The Truth about San Pedro Sula: Part II

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This cartoon, published in the July 31st issue of el Tiempo, refers to the current wave of liquidación in the Honduran government’s mad dash to sell off land, highways, and drilling rights. It reads:

Bargains! Get them before their gone!

Last week I wrote a post arguing that PBS had unnecessarily sensationalized and miscaracterized the violence in San Pedro Sula in its article “Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’ in City Called the Most Dangerous.” I have yet to receive a response to my message sent to the producers of The News Hour.

Although I am frustrated with the sensationalism that often surrounds cities like San Pedro, I want to make it clear that all is not well in Honduras—and certainly not in the northern industrial city of San Pedro Sula. Although the province of Cortes, where SPS is located, is surpassed in its homicide rate by the coastal region of Atlántida, SPS still is a rough and chaotic city where violence is all too common. This was made clear to me by a street scene I witnessed on Saturday morning, just a few hours before I left the country. After going out in search of breakfast—my favorite, a breakfast baleada and a fresh fruit smoothie—I was returning to the room where I had been staying at a church compound near the city center when two young men nearly ran me over as they crossed Avenida Junior. The light had just changed and one young man was nearly run over by a car that had started to advance. He made it across, but just barely. Two or three seconds later I was nearly toppled a second time by a young woman who was shouting and gesturing at the running boys. In a moment, I realized what was happening, the woman was screaming for help and shouting “¡Ladrones!” I watched as one of the boys turned a corner at the far end of the block but the young man who had crossed to the other side was not as lucky. A few men had managed to corner him and within seconds a group of pedestrians had managed to grab the boy of perhaps 17 years and hold him while the woman searched his pockets and retrieved what I would learn shortly thereafter was the cell phone that the teen had snatched from her ear as she conversed.

My first response was to breathe a sigh of relief for the woman, who, due to the quick work of those who had heard her, had been able to get back what belonged to her. But my relief quickly turned to concern and then anxiety as the woman began, encouraged by the bystanders, to deliver multiple blows to her assailant. Within moments the boy’s hands were bound behind his back and the blows continued but now some of the bystanders were taking turns. Soon he was on his knees and the woman who’d been robbed took turns with others, kicking him in the face and the torso. By now I was beginning to feel light-headed. I was feeling that strange embodied sensation of realizing that one ought to be doing something—anything but pacing in a small circle on the corner. And yet I felt paralyzed and self-conscious, afraid for my own pellejo should the crowd turn on me. I meekly suggested to another onlooker who stood next to me, “Look, this isn’t the way to handle things. Why doesn’t someone just call the police?”

The young bystander replied in a congenial tone, “Oh, don’t worry, the police are on their way but in the meantime. . .” and if he finished the sentence, I didn’t catch it and it didn’t matter because his point was clear: the kid needs to get what’s coming to him.

Someone else, someone with more courage and someone less skittishly self-aware, might have acted, intervening on behalf of the young boy. Although it is true that he was a “thief” caught in the act, this public beating was both cruel and unjust—a penalty far beyond the proportions of the crime itself, and dangerous to everyone involved. But there I stood, the  dithering gringo sociologist. Fortunately, the intensity of the beating began to subside and some of the bystanders began to go about their way. When I saw the boy stand up—still bound and now bloodied but conscious and walking—I decided that I could continue on may way as well. My room and the safety of the church compound were just steps away and I had been warned by multiple Hondurans that going out was risky. But several moments later, from the window of my upstairs room, I heard shouts again, this time from a auto-body shop across the street. “Let him have it! Attaway lady! Let’er rip!” The “police” had indeed arrived, only it was not actual police officers who had shown up but very young army soldiers dressed in fatigue. They held the boy, standing still so that the woman could get in a few more punches. A new crowd was forming and for the second time traffic was slowing to a stop while the scene unfolded. And then, a few moments later, the woman was on her way and the military pick-up had taken the boy. The shouts settled down and traffic resumed. “Justice” had apparently been served.

I tell this story here in part as a confession. I wish I had more courage in moments like these. But there is another facet of this experience I want to point out. This scene of street theater/justice is indicative of the frustration that exists in Honduran society today. Many Hondurans are so fed up with a corrupt and ineffective justice system that they believe it important to get justice whenever, and wherever one can. And participating in an event like this feels good. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine that there was a belief among the encouragers—who probably saw this as an opportunity for entertainment—that the victim had a “right” to take out her anger in physical aggression on the victim. That visiting blow after blow on her assailant would somehow make her “whole” again. Indeed, even the soldiers saw it as part of their duty or opportunity to begin the process of “justice” immediately. Theirs was not a duty to participate in a formal, circumscribed role within the legal process of delivering justice, but rather to help “teach the thief a lesson” right here, right now.  Doubtless, the military heightened its reputation in the whole event. The army has been growing in popularity as  one of the major presidential candidates has recently announced his plans to create a new military patrolling police of six thousand strong should he become president. Never mind that soldiers have zero training in gathering and processing intelligence—or for that matter in following legal procedures during an arrest. Never mind that the military spokesman himself brags to the press that soldiers are trained “to act, not to ask questions.” It is this very reticence to follow strict legal procedures that can increase their popularity within an exasperated Honduran populace. It would be easy to condemn this public justice event as the expression of an “uncivilized” and “uneducated” citizenry but we must bear in mind that exasperation can quickly boil over into outrage, and outrage into violence.

Ultimately, if Honduras is to bring down its astronomical homicide rate (already at 84/100,000 in 2011), it must invest in the justice system, not just police officers and certainly not a new corps of military police. A legal system costs money—especially when it has been neglected for so many years. And right now, Honduras is undergoing one of the most serious economic and political crises of its crisis-ridden history. Will the elections be a time of soul-searching and straight talk about economic inequality and underfunded and pilfered state agencies, or simply more of the same macho bandwagoneering? So far, the pre-candidacy race gives very little cause for hope. And the cartoon at the top of this post reveals what’s at stake. Honduras, the banana republic, is once again up for sale to the highest–or maybe just the most well-connected bidder.

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