By German Andino, Jennifer Ávila & Juan Martínez; edited by Alberto Arce; illustrations by German Andino; translated by Andrew Hart
Part I: Twenty-One Sons of a Gun
It’s been a long time since the twenty-one have all gotten together. A few might have already fled the neighborhood. Tonight there are three who walk quickly down the middle of the street.
They come to a corner, to one of the borders. Two flickering orange street lights and what little they manage to illuminate: a diffuse imaginary line only a few meters wide, that separates the neighborhood Cesura from the territory of the Mara Salvatrucha 13, shrouded in a deep and repellent darkness.
Two go in front, nervous as hell. Behind them Rubio tries to keep their pace steady, stumbling from the effects of the twenty beers earlier consumed. Drunk as he is, he knows the security protocol has begun.
“I’m wearing a white shirt!” he yells, cackling.
He buttons up the darker blue plaid shirt that hangs loosely over the white t-shirt he wears tight against his body. The other two also check their clothes to make sure they aren’t showing bright colors that will give them away in the darkness. The breeze, usually a relief in the oppressive heat of northern Honduras, moves the trees in the distance. Those movements play with the three boys’ perceptions as they leave a small blue house to patrol the neighborhood. The word “patrol” is a bit overstated in this case. The state police and the military patrol. In San Pedro Sula, so do the gangs and narco-traffickers… anyone with the weapons and personnel. For the rest, it’s just keeping watch. The three scared boys pop in and out of the light of the Cesura street corners, watching for the Mara Salvatrucha who may be coming to kill them.
And their families.
Squinting their eyes, the three lookouts try to differentiate the silhouettes of trees from the silhouettes of gangsters. The dusty, potholed streets are jet-black at midnight, cut by vegetation breaking through at the edges. The smell of stagnant water and the chirping of insects fills the air. After a while, the sensations—the sounds, the fear—are similar to what we would perceive if we were to be submerged in a swimming pool: that little whistle behind the eyes, between the ears. Floating in a pool of black petroleum.
They stop when they get to an alley they must cross, where they will be exposed. Their bodies form an inverted L: legs vertical, bent at the waist, torsos hanging parallel to the ground. They look toward the edge of the neighborhood to guess at the identity of the black silhouettes—blacker than an oil stain in the night—moving far off in the Salvatrucha darkness.
“It’s people peeling potatoes,” says Andy, as he finishes pulling off his white t-shirt to reveal brown skin. Better camouflage. “Peeling potatoes” here means being unaware. Being where you shouldn’t be. Getting caught, for example, in the middle of a firefight.
“Must be Jehovah’s Witnesses. Those people don’t give a shit about walking around anywhere,” he adds.
The evangelists of the church—“potato peelers” by vocation—hand out bible pamphlets and wander through the neighborhood knocking on residents’ doors. They don’t realize that from here or from the Salvatrucha side, bullets could rain down on them at any time. Or worse, they do realize believe their God will save them in the line of fire.
“The good thing is normally shootouts don’t start when people are out on the street,” Rubio explains, vocalizing as best he can.
They are three—part of a group that is forming, or is being forced to form. By now they are almost, whether they like it or not, a gang.
Even at dawn, the light doesn’t illuminate the darkest corners of Cesura. Rather, it distorts them, making it difficult to recognize the streets. By day, the neighborhood remains sunken within dark boundaries. It’s one of the pits of San Pedro Sula. A handful of streets with diffuse borders, punctuated by hotspots: the dead projecting beams of light to guide the living. Translucent bars enclose the cage that has been abandoned to the beasts inside. Around this hole a self-destructive system lives and kills, working in an apparently autonomous and spontaneous way. Not to say less cruel. The fact that no one gives the order doesn’t mean it’s not happening. The fact that no one gives the order, doesn’t mean it was not a political decision made by someone of flesh and blood.
The fact that few are watching doesn’t mean the battle isn’t being fought.
Society is cruel to the inhabitants of Cesura. Society likes to show them that their lives—and the nightmares they live through—are real. That they belong to the present and not to a bad drug trip they can wake up from. The neighborhood is bombarded with a loud, monotonous, and repetitive refrain, a broken record that makes their torture even worse. They’re not dead. Not yet. So they must not forget that a world exists out there, a world they might try to run to. An escape route. They endlessly shake at the rusty chains that hold them, without pause, as they look upward towards the surface from the depths of their hole.
The constant taking off and landing of airplanes—to and from an unreachable far-off world—is a reminder to the inhabitants of Cesura. A reminder that freedom of movement is right there within site and earshot. Standing between them is a few hundred meters and a few hundred dollars, a vertical gap impossible to close. Flights arriving and departing from and towards Miami, Guatemala City, Houston, or the Bay Islands of the Honduran Caribbean.
It’s not distance or fatigue that prevents people from walking those streets. There’s another problem. You’d have to cross a handful of neighborhoods and villages that are contested territory, fought for between one, two, or three gangs that almost control them. Here the word “almost” is as important as “control”: as important as the difference between being alive or dead, or in purgatory. This is a city of borders that are not crossed without money and permission. You always have to pay. Always always. If you don’t pay, you don’t cross. You can see the other side, right there and within reach, but no. It would not be the first (or the last) time a person is murdered here for entering the wrong neighborhood, for crossing an indistinct border. In this case, “wrong” means a neighborhood controlled by a gang that is the enemy of the one that controls yours.
In this sector you walk down well-delimited streets, always truncated, fenced off by fear. Streets that may be the only means to access resources for basic subsistence.
From the sky, flying over the Rivera sector of San Pedro Sula, you can appreciate its magnificent misery. 75 square miles stretching through the Sula valley—Usula was the name of the valley before the arrival of the Spaniards— crisscrossed by infinite asphalt and dirt side streets, columns of smoke rising up from the garbage, two or three winding hills, and draped over it all a spread of little houses. From a bird’s eye view, the place looks inhospitable.
Zoom in. San Pedro Sula: the breeding ground of Honduran gangs, the neighborhoods of the Rivera Hernández sector, Cesura. Here some gangs have existed for decades. The most powerful: the savage Mara Salvatrucha 13 and 18th Street Gang, both of Californian origin. The others, microscopic in comparison, more recent and endemic, reproduce quickly: Vatos Locos, the Tercereños, the Olanchanos, the Aguacates, the Terraceños… This sector of the city, shared in part by the sister city of La Lima and encompassing fifty-nine neighborhoods, is their territory.
With such brutal and omnipresent gangs as proprietors of these neighborhoods, who would attempt to venture on foot in search of an escape, challenging all survival logic? Here, the answer from every person who has been asked that morbid question has been:
“I would try it. I would go.”
The Metropolitan Unit 8 (UMEP, in Spanish) police post in the Rivera Hernández suburb has been completely remodeled. They painted the walls and rebuilt some sections of the building. Gone is the public bathroom area in the central patio: a cataclysm of shit stuck inside a pair of wooden sheds with tin roofs, surrounded by the corpses of police motorbikes that couldn’t be repaired. The UMEP 8 goes well with the new neighborhood park, constructed right next door a few years ago, during the first administration of the current president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández.
The only thing that evokes the conditions of the UMEP 8 in, say, the year 2014, is a battered patrol truck parked at the entrance. Three bullets have punctured the body and left holes where corrosion has taken hold just above the slogan: “Serve and Protect.” The rust will end up eating it away.
The section of the building that years ago was used as the kitchen and break room for the officers, right next to the outhouses, now contains offices painted septic green, little cubicles walled off with gypsum board, reminiscent of stables. The space is equipped with a large table and seven chairs with sit off to the side. This is the meeting room where we are received by Officer Nelson Murillo, sector police chief since early 2018.
Behind the long table, the largest wall is almost completely covered with an image from Google Earth, overlaid with red, green, and blue grid lines that show the three subdivisions under the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Unit 8. The territory that Murillo is in charge of. The Rivera sector, an area of the city inhabited by 228,000 people.
“What happened here in recent years?” asks Murillo, initiating an interview that feels more like a monologue, as he flips through papers he had ready on the table. He looks at the camera and waves. “Hello everyone,” he says smiling, addressing what he believes must be the public outside of the Rivera sector.
You get the feeling that Murillo, too, believes that far-off worlds exist where things work by a different set of rules.
Pause. Before we hear him, some context.
Between 2011 and 2014, San Pedro Sula was considered the most violent city on the planet. Or at least, the most violent in countries where homicides are registered. More than 100 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Since 2015, the authorities have reported a considerable drop in homicides and those who listen to official propaganda are celebrating having saved San Pedro Sula from the epidemic violence from which it once suffered. In a large part of the city, in neighborhoods with mutable borders and gangs, the residents do not perceive the same thing. The State is still far removed.
But Murillo says: “The way we have been working for the last few years… we have saved between 30,000 and 40,000 lives. Because we came from a spiral of nearly 90 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Right now in 2018 we have between 40 and 42 [deaths] per 100,000 inhabitants. We have lowered the homicide rate [by] more than 50%,” he affirms, and shifts to one side of the map to avoid blocking the content, just like a weatherman would.
One question, Murillo: if one could explain the circumstances of the many disappearances—the thousands, tens of thousands—in Honduras—an impossible task at this point, of course—the whereabouts of all those people… Would it significantly affect this homicide rate you are currently reporting in San Pedro Sula? What does it mean to disappear in Honduras?
“Ok, look, crimes being reported is a determining factor for the investigative teams, but in Honduras the problem has been that for lack of credibility [in the police] in other times, the culture of reporting crimes has been lost. These days, with the investments that have been made, we have a way to react immediately thanks to the unification of the national police, intelligence units and emergency response teams. But the investigations into disappearances are very complex, very complex. But thanks to the magnitude of the work that we do, I think that would have a minimal effect,” Murillo explains and he continues with his lecture. “Look, in earlier times, displacements of people and disappearances due to violence were happening a little more often. [They happened] so much that there are many people that left the country and no one knows where they are. They may have applied for political asylum, they [may have] left for lack of employment, they [may have] left out of fear, the [may have] left because their parents lived in the United States or Spain… but there are many social or socioeconomic factors that determine what a disappeared person is. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a gang came along and kidnapped them and took them away. Remember that we have a monitoring system with more than 2,000 cameras in Honduras, we have a web page, and we have social networks; people are reporting crimes more these days. They are getting organized through community leaders and evangelical ministers…”
250 words that don’t answer the question. The interview has taken a strong political tone.
The takeaway: the police do their job, a “titanic” work, according to Murillo. The numbers—also according to his criteria, and in this he is correct—of people that disappear under violent circumstances are lower in comparison to the number of people that migrate from the country due to violence and the indifference of the Honduran government. The rest remain suspended in limbo, wanting but unable to leave.
The forced displacements—both internal (the majority) and external (a growing number)—to Honduras, seem to be, for the chief of police, a more acceptable phenomenon than a possible upturn in the homicide rate. Like the infamous 2014 homicide rate that attracted waves of journalists from all over the world to film San Pedro Sula’s crime scenes.
Honduras loses lives. It loses people. It loses resources. It loses attention.
The Backstory – October 2010
“The result of the first investigations gives the idea that it’s a confrontation between criminal bands and that there may be some illicit business in the middle of it all,” declared the Vice Minister of Security, Armando Calidonio.
“The killings occurred on a football field in the Felipe Zelaya neighborhood, a populous area with high rates of violence in the northeastern sector of San Pedro Sula, some 243 kilometers north of Tegucigalpa,” published the newspaper La Prensa. The best reference they could come up with to place the location of the massacre was the capital of Honduras, hundreds of kilometers away. The entrance to the neighborhood Cesura is a three-minute walk from where the massacre took place.
“The masked killers arrived in two cars and—after drawing their AK-47 rifles—began to fire on players, referees, and fans. Before doing so, the masked men selected a group of fans whom they made raise their shirts to confirm whether they had tattoos. According to San Pedro Sula Channel 6 news, three referees and two players were killed, while the other nine dead were fans.” (As reported by La Vanguardia.)
What remained on the field that day had nothing to do with sport: daughters and wives asked—are still asking—that justice be done for their dead. Their cries were heard in the middle of the tumult of forensic technicians wrapped from head to toe in white suits, red and blue lights, bicycles strewn around on the ground, cameramen pointing their equipment wherever they saw blood or pain…
In an interview for a San Pedro Sula television channel, one of the neighbors said: “We condemn this type of massacre because we have lived it not only now. We have lived it for years…” This was the third or fourth massacre of the year in San Pedro Sula.
The owner of the little blue house where Raquel now lives, died on the football field that day.
The entrance to the property, shaded by banana trees, is a narrow alleyway that leads to a worn wooden gate. Past the gate, across the “river” of graywater that runs from the basin where they wash clothes and dishes, the space opens up into a mini-jungle: the backyard of Raquel’s house from which music blasts day and night. According to her, the music signals—at least at night—that there are people home, so that no one comes around to bother them. In the center of the yard—ruled by a vicious dog, wary of strangers and chained to a chair—rises an enormous mango tree that casts shade over everything. The little blue house, surrounded by a fence made of rusty metal sheeting and old boards, languishes among those soaring mango trees, lemon trees, avocado trees, papayas, and another five similar houses.
The Chinese food is served at a table under the shade of the mango tree. Everything is laughter. The people seem to blend in like chameleons to their earthen environment. Brown and black faces inhabit this place: they are who Subcommissioner Murillo, people around the neighborhood, even themselves, the 21 boys, in a joking tone, refer to as Los Locos de Cesura.
“We don’t want gangsters around here,” Roger exclaims, sitting in a chair beneath the mango tree. At twenty-five-years-old, he is the eldest of the group of boys that gets together at Raquel’s house. “We aren’t gangsters, man. Not panochos [18th Street Gang], not dry shit [Mara Salvatrucha 13, with a play on words in Spanish], not Olanchanos, not Tercereños, not anything. You got me? We just want to be left alone. We don’t have guns or anything. We stay in here, we don’t even leave this neighborhood except to work… those of us who work, you know?”
So they said, that day.
The others distract themselves; they have free time to spare. Raquel serves the food on disposable plates in the kitchen and Andy—her son and one of the three nighttime patrolmen of Cesura—carries them out. Jafet, the rapper and barber of the group, pounds fists with Cristian who, until a moment ago, was spraying his shirt with a water pistol. Andy’s little cousin sets the table where we are going to eat, right here under the mango tree. Rubio is making Silent nervous, who in turn pulls his hat down over his face. Rubio tells him to say something, recording with his cell phone camera and laughing his crazy laugh. Filo, a boy who speaks two or three words per day and who Roger describes as “the most savage warrior of the group,” sits down to talk with Brandon who is entertaining himself watching Youtube videos on his phone. Dany, a skinny seventeen-year-old with a big scar that runs across his face and neck, and Charro, possibly the most likeable of the group, control the sound system and rap along to songs by La Santa Grifa. “…Today I dance with death, fifteen-years-old, I was just an adolescent. I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to die, now I can’t smile anymore…” They shout the words by the singer, Yusak.
The rest: a whirlwind of children between ten- and twelve-years-old swirl around the patio. Raquel’s cousin and mother, both blind drunk, shout over the others.
Her bedroom is roofed with zinc sheeting, which means that at midday in San Pedro, given enough time sitting here, we would slowly be cooked… even with the window swung out as far as the hinges can go. A few brave birds can be heard singing from the yard. From a light post—one without light—springs a mess of cables that untangle as they run through the bedroom pinned to the walls and the boards to which the metal roof is fastened. A fan buzzes and strains to circulate air through the room.
“I’ve been living in the Rivera for thirty-two years.
My sister was widowed in that massacre on the soccer field. We lost my brother-in-law there, and we lost the owner of this house too. That day the whole block was in mourning. If you came by you’d see a body on every corner, one here, another over here, another over here, around the block everyone was grieving. My sister had to go to the United States to give her children a better life. I stayed,” begins Raquel. So, she took in her sister’s three kids, among them the twelve-year-old girl who crosses the patio in sandals, bringing out food, water, beer, cigarettes, whatever the boys ask for.
Raquel continues. When she was barely twenty-years-old she fell in love. Later she would explain that Fernando, a powerful figure in the neighborhood, was a gangster. Raquel knows. She has experience. From that love, which for her was a refuge from a violent family, a boy was born, a prize for Fernando, the firstborn son who deserved the respect of the whole neighborhood. Andy, the patrolman of Cesura.
“‘Doña Olga tell Fernando he’s not taking away my son,’ that’s what I said to my mother-in-law. ‘You know he’s a boy, and they raise boys to be like them.’”
Fernando spurned her, then, for her stance towards the gangs, while Andy, by association, belonged to them.
“When he was born, the very first thing [Fernando did] was take a photo with beers, a photo with his gun… Andy became the king, you know?
Fernando used to hit me all the time. That’s why I left him.”
When Raquel managed to escape the gang house and take Andy with her, she didn’t look back. She went back to the hell that was her parents’ house. Back to her alcoholic mother. Back to misery.
“We practically raised ourselves. We as sisters had to deal with two brothers. We would give the little one bean soup in a sippy cup because we could never afford milk. My older sister and I worked as cleaner at the markets. We worked for food, and we would eat with the little ones. As we grew up, we would say to one another that we would leave for the first man who came along. We’d move on from here the first chance we go, and I think that was our mistake. I never had a birthday.”
And the first man who celebrated her birthday, who brought her a cake the day she never would have expected it, Raquel told yes, that she would go with him, even though he was much older, had courted her mother first, and was in the military.
His charm lasted about as long as it took for the frosting on the cake to dissolve on her tongue. Raquel suffered his beatings even when she was pregnant. After one of those beatings she gave birth to her youngest child, and decided to leave her second tormentor.
“I stayed in Honduras because I have three boys and if I have to run away, I run with them. I would never leave them. I used to work, but I haven’t worked for two years now because I was sick with a stomach problem and had to stay at home. But yes, I need to work because the money doesn’t go far. I have three sons, in high school studying… I can’t make ends meet,” Raquel explains. “Plus this daycare I have here…”
What is life like in the Rivera Hernández?
“Horrible,” answers Raquel, an unstable, frightened woman, letting her tangled mane of hair out little by little, and letting out a tired sigh. The children are occupied with the Playstation in the Tetris-like furniture arrangement that makes up the living room of the house, adjoining the bedroom.
“Around here you have to look after the kids every day or they get killed… SUV’s drive through, pick them up, and make them disappear,” she continues. “They don’t even respect me as a woman these days, but with my faith in God I always look after the kids. So much crime…
I wish I knew how to set them on a good path, so they don’t turn into… So that the gang doesn’t snatch them away. You know the gang always snatches kids away. And I want so much for them to keep studying so they can be someone in life, someone of good standing.”
Raquel is magnetic. The unprotected—they come to her, take refuge in her home. Almost every day up to twenty-one boys come spend the afternoon and sometimes the night. She shoulders the despair, the fear, and the trauma of this ad-hoc community. And that of the women, who—like her—have known nothing but violence.
“Some come from the neighborhoods Planeta and Kitur. And others come from the Choloma sector,” Raquel adds.
Why are these boys here?
“Here the 18th Street Gang broke up; here there are no gangs; here it’s just them. Their mothers have left them in the street because they like the street life. Some have been in gangs and want to change their lives.”
And why has your house become the refuge for so many people?
“The father of my children bought this house. I hadn’t come here before because I was with him, my mom lives around here. But when he and I separated, and I was alone with the children, I couldn’t pay rent. It’s so hard to pay rent, school, food… So I decided to come to this house. I painted it [blue] and everything. They told me this house was a refuge for some of the 18th Street Gang but since my parents live around here I thought: “they’re going to respect me.” They [the gangsters] came every day and out of fear I would give them water… a tortilla… and so they got comfortable little by little. They got to the point where they would come, cry, they would vent with me. And I felt bad for them. I have boys, you know? When their mothers don’t care for them, don’t give them food… they come and say to me: “mamá Raquel, give me food,” so I do. Here, we’re in a war zone because the MS13, the Olanchanos, the 18th Street I mentioned, the Vatos Locos I mentioned… all want to take over this group of boys… These kids are in danger every day. Honestly so am I with my sons… Around here they cry. Every day. These kids hide from the gangsters, from the police, from everything. I mean, there’s no life, on this block there’s no life. They can’t find any place to go. They feel at rest when they come sit beneath these trees.”
She speaks of a block where 16-year-old children are at war, because some are “pesetas” (former members who left) of the 18th Street Gang. A peseta is like a prisoner sentenced to death—the living dead. The 18th Street Gang wants to kill them, but so do the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), because they consider them rivals. The Olanchanos too, because they are causing trouble for them in the neighborhood, attracting the attention of police. Amidst this crossfire sits Raquel’s house. A distant world, on a forgotten street, hundreds of kilometers from the capital.
Why do they run from the police?
“Here the police and the military come and kick them, and if you get involved,” Raquel raises her voice, speaking with rage, “they say to you ‘shut up! You old bitch. You don’t want me to put a bullet in you too.’ It’s sad for me to see how the fathers of those kids do nothing. I don’t know what to do.” She adds, laughing nervously, “I buy food for the whole month. But after seventeen days I have no more food. My ex-husband sends food only for me and for my kids, but how can I tell him I have twenty-one sons-of-bitches holed up here asking me for food…?”
Could it be that these twenty-one boys are forming a new gang?
“No. At least, not as far I know. I tell them: “if you’re gangsters, don’t come here to me. Don’t speak to me, because I have sons…” These are kids that left the gangs, that want to change their lives, but since people have already seen them in gangs they aren’t trusted. These kids are growing up that way: no one loves them, they look at them like cockroaches, they can’t go looking for work. I tell them, ‘look at my Andy, he studies and works. Look for a job.’ They tell me, ‘we can’t, we’re already burned.’”
Being “burned” means that you’ve been seen “collaborating” with one of the gangs in Rivera Hernandez. It doesn’t matter which gang, your particular affiliation, or your location. Someone can assume you were doing something that you may not even have been doing. Or you could have simply not done something that was expected of you at a given moment. Not greeting someone. Turning down the wrong street. It is a difficult stigma to get rid of. In many cases, in San Pedro Sula, living in a neighborhood controlled by a gang closes nearly all of the doors to employment when you leave your streets of origin behind. If there is any possibility that a person belongs to a gang—and this includes people from entire neighborhoods—no courtesy is given.
A Death in the Neighborhood, I
Andy, Brandon, Silent, Dany, and Filo are all sitting on the same bed. The overgrown grass in the patio grows is to hip level. Since last night, they’ve been hiding in a precarious space of questionable security; a secret stash house for arms and people, surrounded by a broken down cinder block wall covered in graffiti, the classic area RIPs, dedicated to a Mario and to a Moi. Clothes hang from a cable that traverses the patio from corner to corner. They sit in sandals without shirts, wet from head to toe, tense and nervous and at the mercy of a feeble fan that moves as slowly as the digestion rate of a desert animal accustomed to the burning heat. They swallow from the fear, the adrenaline, the waiting, forced to make difficult decisions without few options. In the other corner of the yard, beside the wash basin, Roger is refreshing himself by pouring buckets of water over his head.
Looking from the street, the hideout is a dusty house littered with trash that looks like it’s about to burst into flames, ignited by the midday sun.
The military police patrol the area insistently, looking for those responsible for the shooting that left a body in the street a few hours before. In their street, in their territory. According to Raquel, it was the man who collects bottles and cans for recycling. He was the father of members of the Mara Salvatrucha in the adjacent neighborhood. She speculates that the Cesura boys shot him for two reasons: as a personal attack on the Salvatrucha and because they believed that each time he came into the neighborhood collecting trash the man was taking information from the center of Cesura back to the enemy neighborhood.
The Cesura boys say that the man was killed by three stray bullets. Three. On the other side of the border, in the Salvatrucha neighborhood, the shooting is interpreted as an open declaration of war.
“Little motherfuckers! You can suck my dick you piece of shit. Where you at? Where’s your crew, motherfucker?” Psychological war through WhatsApp audio messages on Andy’s phone. “We came up yesterday!” shouts one of the Salvatruchas from the adjacent neighborhood. “What’s up, where’s your crew? Come on down. Come down, we’ll be right here at the mango tree.”
“Come on! You’re gonna hear what this rifle sounds like, motherfucker. You think we’re kidding, you shit. We’re everywhere. The Mara Salvatrucha. A couple of weak little girls! That’s all you are, motherfuckers.” Another gang member joins the festival of insults and threats. “You’re gonna see the Beast in the streets. The Salvatrucha. The Mara Salvatrucha…” At the same time, the other one shouts, “We’re gonna chop you up into little pieces of panollo. You’re gonna meet the Beast.”
Despite the onslaught of threats, the boys feel confident leaving the hideout once the police have left. Andy is on the phone and shares the backseat of the car with Silent, while Roger acts as copilot and plans the tour along the border of Cesura. They stop for a moment.
What by night was just two streetlights in the distance submerged in petroleum, takes a more lifelike form up close and in daylight. It’s a contradictory landscape: a bucolic side street, bright-colored houses juxtaposed with arid desert vegetation or rainforest thicket. Damaged houses abandoned by families threatened or extorted by the gangs.
On one of the many gray cinder block walls, next to 18th Street is a tag half-covered with white paint and scrawled with black spray paint in large letters: “The Locos of Cesura.” The graffiti marks the border of the neighborhood, a warning to the Salvatruchas. From this point on, they will encounter resistance. It’s a seemingly bold statement coming from these boys standing before the behemoth that is MS13. They say that none of the twenty-one boys who frequent Raquel’s house had anything to do with the graffiti. The tag was done by another boy who just went to prison, explains Roger, who, on the other hand, accepts credit for the painted words off to one side that reads “Christ loves you.”
They say they are more afraid of the police than of the Salvatrucha. But when two adolescents on bikes appear from the enemy neighborhood, each with a gun on the handlebars, Roger decides it’s time to disappear.
Maybe that name, “The Locos of Cesura,” is not just improvised. It seems more and more like a well-earned title.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about leaving. But I’m afraid too, because I don’t know… if I run into one of them on the way… They’ve already told me a few times, ‘if you want to come I’ll arrange to bring you, with a coyote and everything…’ But honestly I don’t know, I’m afraid too, but sometimes I think it’s better if I go because I don’t want something to happen to me. No one wants to die, you know?”
When Dany talks about leaving, he is referring to crossing the Honduran border, traveling through Guatemala and Mexico to arrive in the United States. When Dany speaks he is telling the recent history of Honduras. The whys.
We move away from the noise of the group and the chickens that spend the day on the patio of Raquel’s house, but you can still hear Charro’s cackling, filtering into the lapel microphone that Dany wears on the collar of his t-shirt next to the black rosary. He smokes a cigarette, arms extended confidently over the top of the “sofa”—a metal frame strung with plastic cords—as if to signal: ask me whatever you want.
You know the police are saying that there’s a new gang forming here? A gang of pesetas?
“No, but that’s not a gang. Peseta means they left the gang without asking permission, knowing that the only way out is death. Pesetas used to be here when they left the gang. The ones who are really pesetas already went away. But then they come back. When they come back, they wait six months or a year, two years, but when they come even they [the pesetas] come to kill people from here because they think they’re running with crews from out there [the Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street Gang, and Olanchanos].”
Across the 17-year-old’s face, a scar runs from his cheek down his neck, precariously grazing an artery that pulses near the surface of the skin. Dany has two more scars on his elbow and knee. Barely perceptible now, he takes a minute to find them.
“After what happened to me I ended up like… I don’t trust almost anyone,” Dany confesses, fully aware that what he’s saying includes the person in front of him asking questions, but he keeps talking…
“I was living in Los Bordos [in the Rivera sector], I grew up there, with my mom and dad. When my dad died, my mom brought me to her mother’s house [to Cesura]. After that I was going to school and right away I had a problem with the gang here.” He waves toward the Mara Salvatrucha territory. “To get to school I had to pass through there [MS13 neighborhood]; to get over here,” he says, waving in the opposite direction, where the Pedraza school is located. “Two weeks in this happened, the machete to the neck.”
Dany approached the border of the neighborhood controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, 200 yards from Cesura, without quite crossing it. The audacity of wanting to go to school and educate himself, and passing close to enemy territory for the 18th Street Gang, according to him, had resulted in Tempo, Ted, The Monster, Chiqui-boy, and a guy named Joseph almost chopping him to pieces with a machete. As if by being near the enemy, the identity of their adversaries had entered his body by diffusion.
For Dany, as for many boys of the Rivera sector, it would be very hard to get to the airport on foot and beg to be let onto a plane.
“I used to hang out with this friend. I didn’t know what he was into. He would tell me ‘let’s go over there…’ he would buy me things… So I would hang around with him. I was at a corner store [in the Kitur neighborhood, 18th Street Gang territory] when they came. 18th Street] showed up in a car, pulled me inside and put something over my head so I couldn’t see anything. But they didn’t take me far; I knew where I was… They were saying ‘you’re gonna die today, you’re about to learn what the 18th Street is about…’ I was crying from nerves and everything. Fear and everything. One came and grabbed a machete and hit me here.” With his hand, he traces the line of the scar from cheek to neck. “When he hit me in the neck I covered myself up and they hit me here.” Dany gestures toward his elbow. “Then I fell on the floor and they hit me here.” He points to the scar on his knee. “They went away. I don’t know what they went away for, they were talking… I untied myself the best I could, because I was bound at the hands, I used my mouth to take it off, opened a door and left, and since I knew my way around there I jumped into some bushes. On the other side of the bushes, I grabbed a moto-taxi and he brought me back here. I told him I would pay later and he said it was fine. I came running here and I told them to call a taxi. After what happened to me, they [the pesetas] all left. Although to them [the MS13] all the young kids who live here are pesetas.”
Dany explains that he never got as far as formally joining the 18th Street Gang. He remained at paisa, a collaborator.
According to Dany, everyone in Cesura was leaving, until one day between January and April of 2018 a can of black spray paint baptized the neighborhood with “The Locos of Cesura,” perhaps with the objective of declaring themselves different from the pesetas who lived here before. Different from the 18th Street Gang. Different from the Mara Salvatrucha 13. And different from the Olanchanos…
Who else had problems like the ones you had here in Cesura?
“The boy you spoke with last night… “
Miguel speaks for almost seventeen minutes straight. He sits on Raquel’s father’s bed in front of an enormous wardrobe that forms a wall and divides the room in two, under the extremely white light emitted by the only bulb in the shack adjoining the little blue house. A black, flat-brimmed hat casts a shadow that covers half of his face. It is clear there is much he needs to unload: making use of a prodigious memory he quickly recounts—as if he had told it a thousand times—each event in his life, from the time he began to collaborate with the 18th Street Gang until now.
“I lived in the Kitur neighborhood, near the Planeta. The crew I started falling in with was the 18th Street Gang. Little by little, I started leaving the house, forming friendships, going out to the discotechs… Like that, little by little, I got into the gang. I met a kid there, we became great friends, we got closer and we were together wherever we went. He and I knew about the problems in the neighborhood. We knew when they were going to do hits, I mean going on missions and all that. Then later we went our separate ways a bit, him on his path and me on mine. I stopped hanging out in the street. He split off and found a woman, started looking for a job, and I got a job… Then I left my house and started getting into street life again. Locally I had already joined the mara. I mean, by our decree,” he quickly corrects himself, “the pandilla, right?”
For the 18th Street Gang in Honduras, the word mara refers to the Mara Salvatrucha. More generally in Honduran spanish, both the words mara and pandilla translate as gang.
Even though the 18th Street wants to kill him, Miguel continues to refer to them as “we.” A tacit feeling of belonging that has percolated in his blood.
“Little by little they started telling me I had to do this, that I had to do that… Really when they asked me to go on those missions, I had to do it because otherwise they would kill me, you know?”
Why did you start carrying guns and collecting war taxes from people, extorting?
“The friendships, really, most of all. They started saying ‘try this, try that, go do this and that…’ Little by little, like I said. No matter what my mom said, I didn’t pay attention and these are the consequences: they’re looking for me to kill me. When you’re young you’re a little stupid. Now I regret it but there’s always something that forces you… I liked being in the street and the discotechs.”
Did someone force you into the gang?
“In reality there was nothing that forced me. I mean, it was my decision. I had everything at home: I always had food, clean clothes, everything. They just came and asked if I wanted to run with them, because I got along well with them, but I wasn’t too crazy about it. At first I would tell them no, that I had to think about it. I thought about my mom. Later on it’s hard to get out of that lifestyle. The only way is if the person becomes a Christian or finds a woman and has to think about their kids, otherwise they can’t. I’ve known kids that had to kill their mothers to be someone in the gang. If the gang says he has to kill his mother, he has to kill her, otherwise they kill him. Now I came out here and I’m still in the same place, because there’s no one reliable who supports me. I’m still in the street because I don’t have money. I don’t leave this place, only at night, because if I walk around San Pedro there’s always someone looking. I can’t go out to work.
It’s because of money that I can’t leave. The truth is I’m afraid that they’re going to kill me, but I always have to find the courage to go out in the street. It’s been a week since I’ve gone out, only at night. To eat, we have to collect taxes from [extort] mobile shops or other people with businesses. We have to stay up late so we can wake up late and not eat breakfast, just lunch. No lie, ask the rest of the kids… they don’t eat well either. No one eats beans and all that around here. Bread and cream and a soda and that’s it. That’s the problem here.”
Night: Cards on the Table
Since this afternoon, they’ve been listening to music with the volume cranked all the way up on the enormous speaker. The soundtrack to their own movie. For the fifth time “Hierba Mala” comes on, by the rapper Vico C. It’s the story of a gang member who kills his father’s murderer. Tonight the Locos of Cesura are resting at Raquel’s house.
Roger, the only one with a steady job, won’t let go of one of the revolvers. He likes to show off. He is the most articulate of the group, with a discourse that could just as easily come from the mouth of a Zapatista commander or Mexican militia leader.
“Everyone pitches in for lead, it’s not like a tax, because people want to support us and help us buy bullets. I myself have put up money from my job. We defend this territory. We started organizing because those boys [the Salvatruchas] don’t come here to give out candy,” he says, referring to when the Mara Salvatrucha attacks them with guns. “They come here to kill us and rape the girls and break into houses and control the area.” Next he stands up, puts a shirt over his face like a ski mask, and begins to pose, a kind of dance that brings his hands together forming a sign. One forms an L and the other a C. Locos, Cesura. He waits for his performance to be recorded on video. The speech goes on. He says the community will turn in its weapons if the National Police puts a station at the corner, if they hunt down and arrest the members of the Salvatrucha and the Olanchanos that hold the neighbors here hostage…
Dany quickly ruins the show. Roger is good with words but not such a good shot. He talks too much, says Dany. But when bullets fly, he always stays back. Roger doesn’t deny it; head hanging he admits he has a little girl to take care of and a job. He takes off the t-shirt face mask and gives the revolver back to someone who knows how to use it.
Dany, the skinniest of the group, is paradoxically the one with the biggest gun: a 12-caliber sawed-off shotgun. His father was a respected member of the gang from which this group formed: the 18th Street Gang. But they killed him just like all the other members the gang once had in this neighborhood. They killed him while Dany was at an evangelical camp when he was twelve-years-old. That’s why he doesn’t go anywhere near camps now; they bring back bad memories. It seems to him that God played him dirty that day.
One day, out of the blue, Dany said: “You want to hear about the first time I killed? The 18th Street boys put the two guys who killed my dad in front of me. They said I had to kill them, and I wanted to, right? I shot one in the head. I watched how he dropped to the ground… When I saw that I couldn’t kill the second one. I think those boys killed him.”
Dany shows off his shotgun with pride. It’s a heavy gun and the biggest the group has. When he fires it, the shot rings out all over the neighborhood. But the weapon isn’t effective like it used to be. He says, sadly, that it’s rare that he manages to kill someone with it. He thinks the shotgun has gotten old.
But the problem isn’t the years or the rust that’s taking hold from being buried and dug up each time he hides it. Dany doesn’t know it: the problem is that the cartridges he’s firing were designed to kill something else. Bird shots. It could kill a human being, but only at short range. Lesson learned, but it seems absurd to him that someone would use a shotgun to kill birds. In his world, guns have just one purpose. That’s why he gets annoyed when he fires his shotgun and doesn’t see his enemies get blown to pieces, like before, when he had the correct ammunition, when his weapon was younger.
They have two rusty old revolvers that they rotate depending on who’s assigned to guard duty that day. They jokingly call them “traps,” but the joke is all too real, the description is accurate. Sometimes Silent has them, sometimes Rubio, who is barely sixteen-years-old. The invasions by the Mara Salvatrucha have come more and more often. Last week, they came three times a day. It’s a lot of shots to fire and too little money.
Each week, the money is given to Filo, the vicious one with a baby face, timid smile, and chipped teeth. Nobody would ever recognize him as the fiercest warrior in the group. Filo is charged with going to buy ammunition in downtown San Pedro Sula. He has to cross enemy territory—at least four invisible borders—to get to a dealer who illegally sells guns and ammunition.
That day, in light of the Salvatrucha offensive, the Locos of Cesura have prepared a surprise for their enemies: Molotov cocktails. They aren’t totally sure how they will use them, but they want to watch the Salvatruchas burn.
As time passes, nothing happens. Night arrives, but not their enemies. They smoke cigarettes. They swing in the old hammock in Raquel’s yard, smoking marijuana. They tell jokes and laugh. Nothing. The San Pedro Sula night echoes the soul of the neighborhood. When the hip-hop and reggaeton go off, the nocturnal insects and birds come alive. A light breeze filters through the tree branches. Suddenly some distant shots ring out. “Must be the Terraceños. They’re going after them all the time,” says Raquel, making reference to a new gang who, like all gangs, wants to conquer as much territory as possible.
Such is the sound of this place, between the songs of a bucolic town and the hysterical shouts of an industrial city. The Locos are bored. One plays on his cell phone, another sleeps. Raquel prepares some baleadas, a typical food in Honduras: a folded flour tortilla with eggs and beans. Baleada literally translates roughly to “shot” or “gunned down.” According to the most common version of the story, the meal inherited its name from its creator, a woman who died by gunfire.
Close to midnight, shouts from the look-outs alert the group. The Salvatruchas are coming in along the main street. The Locos run, grab their guns, and head out to face them, travelling along both sides of the sidewalk under the cover of shadow. There are two enemy gang members that have crossed the imaginary line that divides the territories. Filo goes in front. Brandon, the dark-skinned nineteen-year-old, goes behind him with one of the revolvers. Rubio follows with Dany’s shotgun.
The Salvatruchas manage to spot them in the darkness and take off running. The Locos celebrate inwardly. You can glimpse their happiness in the smiles. But they think it’s a trap and that they might come up on the other side, or on a side street. They take off running in a frenzy. They know that those who stayed behind in Raquel’s yard only have Molotov cocktails to defend themselves. They get to the street’s two entrance points, but no one is there. This time they managed to scare them off. Now, real happiness. Celebration. They sit down covered in sweat and slap each other on the back, laughing.
Vico C comes back on and Hierba Mala dies again for the millionth time.
It’s always like that: “This was the last time those guys come in here. They won’t be back until tomorrow,” Roger explains, with agreement from the others. A surprise attack that doesn’t observe protocol would be devastating for them. They pull out cold beers. They pull out a few bags of poor quality cocaine and happily sing along to Hierba Mala. They celebrate this night like it’s their last.
A Death in the Neighborhood, II
A day has gone by since the Salvatrucha incursion into the neighborhood, the beers, and the bad cocaine. Some of the boys have barely slept. Drugs mixed with anti-sleeping pills have left their neurons fried and pupils dilated.
A man enters Cesura on foot from Salvatrucha territory, a plastic and glass collector.
The Locos are nervous, they say it was an exchange of gunfire, that people are careless and don’t find cover when they’re fighting. They also say they didn’t realize when the three bullets ended the recycler’s life.
They say, they say, they say. The Locos’s best explanation to justify the bloodshed is that the recycler was a spy.
The Locos aren’t sure, but they suspect the Mara Salvatrucha is preparing its retribution. Tonight there is no Hierba Mala, no music, no cocaine, nothing but tension and fear.
“We were right in front of you motherfuckers. Right in your faces. You’re going down, you’re going down, you’re going down. We’re coming for you motherfuckers…”
The audio messages keep coming, this time the threats spoken by a woman. The message accomplishes its objective. The Locos are worried, to put it mildly. It’s before dawn and they’ve decided to call a meeting, listening to the message again and again. Silent and Roger suddenly appear to recognize the woman’s voice: “That bitch is Wendy,” they say and run in the direction of the room where they keep the guns. Raquel stops them with a shout: “Where do you think you’re going? Get back here now,” she says with all the forcefulness she can summon.
The Locos obey, and she more calmly helps them understand that it’s exactly what the Salvatruchas want. If they run outside into these streets, they’ll be ambushed. More audio messages come in. All in the same style. They say they will kill them, then run their families out of the neighborhood. The message penetrates deep among the Locos.
A day has gone by since the messages. Filo and Dany guard one of the alleyways packing, respectively, a nine millimeter and the shotgun loaded with birdshot. Silence. They don’t even smoke, so as not to give up their location. Far off they hear a murmur, some footsteps, the metallic sounds of guns being loaded. A group of Mara Salvatrucha have crossed the border into the alleyway and may be here to fulfill their threats. But they don’t have the prodigious soldier that the Locos of Cesura do: the Salvatrucha front man receives the first two shots from Filo’s pistol and falls to the ground, unconscious.
The second enters the alleyway firing and tries to pull his companion out. Two more shots. Dany fires a round from his shotgun and although he doesn’t take down any enemies, he does scare them. The Salvatruchas retreat, dragging their wounded back to their muddy territory of squalid houses, only different from Cesura, because it’s on the other side of the pool of blood just left in the street by the shootout.
The Locos don’t have much ammunition left now, and Raquel doesn’t have much food left to feed them. They’re afraid and they’ve made the Mara Salvatrucha bleed.
Part II: The Final Silence
No one saw anything, or at least that’s what the neighbors say when asked what happened. The only version of the story we have is from the Locos, who assure us that the Salvatruchas have seen our faces and it isn’t safe to go asking questions in their enemy’s neighborhood.
Two frayed sacks in which the old man carried his plastic bottles and a dried pool of his blood in the dirt are the only proof of the pre-dawn showdown. A corpse and a very audible silence, much like the silence of mourning, although no one knew the dead man. The only information about him is that he collected recyclable trash to scrape a few cents together. That he was the father of two Salvatruchas from the neighborhood that borders Cesura.
The breeze today evokes something different. It’s much more than just relief from the heat on sunburned skin. The gusts sound like gentle rain and brustle the leaves along in waves.
Outside, a man has died, the father of two of their enemies, who quite possibly are enraged and want to kill everything that moves and breathes in Cesura. They’re better off inside this feeble, rusty tin wall.
What moves the treetops today are the winds of war.
The Locos are meeting around a circle, sitting in the shade of Raquel’s yard, thinking about what to do. Charro sits up from the hammock and breaks the silence…
“Everyone save a bullet. If they grab you, put one in your own head,” he says, smiling with a twisted gesture. One that may well be the face of normalized violence in Honduras. And of the hopelessness. He holds his hands behind his head and reclines back into the hammock, fixing his eyes on the crown of the epic mango tree. Roger emulates the gesture and leans back in the little metal chair that his body overflows. Filo, Andy, and Brandon do the same…
“Help us, Locos. We’re fucking scared,” Roger pleads.
Paralysis. There’s no possible solution other than the obvious one they always reject: calling the police.
“Well… we kill them or we kill ourselves?” Charro asks, making sure that everyone understood what he said before and that the proposal to call the police had been rejected. Filo smiles without looking at him. “We go or we stay?” he answers. More funeral silence. They don’t have anywhere to go. If they could, they’ve all said, they would go to the United States.
“We’re dead,” Charro says, as if talking to himself, and then bursts out laughing. Andy again puts on the the song by Santa Grifa from his phone: “Today I dance with death, 15 years, I was just an adolescent…” And Roger loses his temper.
“Loco, stop calling death,” he complains, as he stands up and leaves for his house. In unison the Locos laugh at him, first of all because it’s funny to see the oldest in the group so afraid, and because there’s no need to call death, for it to come around here.
The Locos’s meeting happened after a couple of visits to Cesura, separated by three months. The scene of the Locos together in Raquel’s yard thinking about their inevitable death left a deep impression, a summary of the daily Honduran tragedy. In the notebook there were just a few written lines and nothing else:
One of the saddest things that I’ve witnessed
the sensation of watching a library go up in flames
a heavy emotional collapse from which a fast escape is the only option
a hopeless peak of violence
All failed attempts to describe what happened.
The world according to one’s perspective. Not everyone can afford to indulge themselves. If the field of vision is expanded far enough to see the non-human perspective, that of presidents, governments and gang leaders, the people on the streets tend to become very small, barely ants. At a 1:1 scale, from the ant hill, it’s human. It matters not to die. Within capitalism, the poor people—the Hondurans—are disposable and transferable resources. The Locos served the gang and today their position is that of kill or be killed, defend their neighborhood or watch it burn and be colonized by stronger ants.
Everyone is disoriented by youth, fear, and inexperience in these matters. Everyone, that is, except for Raquel, who is the only one capable of taking two steps back and thinking clearly, widening her field of vision and making a presidential decision. In a decisive act of leadership, she redirects the conversation on collective suicide towards a subject that for the Locos seems less complicated, even for Charro: a death that could have happened and didn’t.
“Did you know that they sent Charro to kill me?” she asks, looking out of the corner of her eye and pointing with her lips to her the one who was going to be her executioner. Again silence, but this time it gives way to curiosity.
Who sent you to kill Raquel, Charro?
“But I was sorry, Raquel, I wouldn’t have done that, God forbid,” Charro responds quickly, diverting attention from the previous question.
“These kids are alright,” Raquel concludes, defining the color gray as if she had invented it. And then she adds, “Hide those guns, because for sure tonight the police will come through and I don’t want them to find those things in my house. I don’t want to go to jail for you idiots.”
Where were you born?
“I was born in 1998. Around the way. Another part of Cesura. I’ve lived there all my life. But I was born in the hospital, I don’t know what it’s called…”
What was your childhood like in the neighborhood?
“All my life, there have been gang fights and everything, the only thing is… I didn’t get into all that. When I was a kid we would play soccer, drink sodas, all that…”
Did you go to school?
“Yeah, I went to José Pedraza. I lived with my mom, my dad, my brothers and my grandmother. My mom is 49, my dad 56, something like that.”
How old are your brothers and sisters?
“One brother is twenty-one, one little brother is fifteen, and I have a little sister who’s eight. She doesn’t go out, she stays in with my mom.”
Where is your house?
“On the corner where Novedades is.” (Novedades is a convenience store in the middle of Cesura.)
On the corner where the old man died, the other day after the confrontation with the guys from the Mara Salvatrucha?
“Yeah, right there.”
Silent answers the questions in a soaking wet bathing suit next to the pool of the Casa Colonial hotel in San Pedro Sula, a huge house with a central garden located on the slopes of the Merendón mountains in the Juan Lindo neighborhood. It is the opposite of Cesura: an upper class neighborhood full of mansions, luxury cars, parks, high perimeter walls with guard towers, and perfectly paved streets. Streets that are nothing like those of his home, where his sisters was playing one December 25th a few years ago.
You mentioned you had a fourteen-year-old sister…
“Yeah, she died. And also another brother who was twenty-eight or thirty-one that they killed. For Christmas they came to pawn a bike with my dad. My dad didn’t have much money and he talked with the old man and told him he didn’t even have money for food. My dad told him he only had ten bucks, something like that… and the bike stayed. On December 25th my sister was riding it around the block and the front wheel went into a pothole, and the bike fell on top of her. One of those little bikes. I don’t know how the doctor said it exactly: some liquid had exploded in my sister’s knee. At that point her foot started to swell up and then her knee started to swell up. My mom started looking for little clinics and they gave her medicine for the swelling. Then my mom took more serious steps and took her special places, you know with specialists. The doctor asked her ‘why didn’t you act earlier?’ She told him we didn’t have all the money. The doctor told her she was already in bad condition. The cancer in her knee had already spread to her lungs. Her lung was full of cancer.”
Silent clears the knot in his throat. “We still didn’t have enough money, and the doctors said they had to amputate her foot. My mom thought about it and talked with me and everything, I told her: ‘as long as my sister lives, it’s fine.’ I accepted what happened. One day I came home from work and asked about her, and they brought her out in a wheelchair. She came out of it real bad, her eyes were rolling around… something they injected her with, I don’t know what it’s called…”
“Yeah, that, anesthesia. It was too strong. She even lost her hair after all that. We had her with a wig. After some time it [the cancer] started to eat her other lung. The doctors asked for $2,000. We didn’t have that huge amount. With my brother we would go out early. With her photo pasted to a water jug, we would ask for money in the street. We never managed to collect the $2,000. She passed away after that. They had already killed my other brother in Villanueva (the neighbourhood).”
Silent has the rigid expression of an old farmer. Flat forehead, wrinkled brow, thick hook nose. He remembers his childhood as a happy time. According to him, “all my life there have been gang fights” in his neighborhood, but in those years he didn’t participate. “All my life” is twenty years. It’s all he knows. “When I was a kid we would play soccer, drink sodas…” he says, fixing his gaze on the floor and tearing his cuticles compulsively. “When my sister was still alive I was already in the streets,” he comments before we get back in the pool to cool off. He means he was living the gang life.
Silent was introduced to the 18th Street Gang through one of his cousins, in a neighborhood near Cesura. He is one of the few pesetas remaining in Cesura. He had a plaza, a position within the gang’s structure. The 18th Street provided him with clothes, guns, and ammunition so that he could lead the new fledgling clique that he was forming on his own in Cesura and manage the “well” (a corner where they sell drugs).
There’s always someone—a brother, an uncle, a step brother, or a friend—with their hand on the knob that opens the door to the gang. This is an easy generalization to justify in San Pedro Sula, just as you can ask anyone if they knew someone who died violently, and they will always say yes.
“I made my decisions because I thought my life didn’t have meaning, there was no solution: my sister was doing really bad and my brother had already passed away.” MS13 had murdered him in Villanueva. “They were hitting me where my soul would hurt the most. All that made me get into bad things,” Silent explains. “The 18th Street elevates you. They give you the moon and the stars. They say to you… Well they don’t say, they act. They give whatever you ask for: they gave me clothes, shoes, phone, internet, guns… the basics that you get at home but… not guns and all that. They taught me to use them. The one I was closest with was a crazy guy they called El Diablo, a guy from the Kitur 2 neighborhood. He knew all about the 18th Street and told me that I had to start as a runner on the corners and as a triggerman. I started out as a runner, I stayed on the corners taking care of them. I started moving up, then I became their homeboy. That’s when everything started…”
At Raquel’s house, collective silences occur at least once a day. They are extremely heavy moments that feel like the silence of an entire species has descended without notice. They take a long while to abate; they are filled with oppressive, intensifying thoughts.
Jafet, the Locos’s rapper, broke the last silence. He broke it rapping. And in doing so, he shows why countries like Spain they send rappers to prison for the content of their songs. When rap is composed the way Jafet does it, it’s a force for change.
Jafet puts the recorder on the tripod, pulls it to the center of the yard, and adjusts it to the level of his face, like a singer adjusting his equipment on stage. He has no intention of recording himself, he just wants to look like a rap star. He doesn’t even try to turn the device on. Dany takes care of that. The first thing he raps—almost a capella, if it weren’t for the penetrating rhythm provided by the crickets—is a sweet love song that he wrote himself. Everyone applauds.
For the second song he looks for a beat on YouTube and asks that someone verify that the recorder is on…
The gunfight is on,
I’ll kill you any which way, motherfuckers
Why do you get me mad?
I’ll leave you all shot dead with your pistols on your hips
And if you could see…
A fortunate moment of bashfulness makes Jafet stop rapping and he loses his flow. For a moment he covers his face with his hands, and Rubio jumps in to keep the song going.
And if you want to then come,
but come ready.
And if you come at me shooting,
it’s ‘cause you haven’t seen me.
Don’t get crazy,
better to be careful.
Cause the crew from Cesura
…And if you could see…
How the gunfight went down,
in the Rivera.
Better not come at us
if you don’t want us to blow your heads off.
The yard of the little blue house transitions from tension, through a big bang, to a celebratory atmosphere fueled by Jafet’s violent rap performance. Tonight the Locos’s music can be heard all the way from the Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. They put on 90s era Daddy Yankee songs: curiously, the same music that was played during the decade of gang emergence in Rivera Hernandez.
The Locos dance by the light of the bulb that hangs from the mango tree. They show off their break-dance skills, laugh, and jump around holding hands.
They try to forget that if they could, they would get far away from Cesura.
Jafet, sixteen, is the youngest of the Locos.
The dancing provides a pause that dissipates the tension for a while. The break just before the change in slope along the Locos’s parabola. It’s the pivotal moment before the pieces begin to fall back to the ground. Expecting an imminent attack by the Mara Salvatrucha, the Locos redouble their efforts on lookout. Dany can no longer keep himself awake without cocaine, which makes him volatile and uncontrollable, according to Raquel, and that scares her.
Silent, Filo, and Andy seem calm, waiting patiently for the footsteps that sound over and over in their heads to finally materialize. The rest have decided to take refuge in other houses. Roger argues that he has a daughter and he can’t fight anymore. He goes back to his family because the little blue house these days shines fluorescent white for their rivals from the next neighborhood. Dany says they’re all pussies, that they shouldn’t play with fire if they can’t handle the burn.
Four active Locos remain. Four against a titan, a massive and well-armed gang. Four staying put and not running away terrified. It would appear that they really are locos. They say they’re staying to take care of Raquel, although it’s possible it’s the other way around.
The first to leave Cesura was Miguel. He didn’t say where or why. He just left. His companions’ hypothesis is that he didn’t leave an explanation for their own safety, and it’s possible he left mojado (Spanish slang for illegal migration) for the United States. One or two more followed Miguel, which means the group is quickly weakening at the same time that they feel the Beast breathing down their necks. So far, the fight is in their heads and hasn’t really arrived, but the Locos know it’s only a temporary reprieve. The Salvatruchas will try to fulfill their threats. They are good at waiting and better when it comes to not forgetting. The gang has a memory, a violent oral tradition that is never erased. A bloody heritage that is downloaded onto those who survive at the end of the day, those who remain when one of the members dies.
Raquel has convinced the Locos that the best thing is to ask for help—indirectly—from Subcommissioner Murillo. She knows they won’t be able to defend against the next assault from the Salvatruchas. They’ve sent someone to the UMEP 8 to speak for the neighbors of Cesura. They want them to patrol the area regularly to avoid more confrontations. Of course they are afraid. They feel the situation has gotten out of control. After all, they are children fighting against a titan, and they know they’ll be crushed if they don’t get help.
“My phone number is public,” Murillo responds. “People can call me anytime. We have active profiles of several boys from that area. We have information that in the area there is a small new gang in formation and that is generating problems there. We’ll see what we can do…”
The wait is extended, and the police won’t be coming tonight. Once again the Honduran state decides to turn its back on the people of Cesura.
“If we lived in one of those residential areas the police would have come a long time ago. We’d even have a police station here by now,” Raquel exclaims.
The next morning during a patrol by the new National Anti-Gang Force—created in 2018 by the government of Juan Orlando Hernández, with the goal of uniting all of the state security corps— Silent is apprehended with Raquel’s cousin while trying to flee the police patrol that had just entered Cesura. They fled, according to those who ran faster and weren’t caught by the police, for fear of the violent police searches that happen frequently in the area. Afterward, Silent and Raquel’s cousin were accused on charges of extortion. The proof of the crime: 500 lempiras ($25) that they were carrying in their pocket. Which, according to Dany, was placed there by the police themselves. Another common story in the Rivera Hernández.
On a San Pedro Sula news broadcast later that afternoon, Silent’s arrest was shown off as one of the achievements of the new police force. Then he was sent to the maximum security prison known as El Pozo (The Well). Someday he will be tried.
After the apprehension of the two Locos, the neighbors of Cesura, who have shared Raquel’s struggles, started to wonder. From defeat is born resentment and conspiracies. There are those who believe that she herself—together with the journalists who were writing the story—was responsible for the incarceration of two of the Locos and the subsequent Salvatrucha encroachment on the neighborhood.
In the end—which here is really the beginning—it was the police that ended the verse of the Locos in Cesura. A stone thrown into the pond of reality, waves that won’t ebb away until the fear has dissipated. They dealt the final blow to the group which, at their darkest hour, defended their neighborhood against those who in theory were worse. Worse, until—with their backs against the wall and swords at their chests—the only thing left to do was fight for their lives.
According to Raquel, a few days later two neighbors, friends of hers, were threatened by a group of Salvatruchas and forced to abandon their homes. A red SUV, property of the gang, according to Raquel, has been scouring the neighborhood for the rest of the Locos.
The Beast is hunting for the Locos in Cesura just like they promised.
Raquel fears for her life. On one hand, she thinks her neighbors could kill her for having betrayed the neighborhood. On the other, she thinks the police will arrest her for harboring the Locos. Or, in the worst case scenario, she believes the Mara Salvatrucha will come after her, lacking protection, will find her and her family. She abandons Cesura and seeks refuge at the home of a family member.
“I’m here temporarily,” she confessed from her exile. “When things calm down I’ll go back because I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
When the ripples on the pond ebb away.
You can still hear the music blasting from the loudspeakers in the yard of the little blue house. But little by little the volume decreases. Eventually, they will end up going silent.
In the last communication with Raquel, she recounted that three days earlier Brandon had disappeared. She believes he was kidnapped, because all of his belonging remained in his house, including his shoes.
“No one goes [to the United States] barefoot,” she said.
This project was produced in partnership with GNCSTE with support from OSF.
 In Cesura “hotspots” refer to areas that have been the scene of murder(s).
 That is, the Rivera Sector, not the Rivera Hernández neighborhood.
 Other neighbourhoods that belong to the Rivera sector, like Cesura.
 Panollo is a derogatory term to describe members of the 18th Street gang.
 José Pedraza is located near the soccer field in the Felipe Zelaya neighborhood where the massacre of fourteen people occurred in 2010.
 A runner is, among other things, a lookout for the gang and the person that passes them information about what happens in his assigned location.
German Andino was born in 1984. He is a Honduran journalist.
Jennifer Avila Reyes is a honduran journalist. She cofounder and editor in chief of Contracorriente, a news media outlet in Honduras, since 2017. She has previously been a documentary filmmaker and radio broadcaster in Honduras, as well as a fixer and freelance for digital media outlets in Latinamerica and Europe.
Juan Martínez was born in d'Aubuisson, El Salvador, 1986. He is a sociocultural anthropologist and journalist.