On The Road Blog
Scouting in the Murder Capital of the World
- By Eva Miller on August 14th, 2014
- Category: Blog, Featured Blog, Home, Latin America and the Caribbean
San Pedro Sula, Honduras
The humanitarian crisis involving the migration of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America, especially from Honduras, to the US-Mexico border has repeatedly made headlines in recent weeks. The stories of children who risked everything to make the journey and who now face an uncertain future in the US, as well as those who have fallen victim to the rampant gang and drug-related violence in Honduras, are heart-wrenching.
The statistics are equally staggering: Since October 2013, 57,000 minors have been detained at the US border, and most of them are either Honduran, Guatemalan, or Salvadoran. Out of the top ten Central American cities from which the child migrants are fleeing, seven are in Honduras. There also appears to be no easy solution to the problem of what to do with the children who are detained at the border, and although the migrants in question are unaccompanied minors in an obvious state of extreme vulnerability, the current crisis has incited harsh political controversy in the US as well as vehement anti-immigration sentiments.
Statistics on the violence that is propelling children to flee Central America, and particularly Honduras, are alarming. With 90.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Honduras has earned notoriety as the so-called murder capital of the world. This rate is more than twice as high as the rates of nearby El Salvador and Guatemala, with 41.2 and 39.9 homicides per 100,000, respectively.
One city in particular, San Pedro Sula, with 169 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, or nearly twice the national average, is frequently cited in news articles as the most dangerous city in the world. It is now widely recognized that the impetus behind the mass exodus of children out of Honduras is this very violence: children and young adults in Honduras fear being killed or forcibly recruited by gangs if they remain in their home country.
GFC has recently been given the opportunity to expand its grantmaking program to Honduras and invest directly in grassroots organizations that are working to make Honduras a better place for children and youth by addressing the key issues that push them to migrate. We see this investment as both particularly timely in light of the current crisis and also highly aligned with GFC’s mission to reach the world’s most vulnerable children. In the Latin America and Caribbean region, we feel that the children and youth of Honduras are some of the most vulnerable and most in need of immediate attention.
And so it is that I currently find myself on a scouting trip to identify potential GFC grantee partner organizations in San Pedro Sula, considered the most dangerous city in the world among countries not currently at war.
Preparing for this trip involved significantly more time and thought than some other scouting trips, both because of security precautions and because we do not have current partners in the country from whom to solicit travel recommendations.
Before arriving in Honduras, I wondered a lot about what the murder capital of the world would be like. Although I have only been in the country for roughly 24 hours, I have already visited two potential grantee partners and have seen two different cities, and many of the assumptions I had about the country prior to my arrival have been challenged. Here I share with you a few anecdotes and observations from my first day.
Knowing that I was traveling alone to what is regarded as a dangerous country, I was understandably apprehensive as I boarded my flight from Mexico City to San Pedro Sula. My mostly empty flight, whose other passengers were mostly Mexican immigration agents, did little to assuage my fears.
On the plane, I began to feel more comfortable when I struck up a conversation with a very friendly young Honduran man seated across the aisle from me, who had coincidentally gone to college in Washington, DC. We discussed the current situation in Honduras and what he considered the country’s desperate need for foreign investment to provide jobs and combat poverty. Extreme poverty in Honduras is one of the factors thought to contribute to the high rates of violence. The unfortunate reality is, however, that many companies are reluctant to invest in Honduras because it is a dangerous place for them to operate, and in this way, the violence is in turn exacerbating Honduras’s poverty.
As we were landing, the young man I had been chatting with asked me if I believed in God. “Be sure to tell people in Honduras that you believe in God,” he said. “And tell them you are a Christian. If you don’t, people will look at you like you are an alien and will think you are a terrible person.” I thanked him for the advice.
In line at customs, a university student studying tourism approached me with a short survey about the purpose of my visit and looked at me incredulously when I told him I was traveling alone.
My driver was waiting with a sign with my name on it as I exited the airport. The question of how I would get around once I was in the country was the aspect of my trip planning that had required the most thought and effort. I had solicited advice from people I knew who had traveled or lived in Honduras and I had read State Department travel advisories, and ultimately I decided to hire a private driver.
Although it is not common practice for program officers at GFC to hire drivers, when I was faced with the choice between a normal colectivo taxi—the kind that can be hailed on the street and are thus much less secure—and a private security company that would equip me with a personal driver trained in “evasive maneuvers,” I had opted for the latter. At this point in my trip, even though I have yet to feel a need for any sort of bodyguard, it has certainly been helpful to have a driver just to be able to get to meetings on time and without too much hassle.
San Pedro Sula itself surprised me. I had expected to find the city center run-down and deserted, its central park sad and uninviting, as is so often the case in crime-ridden cities, including in the US, where people with the means to do so tend to migrate outward to more tranquil and well-protected suburbs. Instead, it appeared to be bustling and well kept, its cathedral brightly painted.
I arrived at my first organization meeting while reflecting on how my initial impressions of the city contrasted with my assumptions based on the unforgettable violence statistics. Coincidentally, this organization, as part of its work in violence prevention among youth, collects, analyzes, and even maps (using GIS software) data on indicators of violence, including San Pedro Sula’s infamous homicide rate.
It was in my conversation with the leaders of this organization that I realized that the statistic that is cited over and over again in US news articles and that could be considered responsible for vaulting Honduras to the status of world’s most dangerous country fails to tell the whole story—it is simply too general.
For example, through multiple levels of disaggregation of San Pedro Sula’s homicide rate, the organization I met with has determined that it is extremely dangerous to be a male here between 18 and 35 years of age—the vast majority of victims fall into this category—and consequently significantly less dangerous to belong to almost any other demographic. Violence is also pandemic in certain neighborhoods, while considerably less prevalent in others—a reality that was also brought to light in a recent New York Times article about a particularly affected part of the city.
Another potential issue with San Pedro Sula’s reported homicide rate regards its accuracy. According to the organization I met with, while it may be fairly straightforward to maintain an accurate count of homicides that occur, it is actually very difficult to determine San Pedro Sula’s overall population because of the city’s status as an internal migration hub and its absorption of several smaller surrounding cities as it has grown. Without knowing this base population, calculating accurate rates of violence becomes tricky.
While there is no doubt that Honduras is indeed dangerous and violent, this first meeting with a potential GFC grantee organization made me aware that it is important to think critically about statistics. Also, as is the case with any social problem, investing in high-quality data not only is important in order to spread public awareness but is also essential for ensuring that resources and expertise are targeted to exactly where the need is greatest.
Needless to say, my first 24 hours in Honduras have been productive and have provided a lot of food for thought! I am looking forward to meeting more organizations and learning more during the rest of my time here.