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The murder capital of the world

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While some cities are famous for being technology hubs, others unfortunately become well known epicenters of violence. This is the case of San Pedro Sula, a city in northern Honduras. In the last few years, San Pedro Sula dethroned Caracas and Acapulco as the most violent city in the world (excluding warzone areas). With a staggering 1,411 murders in 2013 (187.14 per 100, 000 habitants) this city has been labeled as “the murder capital of the world”.

In Honduras as well as in many parts of Central America, crime and violence are the result of complex and multidimensional issues. The fate of many Central American cites like San Pedro Sula has been shaped by the remnants of wars, inequality, poverty, unemployment, immigration and corruption. These elements have become entangled with other problems such as weakness of institutions, impunity, lawlessness, lack of access to education and health, as well as poor infrastructure. Violence and crime are thus the result of a vicious chain encompassed by these elements.

In cities like San Pedro Sula and most border towns that are drug transit points, the situation is so critical that local and national governments have lost control over significant parts of territories to drug lords and gangs. The mechanism these gangs and other criminal organizations use to subject people to their power is terror. For instance, in many metropolitan and rural areas it is know to the public that gangs force citizens to pay for a “war tax” or “rent” based on their incomes. Needless to say, those who do not agree to pay such tax suffer the consequences.

So far, governments have found themselves caught up between the dichotomy of hard power v. soft power. Furthermore, national governments and local authorities have found that “Iron fist” (Mano Dura) and “Zero tolerance” programs have proved unsuccessful as these do not decrease crime or increase public safety in the long term. Additionally, the government has started to notice that these types of programs only yield to temporary truces between rival gangs (mainly the MS13 and MS18) that end up resuming sooner or later with even more deaths and blood. Thus, authorities have had to rethink their approach to this situation.

Unfortunately the shift towards a succcesful set of policies and strategies has yet to take place. Although it is now obvious that a new and more comprehensive approach is to be implemented; there are major setbacks that prevent this shift from taking place. For instance, in San Pedro Sula the state of lawlessness is such that more than 95% of homicides remain unsolved, and those who commit crimes remain free and unprosecuted. This situation is due to the lack of economic resources authorities have to investigate and prosecute criminals, and also to the corruption that exists within the justice system from judges, to deputies, and policeman who work hand in hand with drug lords and gangs.

As a result, the Central American region (mostly the northern triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) has been at the forefront of a war against powerful drug cartels and gangs. This situation has not only resulted in higher rates of violence, but it has also provoked a profound state of social dislocation and fear that has broke entire communities and has the potential to sink entire countries at the mercy of organized crime.

Without a doubt there is a power struggle between the government and organized crime. Up to this point, it is clear that crime has a clear advantage over justice. To our disgrace the gangs or maras have become institutions that now provide safety nets that individuals cannot find in their families, justice systems, or in their communities. Thus, the national identities and loyalty of many gang members turns instead to their gangs. This loyalty is a huge threat as it has become so engraved in the social fabric that it is a counter-rival to the very notions of nationhood. In the words of many gang members, they do not identify as Hondurans, Guatemalans or Salvadorians, but rather as MS13 or MS18 members.

Hence, both the government and the international community should be very much aware that San Pedro Sula’s problem is not an exclusive and isolated one. In order to end the bloodshed it must be understood that violence, organized crime, corruption and drugs are not mutually exclusive elements. On the contrary, these go hand in hand. The incarceration of individuals is not going to solve the problem, neither the construction of more jails, or the acquisition of more weapons. If the wound is to heal, action and dialogue are to take place. The problem can only be addressed through prevention in the form of schools, rehabilitation through social programs, and disarmament under the promise of protection by an honest police and military.


La Capital Mundial del Asesinato

Mientras algunas ciudades son famosas por ser centros de la tecnología, otras desgraciadamente se convierten en epicentros conocidos por su violencia. Este es el caso de San Pedro Sula, una ciudad en el norte de Honduras. En los últimos años, de San Pedro Sula destronó a Caracas y Acapulco como la ciudad más violenta del mundo (excluyendo las áreas de guerra). Con la asombrosa cifra de 1.411 asesinatos en 2013 (187,14 por cada 100, 000 habitantes) esta ciudad ha sido etiquetada como “la capital mundial del asesinato”.

En Honduras, así como en muchas partes de América Central, el crimen y la violencia son el resultado de problemas complejos y multidimensionales. El destino de muchos países centroamericanos y ciudades como San Pedro Sula ha sido moldeado por las guerras, desigualdad, pobreza, el desempleo, la inmigración y corrupción. A su vez, estos elementos se han entrelazado con otros problemas como la debilidad de las instituciones, impunidad, ilegalidad, la falta de acceso a la educación y la salud, así como a la falta de infraestructura. La violencia y el crimen son, pues, el resultado de una cadena viciosa que abarca estos elementos.

En ciudades como San Pedro Sula y la mayoría de las ciudades fronterizas que son puntos de tránsito de drogas, la situación es tan crítica que los gobiernos locales y nacionales han perdido el control de una parte significativa de sus territorios a los capos de la droga y las pandillas. El mecanismo que estas pandillas y otras organizaciones criminales utilizan para someter a las personas a su poder es el terror. Por ejemplo, en muchas áreas metropolitanas y rurales es públicamente reconocido que los ciudadanos pagan a las pandillas un “impuesto de guerra” o “renta” basada en sus ingresos . No hace falta decir que aquellos que no están de acuerdo a pagar dicho impuesto sufren las consecuencias.

Hasta ahora, los gobiernos se han visto atrapados entre la dicotomía del “poder duro” y el “poder blando”. Por un lado, los gobiernos nacionales y las autoridades locales han concluido que los programas de “tolerancia cero” y “Mano dura” no han sido exitosos ya que estos no han logrado disminuir la delincuencia o aumentar la seguridad pública a largo plazo. Además, las autoridades han comenzado a darse cuenta de que este tipo de programas sólo dan lugar a treguas temporales entre bandas de pandillas rivales (sobre todo la MS13 y MS18) que acaban por reanudar tarde o temprano su rivalidad con más muertes y sangre.

Por desgracia, el cambio hacia un conjunto exitoso de políticas públicas y estrategias gubernamentales aún no ha tenido lugar. Aunque ahora es obvio que debe de ejecutarse un nuevo plan de acción con un enfoque más amplio e integral, hay grandes obstáculos que impiden que este cambio tenga lugar. Por ejemplo, el estado de anarquía es tal que más del 95% de los homicidios permanecen sin resolver, ya los criminales permanecen libres y sin ser enjuiciados. Esta situación se debe a la falta de recursos económicos que impide que las autoridades puedan investigar y llevar a juicio a estos criminales, y también en gran medida a la corrupción que existe en el sistema de justicia, ya que se sabe que muchos jueces, diputados y policías trabajan de la mano con capos de la droga y pandillas.

Como resultado, la región centroamericana (sobre todo el triángulo norte: Guatemala, El Salvador y Honduras) se encuentran contra la espada y la pared luchando contra los poderosos carteles de la droga y las pandillas. Esta situación no sólo se ha traducido en mayores índices de violencia, pero también ha provocado un profundo estado de dislocación social y miedo que ha quebrantado a comunidades enteras y que también tiene el potencial para hundir países enteros a merced de la delincuencia organizada.

Sin duda existe una lucha de poder entre el gobierno y el crimen organizado. Hasta este punto, es claro que el crimen tiene una clara ventaja sobre la justicia. Además, para nuestra desgracia, las maras han permeado tanto en estas comunidades al punto de convertirse en instituciones que proporcionan una red de seguridad para muchos individuos no pueden encontrar la misma en sus familias, sistemas de justicia, y en sus sociedades. Por lo tanto, su identidad y lealtad nacional se ha girado hacia una banda delictiva que está tan grabada en el tejido social que se ha convertido en un rival para la misma idea de la nación . En las palabras de muchos miembros de estas pandillas, más allá de identificarse como hondureños, guatemaltecos o salvadoreños, ellos prefieren identificarse como miembros MS13 o MS18.

Tanto el gobierno como la comunidad internacional deben ser muy conscientes de que el problema de San Pedro Sula no es exclusivo o está aislado. Con el fin de poner fin al derramamiento de sangre se debe entender que la violencia, el crimen organizado, la corrupción y las drogas no elementos mutuamente exclusivos. Por el contrario, éstos van de la mano. El encarcelamiento de criminales no va a resolver el problema, ni la construcción de más cárceles, o la adquisición de más armas. Si se pretende que la herida sane, se debe abrir paso al diálogo y a la acción. El problema de San Pedro Sula y de muchas otras ciudades en la región sólo puede empezar a abordarse a través de la prevención en forma de escuelas, rehabilitación a través de los programas sociales, y el desarme bajo la promesa de protección de una policía y ejército honestos.

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6 thoughts on “The murder capital of the world

  1. Such facts as you dolled out in your write-up are very disheartening for a country like Honduras. I commiserate with y’all. I hope the international community listens to your recommendation.
    Having said that, organized crime which includes drug peddling of whatever measure are money-making ventures. Do you honestly think that folks will just let up a lifestyle of flamboyance they are used to courtesy of drug money just for the sake of it?
    And from your essay, it seems that the gangs are now more powerful or equally powerful to the government of Honduras. Why would such powerful gangs give up their power for the sake of re-integration into the society and social rehabilitation. There seems to be no incentive to do that. Is there any? Think hard. There has to be a smarter and more pragmatic ways of ending the violence. Good essay, though. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments! Yes, indeed. As you point out, there are no incentives. Even the government of Honduras has acknowledged that it has nothing to bring to the negotiation table. Yet, in order to end violence one must start somewhere. Hence, prevention, rehabilitation and disarmament are only the first steps to take. These three elements should be more successful than declaring a war against the cartels and gangs. Thus, the best thing governments can do -considering their position of disadvantage, is to dialogue with these criminal groups and try to recuperate their territories (and credibility) by slowly reinstating the rule of law in their countries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Are the criminal elements ready to dialogue with the government? That’s the question. The government may want to dialogue all they care, but if the criminal elements have no intention of sitting down at the table with the government, then the government are simply daydreaming. It will then take the citizenry rising to take their country back from crime lords and incompetent government to effect a lasting and positive change in the country. Keep it up, though. Keep the information flowing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lucia, you point out in order to end violence one must start somewhere. So you suggest the first steps the government could take are prevention, rehabilitation and disarmament.
    I have a few questions there. For instance, what can be brought to the negotiating table to persuade criminal groups to voluntarily refrain from dealing with drugs when this is their assured way of making money and gaining power?
    How do you prevent addiction?
    Who pays for rehabilitation?
    And how can these criminal groups be persuaded to give up territories?
    And all this by peaceful dialogue without arms’ intervention?

    You say: “The problem can only be addressed through prevention in the form of schools, rehabilitation through social programs, and disarmament under the promise of protection by an honest police and military.”

    And there is also this problem: ” . . . corruption that exists within the justice system; from judges, to deputies, and policeman who work hand in hand with drug lords and gangs

    The government needs money, right? Money for schools, social programs and an honest police and military. I ask myself, where can they get the money from?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Thank you for your comments.

      To answer your first question, when it comes to negotiating with criminal organizations, it is indeed naive to think that these groups or individuals would give up their power just because it’s the right thing to do or because the government says so. The government of Honduras has even acknowledged that it has nothing to bring to the negotiation table. Yet, in order to end violence one must start somewhere. Organized crime knows no boundaries or laws. Therefore, my suggestion is that in order to start improving this situation (and to slowly reinstate the rule of law), authorities must shift some of the policies and techniques that are currently being implemented to fight against organized crime. More specifically, governments should focus on adopting a more comprehensive and multidimensional approach. For instance, improving the education system, developing programs for the youth that involve the arts, sports or science, might give a lot of young people a wide range of options to turn to instead of recurring to illegal drugs consumption or drug trafficking. This is, of course, one of many possible suggestions.

      To answer the second part of your question, while there are no vast amounts of financial resources, whatever budget the authorities have, it is apparent that it could be better allocated. Education, rehabilitation and prosecution of criminals should become priorities. Lack of resources (or poverty) do not imply that a country must succumb to organized crime. Take as an example the case of Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the hemisphere and yet one of the safest (if not the safest) country in Central America. Thus, the suggestion is simply to find new ways to combat crime other than merely focusing on jails, incarcerating people or simply declaring another war on drugs.

      I hope this helps to answer your question !

      Like

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