October 27, 2011

How do we cope with crime in Honduras? (Part V)

School girls buy ice drinks at crime scene in La Ceiba, Honduras
Source: El Faro — Atlántida se hunde
Photo: Daniel Valencia Caravantes

As a general rule, the Honduran people are resilient. They stoically accept the injustices for which they have been subject for centuries and just try to live their lives as best they can without expecting anything from their government and without worrying about things that they don't have the power to change. Public opinion polls generally show that Honduran people are among the most pessimistic about their country, but unexpectedly show that individually they are among the happiest in Latin American countries. That might be because their expectations are lower.

I think that is now changing to some degree because of the fear of crime.

How much crime is related to narcotrafficking in Honduras?

There is no doubt that the majority of murders in Honduras are related to narcotrafficking and organized crime. The manner of killing often points to that. The Observatorio de la Violencia reports that 33.9% of 2010 homicides were by hired assassins. Other categories of motives (murders committed in connection with robbery, rape, domestic violence, etc.) barely rate a blip in the statistics.

Some authorities estimate that 80% of the crime is related to organized crime but in a whopping 50.7% murder cases, the police never even came up with a motive much less a suspect. I don't know the official definition of a 'massacre' (dictionaries say it is "a large number"), but according to the director of the Observatorio, we have at least three massacres per week in Honduras.

Blame the victim

What I invariably hear from friends, family, neighbors, and expatriates, and read in the comments on news articles is that people are quick to blame the victim. "The victim must have been involved with something", or "He/she must have made someone mad", or "He/she shouldn't have resisted".

That view is often reinforced by the police who most often report that the latest killing was probably an "ajuste de cuentas" (adjustment of accounts or revenge killing) or territorial dispute among gangs or some product of organized crime. These statements are often issued within hours of the killings before any real investigation has occurred. What is worse, a proclamation of "ajuste de cuentas" seems to be synonomous with "The victim(s) deserved it. Case closed."

I sense that a 'blame the victim' mentality in Honduras helps us to deal with all the violence. We all want so badly to believe that murder only happens to bad guys or people who do stupid things but that just ain't so. With this dark cloud of violence hanging over our heads, people just have to believe that the victims must have had some fault in the matter; ergo, if I am not involved in drugs and if I don't do anything to make anyone mad, I'll be safe.

But in a country where human life holds no value, where a 'hit' can be bought for L.500 (about US $26 — ask anyone), making someone mad can be much easier than you would imagine. Standing up for yourself or for what is right in even the most mundane situation can result in retaliation — take the case of the stale bread for example. A teenage boy was sent by his mother to return a loaf of stale bread bought earlier in the day. He was shot and killed by the bakery's guard for insisting on an exchange.

So, that's something to think about every time you think about complaining about goods or services. Intimidation also results in more victimization of the Honduran people who are apt to not stand up for themselves in any unjust situation. Unfortunately, they've learned that 'justice' in any situation is hard to attain.

Even robbery or burglary victims are often said to have done something dumb. "They shouldn't have been carrying their cellphone...or laptop....or whatever." "They shouldn't have taken that taxi or walked on that road." "They shouldn't have been out at night."

Safe areas

We also want to think that all the crime is in the big bad cities of Tegus and San Pedro Sula, and that just ain't so either. It's everywhere as far as I can tell. There are just more people and more reporters in those cities so we read about it more.

The less we know about an area, the safer we feel. For example, I've been to San Pedro Sula many times and never felt unsafe or threatened. Many people would laugh about that because it is the Honduran city most warned about to travelers. But when in San Pedro, we are usually in our car, in a store, or in someone's house. The extent of our worry about crime has a lot to do with our personal knowledge.

We, like a lot of people, are less likely to go out at night. In some neighborhoods, many people do not walk or visit with their neighbors at night as they used to. Assassinations of patrons have occured outside two of our favorite La Ceiba restaurants as well as Pizza Hut, none of which is in a known high crime or dangerous area. One acquaintance who we used to run into at parties said that she doesn't see anyone anymore, that no one is giving parties and that everyone is busy just trying to make a living.

Robberies and burglaries are so commonplace that many just shrug it off as the price of living in Honduras, thankful because "it could have been worse". Everyone who can, lives behind bars and walls. The rich have armed guards and the really rich drive bullet-proofed vehicles and carry bodyguards with them at all times.

The poor do what they can with barbed wire fences and some never leave their home unless someone can be left behind to 'guard' the house, because no matter how comparatively little you might have, there is always someone who wants to take it away from you. The working poor and middle class are particularly susceptible to crime during the period of the 13th and 14th month cash payments, when the robbers are out in full force to relieve them of their hard-earned extra money.

Perception of crime

There may be someone who has been here 20 years and never been a crime victim and someone else who was robbed their first day. Since the statistics are so unreliable, all any of us can do is talk about our experiences and those of the people we know. None of us can predict what will happen to you.

Since many people don't read the newspapers every day or don't read the crime section, (as I frequently don't for the sake of my mental health), often their perception of crime correlates with how many people they know who have been crime victims or how much crime and violence is in their neighborhood.

If you've been a crime victim, crime is bad; if you haven't, well, maybe it's not that bad. Others downplay crime as "no worse than any place else" or "no worse than any large city in the USA". But most people do not live behind bars, walls, and barbed wire in the USA and there is no city in the USA or virtually anyplace else in the world whose murder rate comes anywhere near Honduras' rate of 82.1 per 100,000 or the rates of it's major cities. Most people in developed countries don't have to worry about being re-victimized by the police. And some folks just can't bear to know the facts. They downplay crime as a personal insult to their country or as a threat to their business or organization interests.

We hear about kidnappings on TV and we think — "well, those people must be rich, it doesn't affect me". Then your middle class neighbor or his child gets kidnapped, and you start worrying about your own.

Twenty people are murdered daily and everyone says that they must have been "into something". Then your friend or neighbor gets murdered, and you realize that it isn't always about what the victim did to deserve it.

Our tolerance depends upon how close to home crime hits

One expatriate described our tolerance for crime as "a cup that will hold only so much before most folks who can, will simply say they're ready to move on." Most Hondurans don't have that luxury of being able to move on to another country. But more and more I'm hearing from professional Hondurans, who do have the means and a marketable talent for making a life in another country, that they are making plans to take their families and emigrate.

Others who have been educated in foreign countries at universities as prestigous as Harvard have told me that they will never return and they specifically point to crime and corruption as the reasons. I know many Hondurans who are legal residents of other countries whose dream was always to retire and return to the homeland to live out their golden years. Some are reconsidering that decision because of the fear of crime.


One of the side effects of so much crime and so much narcotrafficking activity is that people are just a little or a lot suspicious of anyone who has a new car, a bigger house, or has moved from a less desirable neighborhood to a better one. It does appear that there are many, many people involved with organized crime, but I refuse to believe that everyone who has been able to improve their standard of living is involvled.

Often reader comments on news stories indicate that it's not a such bad thing that the narcos and gangs are killing each other off. It is easy to blame the people who stoop to getting involved with narcotrafficking and gangs. While some do it for greed, the "easy" money, or the inability to find work elsewhere, it's not always by choice.

Unless you were in the helpless position of being offered plomo o plata (lead or silver - bullet to the head or payment for services) or maybe even having the lives of your children threatened, it's hard to imagine what you would do — when you know full well that they have the power to follow through and they know that they would almost certainly never get caught and punished for the crime. I consider myself an honorable law abiding citizen, but I can't honestly say what I would do with a gun to my head or my loved ones threatened.

Even without threats, some of those not otherwise involved in organized crime are tempted by huge rewards for being a "mule" (transporting drugs or money from one location to another). We often see arrests of ordinary people at the airports because they have been caught carrying huge amounts of money strapped to their body or in their luggage. In one case, a whole family travelling with children, was arrested when caught with their luggage stuffed with packages of US dollars.


A recent article indicated that treatment for depression is increasing among Ceibeños. I think a lot more people are worrying about crime more than they used to. I know that I do.

My personal opinion is that we become desensitized to crime. I used to jump when I heard gunshots; now they barely rate a blink unless they sound very near to our house. Saturday night, we heard what sounded like gun fights on three separate occasions. The first time we wondered about what was happening, but were glad that it sounded far enough away. The second and third time, it was just "There they go again." The first time that I was subjected to a decapitated body on the news, I was horrified and felt sick to my stomach. The fourth time, I said, "not again"! Before long, you start turning off the TV and skipping the crime section of the newspaper because you just don't want to know anymore.

We have to become desensitized because what is the alternative? To quake with fear every waking moment? No one can live like that. We take what sensible precautions* we can. Depending upon where we live, we may not go out at night as frequently. We might not visit areas that we consider to be higher crime areas — unless we happen to live in one and have no choice, which is the unfortunate situation of many of the poor in big cities and one of my relatives right now. She'll never be able to sell her house and move because who would buy it? In some particularly bad areas, houses are just abandoned.

One of the best examples (or saddest) of desensitization is the photo above of two young school girls calmly buying strawberry flavored ice drinks from a street vendor just outside the crime scene tape while a bullet ridden dead body lies close by. Children should not have to be desensitized like that.

* The US State Department has a long list of common sense safety precautions, both specifically for Honduras and for international travelers in general. While some think that the State Department's warnings are excessive, I think that most can agree that these precautions are common sense measures.


Related article:

Most Honduran bloggers do not write too much about crime. This anonymous blogger spoke out. A few months ago he wrote about a relative being murdered.

Honduras es considerado como el país más corrupto y peligroso del mundo


This is Part V of a series of articles about crime in Honduras.

Part I: Crime is out of control in Honduras

Part II: Security measures, Honduran style

Part III: Drug trafficking in Honduras

Part IV: Crime in La Ceiba, Honduras
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