Tegucigalpa: city of fear
I’ m now on my first real trip out of the capital. Sitting on a beautiful island, once the home of the pirate Francis Drake, la Isla del Tigre. Nice to be out of the capital because to be fair, Tegus is doing my head in. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be able to find my place in it this coming year.
Fear and gang loathing in Tegus
I knew it was going to be dangerous and ugly. I knew this was going to limit me, where to go and what to do. I thought having lived in Guatemala City for over a year would help me adapt to Tegucigalpa. But having the reference of Guate just makes Tegus harder. Tegus is more dangerous, though sometimes I wonder if people here are just more scared. I wonder what role the coup of 2009 plays in this societal fear.
This combination of fear and the reality of violence limits people. Where they go, what they do, who they talk to. This was certainly the case in Guate, but here it seems even more all encompassing. In Guate I have been to places and done things which if here would be declared pure insanity. And as a newcomer and foreigner the safest thing to do is not use my experience in Guatemala as a reference but heed the advice of what I can and can’t do.
No day goes by without a fistful of advices and tricks. Don’t trust the taxidriver, don’t trust the busdriver, don’t trust strangers, don’t trust men, always let somebody know where you’re going and certainly when traveling, keep two purses and two phones: one to be stolen and the other to be kept, never walk out in the streets after dark not even a block away, etc.
No day goes by without a horrific story about an assault, extortion, robbery, or kidnapping. The most spectacular so far was about a neighbourhood we were driving through where gangs supposedly threatened somebody out of their house so they could use the kitchen to chop the bodies up of the people they killed.
I have no problem with limiting myself because of the violence, I knew I was not visiting paradise. And rumour and fear can be useful tools of survival in this violent context. But I realise I too become suspicious of too many people. Honduras becomes to feel as a burden, not a mystery. And I wonder up to what point my thoughts and actions are determined by fear, not only mine but mainly fear that others have of others.
What makes me even more resisting to not constantly question this fear is that these others to be feared are mainly very poor, male and young. There is a very tangible class aspect to this fear. If you are not from certain areas and don’t need to be there, don’t go there. I can certainly accepts this is the case for some neighbourhoods, but can’t imagine half of the city here is a no-go zone. I can accept that as a western white girl I shouldn’t set foot in some areas, but am amazed most Hondurans I got to know wouldn’t either. Such as a recent friend I made, around his fifties, definitely used to some rock-and-roll in his life, born and raised in Tegus, bottom middle class I imagine. He had not been in Comayaguela for about 18 years, and declared his friends insane for daring to. Comayaguala is an area of the capital, about half the size of Tegus, where the poor and dangerous live. The home of the “maras”.
Sure the “maras” or gangs indulge in horrific violence and none of it should be romanticized. But in Honduras violence and particularly gang violence becomes a spectacle. The newspapers, television and radio are full of corpses, blood and gore. Stories of violence are on anybodies lips. And it seems only the maras are to blame. By law each Honduran can have five arms, that is twenty weapons in a family of four. About every establishment where some money goes around and that can afford it has a private armed security guard in front of its establishment. Private security companies (such as Group 4) do good business here. Honduras’ police force is notoriously corrupt, violent and dangerous and proven to be involved in numerous assassinations. After the coup in 2009 the military became even more omnipresent (in the streets and in politics). As ubiquitous as these armed representatives of the state are organized crime and narco-traffickers. Together with the notoriously corrupt politicians these are the big fish that pull the strings, not the mara.
In a country of 8,1 million people, there is an estimated 36.000 gang members. Maras are responsible for 7 to 8% of the crimes.
I could write a book about this topic. It has intrigued me since I lived in Guatemala. This will certainly become a to-be-continued story. But guessing this is enough about violence, fear and maras for today. Too long a story of this too far away place might be too much to read for your too busy lives.
A positive note
It might sound like I’m having a horrible time. So better to end with a positive note. Certainly happy to be here. I love the intensity of it, how the taken for granted becomes unfamiliar and the unfamiliar becomes normal and increasingly starts to make sense. I love the challenge of it. The challenge of making this city my home, knowing where to go and what to do while keeping safe and true to myself. The challenge to try to understand, how this country works, how the human rights industry works, how the violence works.
I will take every chance I get to travel outside of this beast though. I’m loving the traveling, the life, the views, the colours, the smells and the music and the shouts and sounds. Loving the over-packed American school buses where just when you think no one else fits in they push in 30 more (except when I need to stand up for hours, squashed between human bodies, on bendy hot roads). The chaos of it all.
And now it’s time for me to explore this island, melt in the heat. Watch the sunset.