids between the ages of 11 and 17 may be in the same class.
While most gang violence takes place outside of school, there have been rapes and kidnappings inside, and extortion is rampant. In addition to setting up the occasional gauntlet, where a teacher has to cough up pocket money on the spot, gangs demand that educators pay 1,000 lempiras or about $50 a month, more than 10 percent of their salary.
"The extortion takes place through the school director, " said Liliana Ruiz, the Ministry of Education's director for Tegucigalpa. "They make an appointment with the director at the mall and he has to arrive with the money. In Honduras, the extortion has to be paid."
In many schools, the power of the gangs is omnipresent and once a gang takes control of a school, Ruiz said, the teacher has no choice. In many schools, a teacher has no choice but to get along with the gangsters, or ask to be moved. If a gang grabs a child from a classroom, most teachers know to keep quiet, even if the student is never heard from again.
"The fear is indescribable ... because these children are capable of anything," Ruiz said. "It is a climate of shocking desperation."
Yojana Corrales, a police officer with the capital's gang prevention unit, stops to speak with neighbors outside of El Sitio school for grades one through nine in northern Tegucigalpa, and immediately draws the attention of gangsters. One pulls up on a motorcycle, another on a bicycle, both carrying two-way radios, and they eavesdrop on her conversation.
"They're just checking up on what we're doing," Corrales explained.
With 15 years on gang details, Corrales is used to the scrutiny.
"We'll go into a school to hand out manuals and the gang will come in, take one and start reviewing it in front of us. They control what is said to the children," she said.
The front of the Jose Ramon Montoya Institute in eastern Tegucigalpa is painted with MS-13 graffiti, tags of the Mara Salvatrucha. Until recently, dozens of gangsters controlled the second floor of this primary and secondary school, using it as a base to sell drugs and organize girls into prostitution.
"They begin with a photo in the halls of the school. Afterward, they take her to a mall to buy her clothes. They give her a cellphone and pay for beauty treatments. If the girls want to get out of this, they're indebted for services rendered and receive threats," said Corrales.
The attraction for the girls, however, is that a 14-year-old can earn $500 a month in prostitution — more than a police officer's salary, Corrales says.
Last year, three students became pregnant after they were raped on the second floor of Montoya, according to a teacher. At the start of the new school year, officials called for protection, but when police tried to take control of the school, gangsters threw furniture at them from the second floor. Police then took a softer approach — stationing officers at every door to keep a close eye on students. The gangsters retreated.
For the time being, authorities are back in control of Montoya, including the newly repainted second floor.
"We painted the walls inside the school three weeks ago. They'll come put their tags on them again, and we will paint them again," said teacher Marcio Pastrana. It is a routine he knows well after 35 years at the school.
"There are more good kids than bad," Pastrana reflected. "We do everything humanly possible, but the problem isn't in school, it's in society."
Only about a third of Honduran school children live with two parents, according to administrators. Many of their parents have headed north to look for work in the United States, while others have been killed or simply left the household. Many students don't have enough to eat, or work for several hours before and after school to help support their families. They are surrounded by violence in a country with the world's highest homicide rate.
A majority of Honduran children see a limited future for themselves: work as a laborer, a taxi driver or perhaps as a bus conductor, collecting coins from passengers and earning far less than they might by selling drugs or wielding a gun for the gangs.
Many children leave Honduras out of fear or in search of opportunity in the United States, often long before they finish school. The school districts do not have global dropout numbers, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it apprehended 18,244 unaccompanied Honduran children in fiscal year 2014, up dramatically from the previous year, after rumors circulated that they were being allowed to enter the country.
School administrators say that teachers generally are more afraid of the gangs than the remaining students are, because so many children admire gangsters. In their eyes, the children of gang members are made, and in some neighborhoods, the offspring of two gang members, known as the "pure ones," are royalty. The gangs look for new members who have something to offer them: beauty, bravery or perhaps an empty house.
"An 11-year-old mentions at school that his grandmother has died and he can get the keys to the house that is empty," said Corrales. "The gang grabs the house and begins to use it, and that child doesn't get out of the gang."
Teachers, administrators and police acknowledge that the government's efforts to protect schools with military police and gang prevention programs are not yielding measurable results.
After the leader of a drug gang at the Republic of Panama School in the Buenos Aires neighborhood was killed in September, 20 gangsters were detained and their mates warned of reprisals. Thirty military police were deployed to provide protection, said Lt. Col. Nolasco. The result of the arrests, said a group of 11- to 14-year-olds, speaking on condition of anonymity, was more danger as another gang tried to muscle in.
"The situation is more complicated now," said a student.
Corrales, the gang prevention officer, arrived at the La Hera school in the northern neighborhood by the same name, on a recent afternoon to distribute her prevention handbooks and meet with the kids. Before she even got out of her pick-up truck, however, a group of children climbed into the back and put their hands behind their heads, mimicking detained gang members.
"This is the image of the gang leader," Corrales said. "The detainee is a somebody in the barrio, and those kids want to be a somebody."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.