Gang Violence in HondurasSan Pedro Sula, Honduras is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Thus, organizations and local leaders are combating gang violence in Honduras by helping young people find and make their own families.One teenager skateboards with friends he considers brothers. Another works on diagramming a family tree. Others join in soccer

One teenager skateboards with friends he considers brothers. Another works on diagramming a family tree. Others join in soccer games, or hang out at recreation centers. These activities have the same goal: to prevent gang violence from becoming a way of life for the next generation.

In a country where the maras, or gangs, recruit kids as young as 12, it becomes of vital importance that teens and youth find love and support elsewhere.  They want these kids to find support in their friends, families, and neighborhoods.

In the interest of halting gang violence in Honduras, USAID has partnered with local citizens to open nearly 50 outreach centers. Teens can go there to learn computer skills, play musical instruments, and participate in sports. Some outreach centers, like Casa de la Esperanza (House of Hope), organize movie nights and other events. The U.S. has also supported the clearing and revitalizing of 10 abandoned soccer fields to prevent gang violence in Honduras.

Fun activities, when combined with a confident leader, can form stable, even familial, bonds. The best example of this may be Jesse Recinos, who founded the club Skate Brothers. Recinos was nearly killed at the age of 16 after being wrongly accused of stealing from a member of a rival gang. In the aftermath of the experience, he decided to change his own life, and the lives of others, by bringing at-risk youth together to do skateboarding, BMX, rollerblading and breakdancing.

The club is about more than just busting tricks, and Recinos is more than just an instructor. He invites the kids to his house for meals and meets with their school teachers. Recinos is intent on keeping “his guys” away from gang violence and crime. He is at once a teacher, parent, and big brother.

Some programs focus on strengthening trust and communication inside the home, such as Proponte Mas, which offers counseling sessions to teens and young adults who are at risk for joining gangs.

Over the course of a year, the counselors work to reconnect the youth with separated family members. The separations typically occur either because violence has ruptured lines of communication or because relatives have migrated elsewhere.  Extended families draw closer together, offering the youth a strong support system to fall back on.

Being part of a family, the teens learn, also means being accountable. They are encouraged to do their schoolwork and to ask permission before leaving the house. Activities like the family tree diagram help spark an interest in family history. They learn to identify themselves as part of their family before any other group.

Sometimes, accountability to a family goes hand-in-hand with being able to provide for a spouse and children. Proyecto METAS, a program sponsored by the Education Development Center, was founded to provide unemployed young people, particularly at-risk youth or those who had left gangs, with skills they can use in the workforce. By March of 2017, the program had reached 56,000 youth and created 4,000 jobs and internships.

Tragedy still strikes frequently. Children die. Families flee. Moreover, the killers continue to walk away with impunity.  Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 60 out of 100,000 residents become homicide victims. Rampant corruption among the police and the government means that only 4 percent of these crimes result in convictions.

The American Justice Society (AJS), a Christian nonprofit association, is committed to halting gang violence in Honduras by putting these murderers behind bars. Its teams consist of a lawyer, an investigator and a psychologist, and they assist the government in building homicide and sexual abuse cases. AJS connects victims and witnesses to officials who are trustworthy.

One of the biggest challenges in prosecuting homicides is getting witnesses to appear in court. Witnesses who speak out, particularly against gang members, risk becoming murder victims themselves. The organization says that it can take anywhere from four to 15 visits to convince a witness to testify.

Psychologists provide emotional support for the victims and witnesses and their families. They go over testimony with the witnesses and give them exercises to calm their fears. In cases of sexual abuse, the psychologists continue to work with victims and their families even after the trial is over.

As criminals are put behind bars, halting gang violence in Honduras is, even more, dependent on the country’s youth. For things to truly improve, programs must expand their scope and work with youth who are already gang members.

Those who fight for the protection of human rights must also be kept safe. The U.N. has recently opened a new human rights office in Honduras, and is working to improve relations between human rights workers and the government.

Journalist Sonia Nazario, in a Sunday opinion column for the New York Times, urged the U.S. to put pressure on Honduras to spend more of its budget on violence prevention. She also brought up the problem that much of the aid that the U.S. sets aside for Honduras becomes caught up in U.S. bureaucracy and does not reach the nonprofits and local citizens who need it. There is still work to do. However, at least for now, progress has been made.

Emilia Otte
Photo: Flickr

gang violence

In March, El Salvador, a country that has been struggling to reinvent itself since its bitter 12-year civil war between Marxist rebels and the government ended in 1993, experienced the highest levels of gang-related deaths in over a decade.

According to the BBC, March was the deadliest month in El Salvadorian history since the end of the civil war — with over 11 percent of the population engaged in some form of gang-related activity. Much of this violence was, and continues to be, perpetrated by gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang, both of which have origins in Los Angeles, where they were founded by Central American immigrants. Following forced expulsion out of the United States and back to their home countries, these migrants then settled back into life in El Salvador — carving neighborhoods into various gang-controlled territories in the process.

In 2012, El Salvador’s main gangs signed a truce in an effort to end gang-sponsored violence, which initially saw a drop in gang-related death by 40 percent. Since then, however, gang activity has picked up again at an increasingly violent pace. Currently, El Salvador is on the path to becoming one of the deadliest peacetime countries in the world, with roughly 15 homicides occurring every day in the country of six million, according to PBS.

However, since March, there has been a slight decrease in the number of violent incidences. This is thanks to the efforts of private companies, which have begun to recruit former gang members as employees in an effort to help stall the surge of violence currently overtaking the country.

League Central America, for instance, is a private company that works stitching logos onto American University clothing, such as sweaters bound for Harvard and Brown. One out of ten employees at League Central America are former gang members, who mainly hail from the country’s most notorious gangs; the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha.

According to one employee, who went by the name Jorge, “There are lots of former gang members who want to change their lives but [don’t] have a way out…because of the lack of work, the poverty.”

Company boss Rodrigo Bolanos, however, stated that companies can help improve the situation, saying, “In the process of suffocating the economy and the country the private companies need to take a position to look for a dignified way out.”

In light of this, private companies like League Central America are making important strides in starting to help the country battle against increasing rates of homicide, by helping former gang members find a way out of poverty by offering them entrance jobs with the chance of upwards mobility.

Jorge has stated that he is eternally grateful to the company for offering him a way out of the gangs and gang violence — and a new chance at life.

Jorge, who only recently started working at the company, is now the chief pattern cutter.

Ana Powell

Sources: BBC 1, BBC 2, PBS
Photo: Flickr

buenaventura_colombiaBuenaventura, Colombia, home to approximately 300,000 residents, has consistently been ranked one of Colombia’s (and South America’s) deadliest cities. It is home to the nation’s highest homicide rate at 144 murders per 100,000 people—more than seven times the rate of the nation’s capital, Bogota. In this seaside port town, fishermen and gang members have lived together in a fatal balance for years, contributing to the town’s notorious reputation. In recent months, however, the level of violence has exploded, leading many residents to leave the city in search of a safer life elsewhere.

Colombia has been described by some as a country with two faces: one face is the Colombia of the elite and wealthy, while the other is a Colombia marked by violence, gang lords and a vicious drug trade. Once considered too dangerous for visitors due to a brutal civil war between various factions of the government and paramilitary groups, which began in 1964, Colombia has since cleaned itself up, with major cities like Bogota and Medellin now considered hot-spots for tourism. Despite massive improvements that have benefitted the country in recent years, as of 2013 an astonishing 30.6 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Colombia also remains the world’s largest cocaine producer, supplying 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.

Buenaventura, a port town located on the Pacific Coast, is a perfect example of the way in which these “two faces” can collide.

On the one hand, Buenaventura struggles with a legacy of violence that continues to characterize the culture of the city today. During the 1980s, the city was a battleground between leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, and right-wing paramilitary groups. When the FARC were driven out, paramilitary groups established themselves and began to engage in gang activity, helping to carve the city into rival gang territories and the port into an important regional focal point for the export of cocaine. According to a Human Rights Watch report, these groups have taken the lives of many Buenaventura residents, who are often dismembered in so-called “chop houses” for unwittingly crossing between gang territories.

On the other hand, due to its strategic location on the coast, Buenaventura has recently become the centerpiece of a government strategy to increase Colombian trade with Asian and Western countries on the Pacific, such as the United States, Chile, Mexico and Peru. To achieve this goal, the central government in Bogota has invested millions in development projects, such as the construction of a container port and industrial park, as well as the construction of a major waterfront development project that authorities hope will help attract tourism.

Residents, however, have argued that there is a link between the recent rise of violence in the city and the development projects. Locals, for instance, point to the fact that much of the violence has been concentrated in and has affected locals living in areas along the port. Residential habitation of the area obstructs government plans to turn the area into a tourist destination.

In response to protracted levels of violence in the town, which has recently received increased media attention, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos finally intervened last year, sending in an emergency infusion of cash as well as police officers from the capital.

According to Colonel Marcelo Russi, the police commander in Buenaventura, the added law enforcement has helped to dramatically reduce the murder rate and number of disappearances in the city. Alexander Micolta, the executive president of the Buenaventura Chamber of Commerce, however, has stated that not enough is being done to effectively eradicate violence from the city. “Here, everything that has to do with the port advances. But the city doesn’t advance,” Micolta said.

In order to save Buenaventura, it is evident that money invested in the city needs to be focused on protecting the people who actually live there instead of in efforts to attract foreign investment and tourist capital. Otherwise, the city’s long history of violence and gang activity will continue to perpetuate itself and invade every corner of the city once the police presence leaves. If that happens, then Colombia’s “two faces” will persist to rear their ugly heads in tandem in the country’s small, sea-side city of Buenaventura.

Ana Powell

Sources: New York Times 1, New York Times 2, World Bank
Photo: War on Want

Over the years, Colombia has rebuilt its image, moving past stereotypes of violence and drug lords ruling the country. Yet Colombia is facing setbacks in one of its main port cities, Buenaventura. Over 400,000 people call Buenaventura home, and yet more than 50,000 residents have been forced to leave during the last three years due to a myriad of reasons, including extortion and forced gang membership.

Colombia made efforts to build international relationships such as The Pacific Alliance, a group that attempts to unite Latin American countries like Peru and Chile with Asian countries to further their economic reach. Despite the steps forward, the signing ceremony took place in Cali, Colombia, as far from Buenaventura as possible.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the instability stems from a right wing paramilitary group, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), that vowed to put down their arms a decade ago. This would have served as a peace agreement, but many members struggled to survive and picked up the weapons again to fight for survival.

The citizens of Buenaventura struggle to find solace, with 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line and 30 percent below the rate of unemployment, according to The Economist.

To make this danger more tangible, in late June, Colombian police found another dismembered body in the style of gang “chop houses.” This is the 15th body found in such a mutilated state.

Analysts believe the aggression stems from warring drugs gangs with the intent to control the territory and infiltrate the drug trade between southeast Asia and Central America between the sub groups of the national neo-paramilitary groups “Los Rastrojos” and “Los Urbeños.”

These displays of violence are not uncommon as the people of Buenaventura attempt to quietly avoid the brewing conflicts.

It is unlikely that Colombia will reach any sort of economic and social stability as the gang-related danger continues to brew. The country cannot progress when nearly half a million people are forced to live in fear.

– Elena Lopez

Sources: The Economist, Columbia Reports, WSJ
Photo: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

The figures are striking: 2,594 murders in El Salvador, with a daily average murder rate of 7.11 in 2012. Since the announcement of a peace agreement between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang and Barrio 18 gangs, the murder rate has fallen slightly to 2,492 murders in 2013, only to rise once again. In December 2013, the number of murders rose to 208 compared to 168 murders in 2012.

What are some of the reasons behind this gang violence in El Salvador? After having a notoriously high murder rate in recent years, the government of El Salvador started a risky peace agreement after years of repressive anti-gang policies. The truce brokered by the government not only promised a halt in recruiting youth from schools but also promised to establish a “peace zone” within 11 municipalities in the country.

Many people have questioned the efficacy of the peace agreement, claiming that by not cracking down on the gangs they are only going to come back stronger. Furthermore, the gangs have stated that if the peace agreement fails they would begin to kill more people. This kind of pressure from the gangs against the government has only served to fuel more resentment from the public who fear the new negotiating power of the gangs.

The peace deal is also facing opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. President-elect Salvador Sanchez Cerén purposefully remained silent on the truce during the presidential elections for fear that promoting it would weaken his support-base. His opponent in the elections, Norman Quijano of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), had stated he would dismantle the agreement if he won the presidency.

Amidst this surge in crime, Church leaders in El Salvador have called on the government to renew the gang truce. Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres has stated his desire for action on behalf of Church officials in calling for a new peace deal.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: The Economist (1), The Economist (2), Federation of American Scientists