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Paradise and Violence in Honduras- Hector Luis Alamo, Jr
Photo: Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. by Brittany Alamo
When I visited Honduras earlier this year, it was my first time stepping foot in my maternal homeland. My mother had lived the first seven years of life in a tiny village nestled in the mountains surrounding Tegucigalpa before leaving for the United States in 1972. I was reluctant to make the trip with my grandmother and sister. As a self-professed news junkie, I was well aware of what had been going in Honduras since the golpe de estado back in June 2009. But my mother and grandmother assured me that the media was misrepresenting Honduras. Sure, there was violence in Honduras, they argued, but it was no more violent in Tegucigalpa than it was in Chicago.
The news media, however, suggested otherwise. According to reports, law and order in Honduras had all but evaporated following the golpe, and whatever government remained had resorted to harsh repressive measures in a desperate attempt to consolidate authority, cracking down on students and journalists mostly. (If arrested, I would’ve been doubly guilty.) And since President Felipe Calderon began his war on drug traffickers in Mexico in December 2006, Honduras – especially along its eastern coastline – had become the major drug trafficking hub in Central America, and the rate of gang-related violence had increased exponentially thereafter.
Landing in San Pedro Sula – the country’s industrial center and, reportedly, its most dangerous – was like stepping into a tropical paradise. The June sun was not too hot, and the air was warm and a bit moist. Palm trees were everywhere. The airport was small, no bigger than Chicago Executive, and the city was penned in by green mountains. Throughout my stay, people kept telling me that I should see Honduras in April when it was really green, but I can’t imagine a place being greener than what I saw.
Visitors and tourists are quickly made aware of the turmoil in Honduras when the taxi hits the first checkpoint. A line of stopped cars and trucks are searched along the side of the road by military personnel. There are no normal police officers to be seen outside the capital city; the security forces are entirely military with fatigues and carry assault rifles. The cab driver hands over official documents, and the soldier examines it and everyone in the car with an accusatory eye before he gives us the go-ahead.
Seeing so many military checkpoints and soldiers casually walking the streets as they carried shotguns and rifles shocked my American sensibilities. It’s then you realize that, in many ways, the golpe isn’t quite over and no one group is firmly in control of the country. When asked about the checkpoints, the cab driver matter-of-factly tells us that they’re there to protect the public. He seems almost embarrassed talking about it to the outsiders in his backseat.
We first made our way to La Ceiba and Tela, two beach destination spots popular amongst catrachos and tourists alike. Ceiba and Tela lie on a narrow coastal plan along Honduras’ northern coast that’s so popular the people refer to it simply as “la costa.” Yet, even in a paradise tucked snuggly between mountains and the Caribbean Sea, where coconut trees line pristine beaches, the threat of danger is ever-present. We asked the owner of our beachside hotel what there was to do in Ceiba, and after suggesting a few places, she pointed into town and then east, warning us, “Don’t walk there or there after dark.”
It was the same in Tela and Tegucigalpa. A security guard with a shotgun stood outside every bank and manned the counter inside every pharmacy. (All the aisles in the pharmacy were behind a counter that divided the pharmacists from the customers, and you had to ask for anything you wanted, even for things like aspirin or cold medicine.) The small convenience stores (pulperías) had gated doors where customers lined up on the outside and asked the proprietors for milk, soda, snacks or alcohol.
Security personnel in the capital looked more like the police officers most Americans are used to, but they still wore military-style boots and carried shotguns and assault rifles. The family member we were staying with in Barrio El Manchen lived next door to a small police station (and the word small here is an understatement.) Every afternoon and every evening a group of officers would load into a police pick-up truck and head out on what one relative told me was a patrulla, a police mission where the objective was to gather information and combat drug traffickers. Each station did this every day, and every morning newspapers and radio reports detailed the death toll from last night’s patrullas.
During my last night in Honduras, a fight broke out at a downtown nightclub, and the officers next door were sent to bring combatants in. I woke up to a lot of yelling and cursing from both the officers and their suspects. There must’ve been at least 15 people brought in, but the officers let the suspects go free as soon as they reached the station. An hour later, there was gunfire from an automatic rifle somewhere nearby. When I asked a relative about the series of events – the fight at the club, the group of suspects brought to the station only to be let go upon arrival, the gunshots I heard afterward – he told me, “It’s what usually happens here.”
The ambiguous reality in Honduras – the dichotomy between violence and hope – is underscored by what had happened just the night before the violence of my last night. The Gold Cup match between Honduras and Grenada was being played, and it seemed as though all 8 million Hondurans were watching the game with bated breath. My relatives and I huddled around a fuzzy television screen, sporting the jerseys de la selección we’d bought outside the stadium earlier in the week.
Halfway through the 7-1 victory, the power went out in our section of city. We stepped out onto the second-floor balcony, and everything was pitch dark except the sparkling lights of downtown Tegus. We listened to the match on a radio as we watched groaning people, young and old, begin crowding the street below. Every time los catrachos scored we’d shout the news down to them, and everyone would dance and shout with delight. Friends were hugging and kids ran around like crazy. I’d never felt more connected to absolute strangers in my life. The entire city was like one big extended family, and the streets pulsated with excitement.
Soccer was not the only thing that brought Hondurans together. The legacy of the coup and its aftermath permeated everything. Graffiti on the walls announced slogans like ¡Tela resiste! and one even depicted a military officer with a swastika displayed on his helmet. Everywhere were written the initials F.N.R.P., which I found out stood for the National Popular Resistance Front, a quasi-clandestine progressive movement that has been sweeping the country since the coup. Its official goals are to restore the overthrown presidency of Manuel Zelaya and draw up a new constitution, but most everyone I talked to considers it a movement to establish a truly liberal party in Honduras and thus make the government more democratic.
I had landed in Honduras just a few days after former President Zelaya returned to Honduras after living a year and a half in exile. I was invited to attend a rally he was holding just a few blocks away from where I was staying in El Manchen. Unfortunately, we arrived at the school’s courtyard where the rally was held just moments after Zelaya had left. But everyone still seemed energized, and political discussions buzzed throughout the courtyard. People carried the FNRP flag, a red background with a red star and the famously heroic profile of General Francisco Morazán, the Washingtonian figure in Honduras’ pantheon.
To read that Honduras is on the verge of setting a new global murder rate record this year, that the level of violence in my ancestral homeland makes it a deadlier place than either Iraq or Aghanistan, is truly heartbreaking. There is really no other way to describe it. And only the people who have actually been there and seen the lush green mountains, the smiles on the children’s faces as they play soccer in a dusty field, the black ladies selling coconut bread along the beach, or the view from El Picacho, can know what a crime it is that such a paradise should experience that level of violence and lawlessness.
The sad part about the whole situation is that Hondurans themselves are the least to blame for the situation their country finds itself in today. American consumption and American dollars are the main buttresses of the drug trade’s blood-soaked economy. People kill and are killed in the rush to ensure that American demands are met. No one can accuse Honduras of being an accomplice in this plot the way too many people blame Mexico for the level of violence in that country. They are hostages, forced to play the middlemen between South American producers and North American consumers.
Two things threaten American society these days: religious extremism and America’s war on drugs. And while American soldiers are on the ground in all parts of the world in an effort to protect the world from Islamic fundamentalists and their allies, nothing is being done to defend Latin America from America’s drug habit and American laws that do nothing more than cover up the problem and spur on a deadly underground market for narcotics.
As we Americans – through our complacency – continue to support a policy of nation-building overseas, we should realize that there are political and economic partners closer to home whose nations are in tatters and are in dire need of American assistance. And unlike Islamic fundamentalism, the drug war violence ravaging my maternal homeland and the Central American countries like it is being fueled, not by some small terrorist organization, but by the United States itself.
In 2007 Hector Luis Alamo, Jr co-founded an online blog, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, and has contributed regularly to the site since then. From December 2010 to May 2011, Hector was Opinions Editor for UIC’s Chicago Flame. In April 2011, he became a regular contributor for Hispanically Speaking News. Hector has a B.A. in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.