The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, two criminal organization born in U.S. prisons, have helped turn neighborhoods like Chamelecon in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, into war zones that are among the most dangerous in the world for police to patrol.
With the late morning sun smoldering overhead, police captain Carlos Espinosa, a 23-year veteran of Honduras’s National Police Force, gripped the heavy stock assault rifle and peered out through the window of his patrol truck. Two skinny officers wearing heavy bulletproof vests were in the bed of the patrol truck.
“We are in MS territory … an area that’s a hotspot,” said Espinosa, a 43-year-old man with wide shoulders wearing imposing mirrored sunglasses, referring to the Mara Salvatrucha gang.
“The main problem is the dispute for territory,” between the Maras and Barrio 18, two criminal organization that have helped turn neighborhoods like Chamelecon into war zones and San Pedro Sula, the city Espinosa patrols, into the most violent metropolis in the world.
As the truck rumbled slowly over the bumps in the dirt road next to faded one-story cement houses, Espinosa pointed to a hollowed-out house that had tall grass growing in what was once a living room. “You can see in the houses there’s graffiti. Sometimes the gangsters have driven people out. It’s the way they operate.”
A few hours earlier Espinosa’s officers discovered a particularly grisly scene.
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Eight young men had been pulled from their homes and killed in the street by gang members.
“This is where it happened, this is where they killed them,” he said. There was no yellow police tape, nothing left to see.
For Espinosa, the violence in Chamelecon is a hyper-local issue, but one he sees as stemming from U.S. policies and the "exportation" of deported gang-members from U.S. prisons.
“After the deportations,” Espinosa said, "they started groups here and started to fight. It looked like a war zone.”
The truck rolled past a message of hope that somebody had painted onto the side of a building. “God is Loyal.”
“There’s a lot of poverty in Chamelecon,” Espinosa said. “There isn’t a lot of economic activity here there aren’t a lot of jobs in the gang-controlled areas,” he explained.
Under the bright lights of San Pedro Sula’s City Mall, while middle-class families shop at stores such as Tommy Hilfiger and Lacoste, Fernando Aparicio, a middle-aged economist and entrepreneur picked up a pair of neon Nike sneakers. “In San Pedro Sula,” Aparicio said, “15 percent of the population could buy these shoes. In the rest of the country it’s 4 or 5 percent. They cost $210 U.S. dollars, more or less…. A worker will never have the ability to buy these shoes.”
Still relying economically on agricultural exports and remittances from migrant workers who left for the U.S., Honduras has never developed a strong industrial sector.
“Most migration is economic,” Aparicio told FNL. “Education in rural areas is bad. People migrate to San Pedro Sula, but if they don’t find jobs they lose hope and go [to the U.S.].”
Over the last two decades, while Honduras has struggled to spur meaningful economic development, a perfect storm of unintentional side effects from U.S. policies have burdened the local government with new problems.
The U.S. deported large numbers of gangsters from the Maras and Barrio 18, two criminal organizations that originated in American barrios and prisons, even as the U.S. succeeded in shutting down drug-smuggling routes through the Caribbean.
Mexican and Colombian cartels shifted their smuggling efforts to Central America, a region still flooded with guns left over from the civil wars of the 1980s.
The arrival of hardened criminals from the U.S. along with cash-flush traffickers in need of local muscle has proved disastrous. Honduras reported 9,453 murders in 2013, a shocking figure for a country with just over 8 million residents. (In contrast, New York City, with a larger population, reported 333 murders in 2013.)
In 2014, the U.S. felt the effects of the crisis it helped create in Central America as tens of thousands of migrants from the region attempted to cross the Texas border.
U.S. President Obama’s proposed $4 trillion 2016 budget includes $120 million to help Mexico bolster security at its southern border and an additional $1 billion to help address the root causes driving migration from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
The proposed aid package includes $300 million for programs designed to train police, reduce crime and improve the criminal justice system.
Many in the Senate have balked at the aid package. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has noted that, "We've spent billions of dollars there over two decades and we've seen conditions get worse in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador."
While policymakers in the U.S. have squabbled over how much aid is too much, residents of these countries find their own unofficial, often illegal, solutions to the intractable problems in the region.
More than six million people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have already migrated to the U.S., and over the last 20 years they have sent home $128 billion dollars.
Cradling her baby on a hammock behind her house on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Jennifer García, a 22-year old mother of three, explained that she plans to leave her home and travel north to join her husband and kindergarten-age son in Texas. “It’s better there,” she said simply.
She sees no good prospects for herself in Honduras, only violence. “Three weeks ago a 28-year-old [neighbor] disappeared. He was a good guy, a deportee from the U.S. He was killed— Well, he disappeared. His body was never found. They just found his bicycle covered in blood.”
So García is working to sell her possessions and head north.
Eddy Salinas, a 31-year-old neighbor who had been listening to her, chimed in, “It’s worth taking the risk [to migrate] instead of risking your life here.”
Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @NathanielParish and Instagram: @nathanielparish.