While in the US last month, many people asked me about violence in Honduras, in particular, where I live. As I tried to answer this question, I began to see that it helps to distinguish different types of violence. The trouble is that we fail to make distinctions and thus call Honduras the most violent country in the world, without distinguishing the types, where they are more likely to occur, and the risks involved in living or visiting here.
I started with five types of violence then added two more, and just this week I decided that there was one more type of violence to add. This is, of course, a completely biased list, based not on research but on my reading and my experiences. Beware, This is a long and biased analysis - but I invite comments so that we can understand what is happening here and change the situation.
In addition, this analysis should not be used to deter people from coming to visit. It sure doesn't deter me from staying here. But looking at the types of violence can help us respond to the injustice as well as to avoid the risk of personal violence.
Types of Violence
Organized crime, including drug dealers, drug smugglers, and smugglers of contraband and arms, are sources of violence, though I believe this violence is limited to certain areas and to targeted persons. There has been violence in certain areas of the north coast related to drug smuggling and conflicts between organized crime families. Close to hone, I remember that a few years ago a congressman was killed in Copán Ruinas, possibly related to organized crime. Most people I know – Hondurans and others – are not seriously threatened by organized crime violence.
Gangs are a problem in the major cities – especially Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba, and San Pedro Sula, as well as in the prisons.
Several of the gangs in part owe their current existence to the deportation of Hondurans who had fled to the US and joined gangs their. There are fights over territory, extortion, and recruitment of youth that are particularly troublesome and violence, but these are largely confined to a few cities and even certain neighborhoods. If one can avoid these neighborhoods and is careful in the cities, the risk of violence can be minimized. But if one is a poor Honduran living in a big city, trying to eke out an existence, violence and threat of violence can be a serious risk every day. But there has not been a major influx of the gangs in Santa Rosa de Copán or in the municipalities of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María where I serve.
In a poor country there are people who are desperate and will rob and assault people. There are also people who seek to make a life through common crime.
These crimes may be accompanied by violence or threats of violence.
There has been at least one assault of an intercity bus recently near La Entrada, Copán. There have also been some robberies of people on isolated rural paths in the area. Santa Rosa has its crime.
But taking precautions about when and where one travels are normal. People warned me of pickpockets in Rome, Italy, as well as in Tegucigalpa.
Vendettas and vengeance
In a country where there is no really active justice system, a number of people will take the law into their own hands. If someone has been killed, there is less than a 9% chance that the killer will be brought to trial. And so, frustrated by the lack of justice, people have taken the law into their own hands.
This sometimes plays out as part of a long history of killings between families or groups of people – going on for generations. A new killing may provoke a series of killings. This has happened in at least two villages in the parish. In one case, it was probably a case of mistaken identity in which the grandfather of the family was killed when the killers sought one of the sons who had been involved in a killing.
In these cases the killings are normally targeted.
The risk for outsiders is minimal. In addition, visitors should avoid places where there is an ongoing inter-family feud where violence has been involved.
As a worker in the church, I find myself called to be careful but also to be present to the people. A few months ago I joined our pastor, Padre German, when he went to say the ninth-day Mass for someone who had been killed, probably as part of a cycle of vengeance.
Occasionally there are feuds, usually between men, over a woman. However, I once saw a woman attack another woman over a man in a restaurant in Santa Rosa.
These again are cases of targeted violence that could happen anywhere and anytime – even in the US. Common sense and carefulness can mitigate any personal risk.
Violence against women and rape are very serious problems in Honduras. The macho culture and the structures of society that emasculate men contribute to this violence. There are efforts being made by a number of groups to lessen the number of cases of domestic violence, including women’s groups that help to empower women. Santa Rosa de Copán also has a domestic abuse shelter for women and their families, which does have a police officer always present.
I have encountered one severe case of domestic violence. Leaving a village after a church meeting, someone raced after the pickup and asked me to take someone to the hospital. She had been macheteed by her companion. We got her to the hospital where her arm was saved; I learned that she later returned to her family’s village. The man was arrested and jailed, though I don’t know his current status. The police probably came because people called the police and reported it (at my insistence); one of those who called was the wife of one of the mayors in the parish.
I am not so sure that the police are also so willing to make arrests in these and other cases.
“Saturday night” specials
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are serious problems in Honduras. Drugs can also be found in many places. Drinking or using drugs to excess can lead to fights, sometimes over the smallest things. If a machete or a fire arm is available, serious violence can result. Machetes are dangerous weapons, especially when they are sharpened. Fire arms are all too available. Every once in a while I’ll see someone with a pistol stuck in the waistband of their pants.
These cases of violence are more likely to occur on weekend evenings and in places where liquor is sold. So one should avoid bars and cantinas, especially in the countryside. I would also avoid pool halls, which are often places where lots of alcohol is consumed and sometimes places where prostitutes can be found.
The government passed a law supposedly to try to control this about two years ago that prohibited the sale of liquor, even in stores, between 6 pm Sunday night and about 6 am Monday morning. But I think that many of the problems that lead to violence happen Saturday night.
The violence of the powers that be
The training of the police and the military leads a lot to be desired here. That doesn’t mean that there are not some very good policemen and soldiers.
In addition, there is a military police – or better called a militarized police force – in addition to the regular police.
There are still cases of abuse and violence by the police. This can be seen especially in cases such as a recent dismantlement of a squatter settlement as well as some actions against street demonstrations.
In addition, I would mention the large number of private security personnel, which, I believe, have more persons than the police. In some cases, especially in the north coast where the security forces are “protecting” disputed lands that have been taken over by large landowners. These forces have used violence. I believe that over 100 deaths have occurred in the Aguan Valley in the northeast of the country, mostly of campesinos.
Another serious category of this violence would have to note the ongoing deaths of lawyers and journalists, as well as activists.
There are probably other cases and types of violence which I have overlooked.
But there is the unseen violence, the structural violence, that keeps people in poverty, that makes real change extremely difficult.
In their 1968 document on poverty, the Conference of Latin American Bishops, gathered in Medellín, Colombia, wrote strongly against what they termed “institutional violence” in their document on peace, ¶16.
If Christianity believes in the productiveness [fecundity] of peace in order to achieve justice, it also believes that justice is an inescapable condition for peace. It doesn’t fail to see that in many parts Latin America finds itself in a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence, when, because of deficiency in the structures of industry and agriculture, of national and international economy, of cultural and political life, "whole populations lack necessities, live in such dependence as hinders all initiative and responsibility as well as every possibility for cultural promotion and participation in social and political life," thus violating fundamental rights. This situation demands all-embracing, courageous, urgent and profoundly renovating transformations.
(Translation revised by author.)
This was the case in 1968 and it still continues here in Honduras. These structures need to be changed if there is to be any real peace and end to violence and poverty.