A barrio self defense member works look out duty in the Rivera Hernandez district of San Pedro Sula.
One thing I struggle with is trying to represent and tell stories about this place, try to capture the certain depth of violence that is going on without it becoming pornography. It’s one of the problems of representation: how do you tell it? They are horror stories in so many ways, but how do you bring that horror story to middle-class suburbia in the U.S., without it becoming even more alienating? It’s natural, a gut reaction, I think, the knee-jerk reaction that a lot of people have to just turn away.
I try to find some light—these things need more humor in the end—but, yeah, it’s depressing. I have a lot of friends, people for whom I’m godparents to their kids, that kind of thing, and it just… it’s a black hole. It doesn’t matter what you throw in there, it keeps on getting shittier, and it’s really hard to take. What are you going to do? What is anyone going to do? All the policies that are being promoted are band-aids on cancer, that is my honest opinion. It’s hard enough when you read it in the newspaper day after day and become numb to it, but when you have people on the ground you care about, it’s just much, much worse.
In a lot of ways, the gangs and the kind of “apolitical” violence that’s happening today is a direct result not only of the legacies of war and ways it left trauma embedded in people’s bodies and collective psyches and in the landscape itself, but also in the way that that history has just sort of been pushed aside because people are working so hard to survive day-to-day in the present context.
The other thing that I think is important to understand is the ways that the kind of violence that’s hitting the Northern Triangle of Central America right now, specifically Guatemala, is of a different quarter altogether than the kind of civil war violence that happened. Some scholars call it the “new violence.” This idea that at least during the Civil War you knew who to fear, you knew that if you stayed out of politics you probably wouldn’t get touched, get hurt; and you knew when and where the bombs were going to fall. Now, that’s perhaps an idealization of the past, but today — in terms of extortion, kidnapping, getting attacked by a 15-year-old kid high on crack waving a gun in your face — you don’t know where you can be safe. You have no idea. You have nowhere. Your political opinion doesn’t matter, right? It doesn’t matter if you’re involved in politics or not. You are a potential victim. And so the violence has become even more amorphous and ambiguous and hard to place and guard yourself against than people remember during the Civil War.
A depopulated village within a banana plantation in Cortes, Honduras.
People living in poor areas have never lived with state security in any sort of way. The state has never provided them with basic means of security, or opportunities for jobs, or anything like that. So, the most trustworthy, the most reliable groups in the area are always the local actors. In Zone 18 (a poor neighborhood in Guatemala City) a couple of years ago, for example the military came in, they took over a place called El Limón, which was run by Barrio 18, a very sort of top clique in Barrio 18 in Guatemala, and they did a huge raid with shock-and-awe style.
They came in, flags waving, took over street corners, had military posted there for six months. But during those six months of the military occupation of this neighborhood, extortion tithes never went down. The amount of extortion people were paying never changed. And why is that? Well, the answers across the board that people gave was that they knew that one day the military was going to pull out again, all the media fanfare was going to stop, and who was going to be left after all that? The same gang members who were running the place at the beginning.
The people who got picked up in the initial raids were just low-lying teenagers, they were not top-ranking members. Knowing that eventually the military was going to leave gave people no sense of protection in the long-term, and anyone who was seen as collaborating or reporting in any way would get their punishment eventually. So, that’s what the state can do, right? It’s all sort of a façade, in a sense, according to the people who are actually living in the belly of the beast.
El Salvador is still the epicenter of gangs, and that’s for a number of reasons. One of them is that they’re kind of the biggest game in town. Guatemala has a lot more narco-traffickers and narco-trafficking entities than El Salvador does.
Honduras, if you were going to place them in a spectrum, which isn’t really correct, but if you were going to, Honduras would be somewhere in-between. They lie on the international, transnational route for drugs coming through Colombia. Since the moment we took out their president in 2009 they shifted into becoming one of the major transit points for Colombian cocaine.
When I say “we,” as in the United States, it’s basically almost beyond a doubt in a lot of analysts’ minds that the U.S., if it didn’t help instigate the coup, it gave the OK, because that kind of major political change in Honduras could not have happened without some sort of go-ahead from the U.S. State Department.
And immediately–this is one of those unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy-within days and weeks of that happening, because they are an incredibly flexible commodity chain, drug traffickers started moving through Honduras in a much more dense way, with far more attention given to the Honduran routes than ever before.
Today, 80-90% of all the cocaine hitting the U.S. goes through Honduras. And the truth is that no one in these countries (El Salvador might be the exception) becomes president without making deals with narco-traffickers. Nobody. Mayors, entire townships, are all in the pockets of narco-traffickers.
I’ve been quoted something above 60% of the national police force is in the pay of narco-traffickers in Guatemala. Honduras would probably even more at this point, because in both countries the military are, in a sense, the major power brokers in the various routes moving drugs. All at the behest of the Mexican cartels. Which explains the chaos in these countries, because they don’t make their own decisions. They just act as middlemen for Colombians and Mexicans. I didn’t make that up, you can study it: it’s been written about for a long time.
We say, “the military,” and we’re talking networks inside the armed forces. It’s essentially the same deep-state shadow powers that have been running the countries, have been power-brokers in the countries, since they gained their power through the civil wars. After the decommissioning of two-thirds of the Guatemalan military, a lot of those guys went into the most lucrative business they could, and that has been drug-trafficking.
The community known as Habitat was a refugee camp for people displaced in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch. It was built by Habitat for Humanity and later turned into an informal village after the destroyed neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa were never rebuilt.
That was in part, again, unintended consequence of stupid U.S. policies. Reagan’s agenda was to cut off the Caribbean route and in a sense that deeply empowered the Mexicans, because the Colombians started moving through Mexico instead, right? And Central America has proven incredibly fertile ground because it’s got, as you say, the weak state. So one of the reasons you’ve seen a steep rise in drug-related violence in the Northern Triangle, specifically, over the last decade is, again, the next iteration of the “War on Drugs” in Mexico.
The War on Drugs in Mexico started in 2006. Calderón (then Mexican president) destabilized the cartels and made things much hotter in Mexico. So, where do you go? You just push it down a little further. Guatemala was the first place, then, after the 2009 coup, Honduras was the next corridor that opened up. It’s perfect ground for these sorts of things. It’s not only for transport, they also started establishing methamphetamine factories and then crops of poppy in the Highland areas of the K’iché and so on in Guatemala. There are huge areas where no police go in. I’ve gotten up to the edge of them because I’m doing a project on the Guatemalan-Mexico border. And this is a matter of survival, too, for these communities. Those are communities that are entirely indigenous communities that protect themselves against any kind of incursions from the police and cooperate with transportistas that are networked with Mexican cartels to move heroin.
One of the things I wanted to say, because I’ve been trying to ask that same question is: how much of the violence are the maras (transnational gangs) responsible for? And again and again, and this is what makes the situation even more uncertain and terrifying: we don’t know.
We can’t tell the difference between narco-traffickers, gangs, organized crime. In certain cases, you can, right? But, in the sort of day-to-day violence – a murder happens here, a murder happens there – it’s incredibly difficult to tell because the maras themselves, in a lot of cases, are moving up. The line between maras, which are the most organized end of disorganized crime, and the narco-traffickers, which are organized crime at its best, is getting hazier. Maras become a stand-in for a whole constellation of different organized and disorganized groups preying on the populaces.
One of the drives has been to professionalize the gangs and that has made life in the barrios (neighborhoods) where they hold control even more terrifying, because they’ve gotten better and more efficient at doing what they do. And it’s not about marking bodies with tattoos and marking neighborhoods with graffiti—they’ve become extortion machines. To a certain degree it’s always been their major business, but they do it now in a much more nefarious and undercover way which, I think, in terms of living with is far more terrifying than the kind of brash, much more sort of unprofessional way that it was done before. In those days, at least you could clearly identify the people who might be threatening you. Now, no one knows who’s working for the them, who’s in their pay, who’s a paro.
A paro is a helper, or an associate that does things for them. They employ children, they employ grandmothers, they employ all kinds of people to either spy or to collect money from potential victims. And I think something that is very little understood is that the gravitational pull that these gangs have in the areas where they hold sway in not just about intimidation. A lot of it is about intimidation, but it’s also one of the only means of having even a pretense of upward mobility in the communities where these gangs hold sway. There are no labor markets. No jobs.
Extortion today, I think, is the number one thing – the number one criminal activity – affecting the daily livelihoods of the poor population. It is the thing that is making people flee urban centers, more so than anything else. And extortion is primarily attached to gangs: they’re still the primary culprits, they’re simply, in some ways, a smokescreen and a façade for a whole network of people who are profiting from this kind of fear and insecurity. Whether it’s the private security companies that come in and take over, or the banks through which the money goes. You can’t disconnect something like extortion from the sort of networks of power, reaching all the way to the highest levels of government and the governing elite.
You could probably write this whole thing about all the unintended consequences of foreign and national policies to make places “safer.” Cocaine price in the U.S. has not changed in 20 years – it has not shifted one iota. And heroin is cheaper than it’s ever been, so obviously none of this is going anywhere. It’s pretty amazing. It’s an amazing fact, actually, looking at how much fanfare all this stuff has and how many billions of dollars have been poured into it. But the thing with narco-trafficking in Central America is that almost nobody in Central America is running away from narco-traffickers.
In the areas that I’ve worked along the Guatemala-Mexico border, people love narco-traffickers. They’d would rather have narco-traffickers there than anybody. Because they provide employment, they’re primarily businessmen and so try to keep things as cool as possible in their regions, they actively police extortion, thieving, rape, those sorts of things, and actually try to take care of the populace around whom they live. And so, with the choice between having narco-traffickers or gangs take over your hood, everyone chooses narco-trafficker in the sense of who do you feel safest operating your place and the repercussions for your community?
Numbers? It’s all a shell game. It really is. Central America has long been known as the land of zero indicators, a UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] person once said. And I think homicide rate statistics are also stupid and pointless, because it’s not about how many bodies are being killed, it’s who is being killed, where, and by whom, that will actually give you some sense of who’s living in danger and who isn’t. The people who touted homicide statistics around the Northern Triangle for the last decade—it’s been Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that have been one, three and five, but Belize is always in there too—but, again, that doesn’t tell you really much. The numbers are far more horrifying if you actually look at the concentrations in certain urban areas. In certain places in Guatemala it’s 200 per 100,000. That number? That’s insane.
There is the impossibility of getting to the bottom of all these things, because, by definition, they’re so shrouded in all these layers of the impossibility to actually know what is happening, and the ways that rumors, and the power of rumors and these sort of other ways of making sense of things take over, not just at the individual or communal level, but at the state level as well. You talk to prosecutors and they have no idea what’s going on in their neighborhoods, beyond what the latest body that showed up is, and so on and so forth. It’s a kind of collective doubt that goes up and down the scale.
One of the stories that has struck me and continues to strike me, it’s sort of the flipside of the unaccompanied minors, is of the ones that don’t make it out.
I’ve known this guy, he goes by the name of Huesos [bones] for six years now. He was one of these guys who got caught up with the Mara Salvatrucha when he was 13. His brother had been a leader and had gotten killed by rival, so he joined a gang for a kind of revenge—a typical story you hear all the time. At 19 he got caught transporting drugs and thrown in prison for six years. I met him at the tail end of his prison sentence.
This guy’s very intelligent, he’s an artist, he’s made several portraits that I have hanging in my house, and he got out of prison with every intention of trying to go along and stay on the straight and narrow. For about a period of a year he was looking for jobs left and right and it was absolutely impossible, because of what he called his “papeles manchados”: stained papers. Every job you go to they always make you take your clothes off and check for tattoos. And this is to be a private security guard, which is pretty much the only job he could have gotten anyway… there are all sorts of parallels between private security and gangs. He ended up not getting anything, just turned down, job after job after job.
Meanwhile his girlfriend, who’s now his wife and baby-momma, was raped by two men in her neighborhood as she was going to her work. He wrote me and was like:
“What do I do?”
“You can call the police.”
And he’s like, “One of these guys has cousins in the police. It’s not going to work. If I was still in the gang, I’d know exactly how to take care of this situation, and there wouldn’t be no issue.”
Now that he wasn’t part of the gang he had to swallow it. And he had to pass by these men’s houses every time he went to see his girlfriend, right?
So those are the types of impossible situations, of complete impotence that people find themselves in, faced with the gravest injustices you can imagine, and they’ve had to just live with it day after day and just swallow it. And that’s the kind of thing that leads to the sort of rage you see. The gangs manipulate that kind of rage to get the people to join their ranks, to do things – direct it. That rage has all kinds of points of origin that then become transmuted and interpolated into gang violence. It’s those sorts of impossible situations that I run into again and again with the people I know down there, and there is no answer but to run. As one kid said to me, this is a guy who lived in Huesos’ neighborhood:
“We know how dangerous the route is to the U.S. We know how impossible it is. But my country is a cage. There’s no way out. I know that [the journey] is a dark tunnel, a deep, dark tunnel, and it’s dangerous. But, at least there’s some sort of a light at the end of it.”