In the neighborhood that I work in you hear stories like, “I need 2000 dollars from you by Friday” — this would be in a note that’s pushed under your door — “if you can’t pay it then we kill your family.”
It’s a massive funnel by the maras (transnational gangs) to suck families dry in the poorest parts of the country. It’s an impossible situation. Families were pushed into the interiors of their homes. They were totally paranoid of going out into the street. There was no way to have your children step ten feet outside the front door of the house. There was no way to actually earn money locally, and there was no way to go to Western Union to pick up money sent from abroad. So there was nothing to do... In 2014 the people broke, they just did what they could.
Across the 2000s, as I was doing research, the maras were getting more into the drug trade. It was a more and more lucrative enterprise, so there were reasons to join. What it offered for young people in the neighborhood was a chance to just break out of the confines of the neighborhood. It’s a fantasy that is very seducing.
Unemployment was very high. You could choose to go to the factory, but there was a line outside to get a job and there were very few labor laws. So you can imagine: these sweat shops were a wasteland for the imagination.
There were by then hardly any other local gangs in the region of Tegucigalpa where I was working because they had already been absorbed by the MS13 or Calle 18 (The MS13—Marasalvatrucha—and Calle 18 are the two transnational gangs that operate in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala). So you saw that kind of heterogeneity and free-wheeling creative space of just being transgressive and young in small street gangs collapse into these more rigid organizations, but it was typical small time wanna-be organized crime. That’s across the 2000s, until 2009.
There were young people in gangs and there were older people in gangs and there were senior members of gangs, but no one was far away from the fact that this was their neighborhood and this is where they were from and these are people they have known their entire lives and they have extended families that are ashamed of what they were doing. There were limits to what they were capable of even dreaming up. Most of those people, everyone that I have known, were not capable of the kind of extraordinary violence that you see now post-2009.
Since 2009, when the coup d’état happened (Honduran military overthrew democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya), homicide rates have jumped, basically because the maras are no longer autonomous. They’re now just kind of errand boys for the organized crime circuit.
One of the back stories, it’s not the total reason, but one of the major back stories of the exodus in 2014, is that persons in the larger non-mara illicit economy became interested in using the maras to run extortion rackets in local neighborhoods. The maras were the vehicles, the perfect vehicle in which to do this.
The maras have a kind of molecular knowledge about the local streets and families and family histories and family trajectories, who’s abroad and who’s got a younger brother who might serve as a lookout for the gang and just appear to be an innocent child on the street corner. The maras became a kind of weapon for the larger illicit economy, which had previously nothing to do with the maras.
In fact, the maras protected their neighborhoods from this kind of bullying. But suddenly the maras flipped and this is the kind of mystery that perhaps one day somebody can talk about. It’s not something that I think is very easy to consolidate into one account, but it seems to have been a national transformation of what the maras were and what they thought they were going to become. They stopped being independent actors within the informal economy and the illicit economy: the world of the maras merged with the larger organized crime setting and operation in the country and they’re not conducting sustainable operations in the neighborhoods where they used to. They are a cog in the machine.
Operations changed. That’s why the kids left in 2014. Young people were being recruited in very coercive ways. It used to be that young people could hide out at home and parents stood a chance to keep their children apart from the recruiting. Cousins and older brothers and sisters could come and shepherd people back and forth from the house to school. There was a chance that you could raise a young person successfully without the gangs stepping into your world. But then recruiting became very vicious.
In the neighborhood where I work in Tegucigalpa, the stories I hear again and again are about small kids who are lookouts for the maras. They are the ones who pass information on to other people who decide where they’re gonna exert the most pressure through the extortion rackets. But the way they get the kids involved is to pick them up when they’re unsupervised and take them to a location and explain to them, “You either work for us or we kill your parents.”
And this would never have happened before, this is what shocks and infuriates me, seeing it so widespread. And the fact that most people talk about it undifferentiated from the past when this is absolutely something new: that you would bring a young boy or girl, anywhere from 5 to 10, to senior members in the local gang who run that neighborhood and threaten them. There is a sort of psychological inability for young people to handle that threat. So most kids just say, “Well, I’ll try to get away with it.”
Their job becomes to sit on the street corner and let other people know who’s doing what. Basically what they are looking for is anybody who is working. This could be a mechanic with grease under his fingernails, a known mechanic who says. “I don’t have any work,” but then you see him coming down the street with grease on his hands. Or you see someone who says, “I’m just going to the market,” but they have on a pair of high heels and might be going to an office. That information is transmitted to the local gang.
Early on, when gangs developed as vehicles for the illicit economy, they extorted local businesses. These were Mom and Pop businesses, local stores. They were a nuisance. That sounds like I am downplaying it, they were responsible for a lot of violence locally, but it was qualitatively different than what is happening right now because it was not often aimed directly at families who had nothing to do with the gang world. It was local young people trying to get protection money from local businesses for their own purposes.
What’s happened now, is that there is no kind of threshold: the game for the maras is to drain bank accounts wherever they may be. So you put pressure on the families and you guarantee it by setting a violent precedent in other parts of the neighborhood that become spectacles that people know about, where entire families are killed in their home in the night because they couldn’t pay up or they were late with this unusual and outrageous sum of money. They’re being told by the local gang that it’s a life or death matter for them to have that money 72 hours from now.
When I went down in July (of 2014), and it was in August that there was so much media coverage in the United States about children arriving to the border, I was talking to parents who said, “Of course that’s happening, the story is just not filled out in your media. You’re just saying that we’re bad parents.”
The juxtaposition of the desperation of their particular situation, the outlandishly robust illicit economy versus the kind of very limited opportunities for people to make a living in a real job in the city after the coup — I mean after the coup there were several years of total political turmoil, the economy was struggling for that whole period of time.
They were saying, “You know how we told you what was gonna happen? We told you that the gangs were putting themselves together in order to become part of the bigger mafia of the country? The project is complete. It’s over. That’s what happened. It’s a massive criminal racket.” So you have a perfect storm.
I mean, people’s minds were blown when I got down there in 2014. They were just – they couldn’t even put it into words. The only option that most people could come up with was just to run. That’s what was going on. And that’s still the case. Nothing has changed.
A raised cross over the National Penitentiary in Tamara, Honduras. A priest built it to invoke the Lord’s protection on the gang-controlled prison.
Can I tell you one thing? There was a detail that was left out. There is a detail that is central. I think I strategically talked around it because it’s the most unpleasant part of the operation.
If you had gone against a mara years ago, there was a certain kind of hell to pay, but it wasn’t like this. It wasn’t unimaginable and it wasn’t horror. Locally, now, if you are known to have gone to the police or are known to have leaked information about the gang or if you are a member of an opposing gang and you’re caught — these would be, like, “treasonous” kinds of conditions — what happens is what they call “La Bolsa” [the bag]: you disappear and your family doesn’t know where you are. Then in the morning, there is a bag by the front door where your limbs are packed in and it’s tied at the top, sort of tied like a gift. It has a very cynical kind of aesthetic, like you are delivering somebody’s body to them in a gift wrapped box. This was everywhere when I talked to people in 2014. This is what they were afraid of.
That was the most extreme thing that I had heard of in 20 years of going to Honduras. This was extreme beyond even the horror stories of the Cold War death squads that continued to exist into the 90s… I mean that was considered to be the threshold of brutality, but what happened post-2009 and leading into 2014 culminating in “La Bolsa” was just unfathomable for people.
I don’t know in El Salvador, in Guatemala, that this would be as shocking as it was in Honduras, because of the legacies of military conflicts and the types of para-militarism against civilians that people remember in those countries. But in Honduras, there’s not that same kind of history. There is definitely a death squad history and it’s tied to the US, but this kind of brutality is new and I think people look at it as an influence coming from Mexico. It’s a sort of mimicking of what people think the Zetas (hyper-violent Mexican drug cartel) result to when their operations are compromised in some way.
But if one is talking about why 2014 happened, I think it’s impossible not to reference this new form of violence that targets families and almost mocks them in tragedy - this leaving of the bag as a kind of organized object on the front steps of someone’s home.
This is why, I think, many people won’t talk about it. Your family is still there and if you’re quoted in some way, if it gets back to someone… Even as I write and talk to you I have to cover what I’m saying. I mean, people know where I work. So it’s difficult for me to give even these details. They know who I hang out with and who I talk to when I go there because they have been seeing me with those persons and with those families for a long time, since 1997. With social media it can get down to the groups who run the rackets in the neighborhood so fast that you don’t even realize it’s happening. The silences are in part because of that possibility.
By 2014, the neighborhood in Southern Tegucigalpa on the outskirts of Comayaguela where I worked was so dramatically transformed it was like an alien ship had landed. I mean, the social dynamics of the neighborhood were so paranoid that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So, I don’t ask those questions anymore. I mean, I don’t ask them what’s happening with the local gangs because you can feel it. You don’t have to say anything. And it’s considered sort of outlandish to ask a direction question.
They’re so good at making jokes and raising eyebrows and, just, small gestures which communicate so much more to me now than they ever did before. And we laugh sometimes because they say – we might pass a house, or something, and I would say, “So, does so-and-so still live there?” And they say, “Well, no, that person never lived there: that was just a depot for the local marijuana or cocaine dealer who sold drugs out the back door.” And they’ve been lying to me the whole time that I’ve been going down, they’re protecting me, by not letting me know what’s really going on.
So to hear that from the younger generation, I realized that they’re just very skilled in that sort of, I think, affirmative deception. It’s not about tricking someone, it’s about actually helping them learn to develop the kind of tools of subtlety to survive.
It makes me question the way that I carry myself… where you’re just completely comfortable and open with those around you. It seems to me a sort of privilege that has to be sort of psychologically checked. I don’t feel good about it, it just feels like such a luxury that most people are unaware of having and they see it.
What I’m interested in now is a lot of the young people who stayed around and who I see when I go down, who as long as I have known them have been confined to the courtyard of their house: they go to school and they come back and they live inside that courtyard, they’ve lived their entire lives in this very pinched reality, where one has to consider the possibility of violent death all the time. Even walking 50 feet up the street something could happen. Things happen so quickly in these neighborhoods, and power dynamics change so dramatically.
When you meet these Honduran kids here, what I’m left with is how obscene our obliviousness is. I mean, how do you explain to a Honduran kid who’s just arrived here that this life exists alongside what exists in his country, which is just a 4 hour, 5 hour flight from here? The difference is so dramatic that it’s traumatizing in and of itself.
And so, my feeling is that they are the more kind of clear-thinking global citizens, and that we live in this sort of insulated media space where none of this stuff is even happening. This is just from my own experience, right?
I’m sure that people felt this way when they came back from witnessing the civil wars of the 80s and that this is just another cycle. But, to me, the way that violence is naturalized in the neoliberal setting is what’s different. It’s not political violence, it’s just, like, this is the violence of the free market, and the people who live in the parts of the world where they’re on the — what would you call it? — the sort of front end of globalization, well, it’s a bad place to be. And we’re in the middle and we’re buffered and that’s the way that the uneven nature of the global economy is.
It’s extremely frustrating, and I consider myself to be someone who’s thought about this a lot, and am familiar with it, and I find myself just totally baffled by, and disgusted by, the distance that even I have from those conditions that shape people’s lives in Honduras.