La Rivera Hernandez is a vast territory in San Pedro Sula that’s home to thousands of residents. In it, you find entrepreneurs and business owners of all kinds – fruit salesmen, barbers, neighborhood restaurants, mechanics, and beyond. It’s a place that never stops moving, not during the day nor the night. From the earliest rays of light and through the darkest of night, La Rivera’s residents are on full-on survival mode. Yet, this place filled of movement and “hustle” is also home to some of Honduras’ highest rates of poverty and violence. And what’s most present, beyond the businesses and the territory’s youthful spirit are the omnipresent “guards” of la Rivera Hernandez – its gangs.
My reporting partner Anna Catherina and I entered this neighborhood in hopes of documenting young people who were victims of police brutality. Yet, upon our arrival, I immediately knew the angle of our story would expand. Our local producer Paolo introduced us to a young man called “Pedro,” who’d recently suffered a beating by local police. We interviewed Pedro in an empty house, where he asked to keep his identity hidden. He initially resisted the sight of my camera yet, after spending time talking about his family and favorite music, he began to upon up.
“Cops here know how to beat you. They know to only hit your torso, so people can’t see the bruises,” he recalled. He went on to describe the grueling hours when he and his friend were detained and tortured by Honduran police. They’d been pick up randomly as they left a party, and taken to a secret location. Pedro described graphically how cops suffocated him with a plastic bag until he nearly passed out. He recalled the humiliation and degradation of the whole experience. Yet, he’s used to it.
“Here, it’s normal to get beaten and humiliated by police. To them, we’re all criminals,” Pedro lamented.
Perhaps what impressed me the most about La Rivera Hernandez was the disproportionate amount of youth that overcrowded the community. Young people of all ages were seen lounging in their porches, hanging out on street corners, playing in abandoned soccer fields, and selling everything imaginable. I saw a population with so much potential, trapped in a place with practically zero opportunity. Immediately, I had a flashback to the time I spent in Matamoros, Mexico at the tent camps for Central American migrants. I remembered seeing so many young people from Honduras and El Salvador, many saying they were fleeing violence, but most simply in search of an opportunity to survive.
I’ve always known that the “pursuit of happiness” was a privilege bestowed to few. For most people living outside the “developed world” or in its fringes, the pursuit of happiness is merely an illusion – often a fatal one. So, as I returned to La Rivera time and again to follow Pedro and his family, I met more and more of the community’s youth, and predictably encountered members of the gang.
I’ve spent nearly three years in El Salvador investigating and reporting on gangs, both Barrio 18 and MS-13. While I’ve witnessed firsthand the horrors these groups are capable of, I’ve focused my research on life after the gang, documenting the surging evangelical Christian movement that has become the only way out for men that no longer want to be active in the criminal lives. In Honduras, I found a new road that I’d been wanting to explore: life before the gang.
Is joining the gang a choice? What is the definition of choice as it pertains to the young people of La Rivera? These were two questions I wanted to answer on this trip to San Pedro Sula. I sat with Pedro and his friends, and hung out with them as they joked around and exchanged stories. Many of them had been beaten or harassed by police at some point. Some talked about the countless times they’d been turned down by job recruiters upon learning that they were residents of La Rivera. “People are too scared to hire us,” one stated. “They think that everybody that lives here in a gang member.”
With no protection from – and trust in – the state, plus little to no job prospects, what opportunities were available to these young men and women?
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Pedro’s six year old nephew approached me. “I want you to make a movie of us,” he pleaded. He ran out and gathered his friends, they put on red face masks and each took out their toy guns. Then, the action began.
The children, ages six to 13, re-enacted a scene of “cop and thief,” or “cop and gang member” in this case. They ran up and down the street, shooting and yelling profanities at each other. They climbed trees, hid under cars and inside of closets. At the climax of the scene, the cop caught the gang member. He threw the criminal against the wall and beat him. The cop then sat him on a stool and continued to beat and interrogate him. As I was filming, I knew I wasn’t witnessing a mere play scene, I was capturing a raw re-enactment, which they’d witnessed firsthand.
At the climax of the scene, the cop placed his gun on the gang member’s head and shot him pointblank. The teen playing the gang member fell slowly to his death. After a moment of silence, the children broke out in laughter.
“Cut,” I screamed. I played it cool and brushed off what I’d just witnessed. I told myself I’d have time to process this scene in post production.
– – –
What drives a young person to opt for a life of violence and misery, as is guaranteed once they get jumped into a gang? La Rivera’s poverty and lack of opportunity is well documented, but the violence and gore caused by the acts of gang members is often the flashier story. Local and international media is obsessed with the savagery of the gang, as they photograph and publish graphic murder scenes of dismembered bodies. “What savages could possibly do this?” People often asked.
And then you meet the young people of the community some, perhaps, responsible for such heinous acts. It’s a deeply conflicting feeling. You joke around with them, listen to the same trap music they like, talk about fashion and, most of all, what the United States is like. Pedro and his friends are incredibly hospitable and polite. His family made me feel at home. Life history aside, these young people felt no different than my friends back home.
I’ve always had a fascination with visiting communities the general public deems too dangerous to enter. I’m drawn to stigmatized neighborhoods and its “scariest” residents. Anytime I tell these stories, middle-class Salvadorans or Hondurans listen in horror and warn “they’re going to kill you one day.”
My reporting trip with the IWMF opened a new front in my career, one that I’d been searching for a while. What are the earliest memories and encounters of a young child with the gang? Why does a young person choose to join this “family”? And what choice, if any, did they have to begin with?
I learned during this San Pedro Sula trip that many young people only have roads before them: migrate to the United States or join the gang. Not out of desire, not to pursue the “American Dream” or much less take jobs. These are the only two choices that could secure their survival, both economic and physical.
The deeper you study gangs the more you realize how complex the issue is. The more you talk and interact with its members, the more you discover that many aren’t in the gang out of free choice or desire, they’re in it for mere survival. After all, the illusion of the gang is a promising one compared to the miserable lives they’re born into. The gang provides family, identity, respect, protection, and enough money to survive. Comparatively, what does the state offer? Repression, joblessness, stigmatization and even extermination of poor, young people.
I think if we can look one step further from the crimes they commit, we discover that the majority of gang members quickly regret the decisions they make. In fact, nearly all current and former gang members I’ve interviewed state that getting “jumped in” was the biggest mistake they ever made; and absolutely all of them – even the highest ranking, most murderous gang leader – have said they never wish this life on their children.
I hope to continue investing and reporting on life before and after the gang, as I believe therein lie the solutions to solve this problem and stop the bloodshed, once and for all. Policies of prevention and, more importantly, reinsertion should be simple: they need to provide education, job opportunities, and instill in these young people a sense of dignity and self-respect. The state needs to be seen as a protector and provider, not an enemy. Yet, time and again, millions of dollars are spent on flashy soccer fields and “outreach centers,” that lead to nothing. In the morning, USAID hosts a lavish community event, and at night the very police that’s resourced and trained by the U.S. government beats and terrorizes young people in these fringe communities. This contradiction only empowers the gang. The solution is so simple, yet nobody in power seems to want a true end to the violence. It almost makes you think that this violence – and the repression of the poor – is a convenient status quo to those in power.
– Valentina Pereda