San 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