“The Most Dangerous Place in the World.” “The Most Violent City on Earth.” “The Highest Death Rate Outside of a War Zone.”
Such elucidations have become the defacto city slogans of San Pedro Sula. They are not emblazoned on tote bags or commemorative coins, nor can you purchase a t-shirt that affixes, in a fun comic sans font, your first name to having survived a visit to the “most violent city/dangerous place in the world/earth.” Instead, these hyperbolic descriptions are usually reserved for people who are frankly shocked, Sarah, that you would go to Honduras. And newspapers – the ones that are posted around San Pedro usually recount, front page, the previous night’s bloody victims; the ones in the US alternate between alarming statistics and hopeful tales about how it’s “getting safer.”
I do feel safe here, much more so than I thought I would. We are coddled, in the nicest way possible, by an incredible team of fixers, translators and drivers, who act as our eyes and ears and whisk us from place to place – a deliciously luxurious amenity for a freelancer. As I’m transported to my interviews, I gaze at the city through the polarized car windows and feel oddly invisible. Everybody in San Pedro Sula, except the taxis, have polarized car windows; from the outside, you can only see your own warped reflection.
Because my own reportage is only peripherally connected to physical violence, it’s all too easy to fall into the pillowy soft illusion of safety, and forget about the high rates of femicide, domestic violence, kidnappings, murders, assassinations, car crashes, boat accidents, and turf wars that leave 187 out of every 100,000 Hondurans dead. Yesterday, after a visit to the police’s Anti-Extortion Unit, we drove by two bleating ambulances. Minutes earlier, two men transporting a kilo of cocaine in a car had been shot with 80 rounds of bullets – surely an unnecessarily excessive amount of ammunition. A third passenger was found at the scene, barely alive.
Today I asked Jaime to take me to one of San Pedro Sula’s many graveyards. We spend so much time talking about death in cold numbers and grisly methods. In a graveyard, the dead simply lay, under pale blue tiles and gray cement and pink stucco, framed by palm trees and green mountains. Their bones rest under mountains of plastic flowers, lovingly arranged in halved water bottles. Their names and birthdays and death dates are emblazoned on the tombs, some worn down to the quick from years of harsh weather.
What strikes me the most about death is not as much the people who die, but the people they’ve left behind, their pained love itchy and scabbed over. For every person who dies, no matter why or how, there’s an endless string of impacted friends, families, lovers. All that love, for every death. Perhaps that should be San Pedro Sula’s claim – the city with the highest rate of grievous love.
Happy Valentine’s Day, San Pedro Sula. You’re worming your way into my heart.
– Sarah Souli