Crumpled paper balls were glued together to form a flower on the barren cinderblock wall. Their pink and green hues were faded from baking for a year in San Pedro Sula’s harsh sun. Scribed across the top of the page was a teacher’s signature and the word “excelente.” At the bottom of the page was a young girl’s name. That name and this art project were among the last reminders of the family that once lived in this house.
The gang that forced the family out of their home was the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, one the two most powerful gangs in Honduras. Investigators from the organization I work with — the Association for a More Just Society(AJS) — and a team of police were with us as we tread about this ground that felt simultaneously cursed and sacred.
“Why did the gang force them to leave?” we asked.
The police said it could have been for several reasons: most likely, not letting their children join the gang or not paying extortion to the gang.
This is life in Rivera Hernandez, the most dangerous region of San Pedro Sula — the city with the world’s highest homicide rate. For years, AJS has been working in dangerous neighborhoods of Honduras’ capital city, Tegucigalpa, and, this year, we started working in San Pedro Sula in response to the violence there.
Over the course of the morning, we navigated the muddy roads that crisscrossed Rivera Hernandez. It was 94 degrees and muggy. Our pickup truck passed through the wisps of smoke emerging from piles of burning trash, and a congregation of tadpoles raced alongside us through the stagnant water pooling on the berm of the road. I lost count of the number of abandoned homes we passed. I know that there were about a thousand in the area. Several times, we pulled to a stop and climbed out to enter these skeletal structures. Gone were the windows, doors, roof or anything else that could be of value to scrap collectors. Where a toilet used to be, drops of water continue to escape from a plugged pipe, collecting in puddles on the floor.
The atrocities of the gangs that control Rivera Hernandez are well-reported in international media. Fueled by the flagrant trafficking of drugs through Honduras and virtually unfettered by local police, the gangs battle viciously for territory. To help fund their operations they force residents in the areas they control to pay extortion fees; to help fill their ranks, they force children of the neighborhood to join them. Don’t comply, and you’re forced to relinquish your home — or worse.
The job of AJS staff that were with me that morning is to end the impunity that allows murderers and gangs to prosper in San Pedro Sula and, specifically, Rivera Hernandez. AJS staff will use their highly-honed skills to go after the most strategic culprits in Rivera Hernandez. Through this work, they aim to build trust in the community and with good Honduran police and authorities to build a functioning and efficient law-enforcement system to protect Hondurans.
Spending time with the AJS investigators that morning, I was struck by their courage and conviction. Tucked behind the violet dress shirt of the investigator driving us, I could see the bullet-proof vest he kept on his seat. Before coming to AJS he had worked on homicide investigations for the San Pedro Sula police.
“Which job was more dangerous?” my coworker, Jill, asked him.
“This one,” he replied.
“Are you married?”
“What does your wife think of this job?”
Our truck moves slowly down the bumpy road. Instead of answering in words, the investigator presses his palms together and lifts them in front of his face. “Prayer” is his answer to the question.
Later, when I was trying to process what I saw that morning, I turned to the Gospel of Matthew to where Jesus sends out the 12 apostles. The to-do list he gives them is daunting, as is his warning of the danger they will face. Christ tells them that they are going out as sheep in the midst of wolves.
I recall the bedroom of one abandoned house we saw. I remember how the dripping streaks of paint dried below the graffiti adorning the bedroom wall: "MS-13" — short for the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Among the rubble and trash spilled across on the floor were family photos, a shoe, a shower cap, a text book — relics of what was once a home.
Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves, Christ told the disciples. It’s pretty clear that following Christ is serious business. It was serious for the disciples, and it’s serious for the AJS staff I met that morning in Rivera Hernandez.
Christ had more words for his disciples: have no fear of those who stand against you.
For the disciples, for AJS staff, and for all Christians, through Christ we are free from fear. We are free — in Rivera Hernandez or anywhere else — to love at all costs.
-Evan Trowbridge is the Director of Communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Christian organization that works with victims of violence, crime and corruption in Honduras. He lives in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa. To learn more about AJS, visit ajs-us.org. Photos courtesy of AJS.