Rare Gang Truce Disrupts Violence In Honduras

The tiny Central American country of Honduras has the highest murder rate on the planet, and is home to tens of thousands of transnational gang members. But a recent gang truce means things are looking up there. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks to NPR's Carrie Kahn, who's in the Honduran capital.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When you think of the most dangerous places in the world, Syria or Afghanistan might come to mind. But Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. Nearly 40 percent of the cocaine consumed globally passes through its borders. And the Central American country is home to thousands of gang members, many of whom got their start on U.S. city streets. Last week though, there was a hopeful development suggesting even the most hardened criminals may have had enough.

NPR's Carrie Kahn was there to witness it. She joins me now from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Carrie, thanks for being here.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Before we get to this development, can you just explain why the situation in Honduras is so much worse than in any other countries of Central America. I mean El Salvador, Guatemala, they're also on the drug route, right?

KAHN: OK, I'll just give you a short answer. I think its drugs, gangs and geography. Honduras has this 400-mile long border of the Caribbean and that's where most of the cocaine shipments come in, by sea. And in Central America, this is the big factor: it has the weakest government and state institutions. Few crimes are prosecuted here. We heard figures like 2 percent of all murders result in a conviction.

So impunity is rampant, so is corruption, and that's just fertile ground for organized crime. And, as you said, Honduras has tens of thousands of gang members, many of whom were deported from the U.S. And so, put all of these factors together, it's a perfect storm.

MARTIN: So now to that development we alluded to the things might be changing. While you've been there this past week, the two largest gangs in the country announced that they are going to stop murdering, kidnapping and extorting the population. Obviously this must have come as very welcome news.

KAHN: I think people really do hope its good news. But, look, you know, they made their announcement from a prison in San Pedro Sula, which is the second-largest city here. But it is a city that's been traumatized by this gang violence. And talking about the press conference, there were actually two press conferences 'cause they were made by different gangs, and they have to be housed in completely separate sections of the prison or they'll kill each other.

So, first we were escorted to one side where the Mara Salvatrucha gang is housed. Then we were taken over to the 18th Street gang side of the prison. And they have their faces covered with bandanas, many were wearing sunglasses. One guy disguised his voice the whole time. They're covered in tattoos; they're all over their bodies and their faces too. And a lot of the tattoos have these symbols from L.A. because they come from Los Angeles. They have Dodgers logos. They even have 213, and that's L.A. area code.

Essentially, they just said they're ready to renounce all violence. But they didn't say was that they're going to stop fighting each other. So technically it's not a truce. But they're no longer going to murder, extort or kidnap. They also repeatedly asked the country and God for forgiveness.

MARTIN: Do people believe them? I mean what's in it for them?

KAHN: I just think like many of the people here, they're sick of the violence, they can't take it anymore. And we ask them, you know, how can you enforce this, you're inside prison? And one guy said: I decide what happens inside and out. And people on the street told us this is definitely true.

But mediators between the gangs - the Roman Catholic bishop here and a representative from the Organization of American States - they said: Look, Honduras is like a war zone and this is a peace process and, as in all peace processes, it takes time. But everybody called it a great first step.

We talked to family members affected by the gangs. One family that most of the men have fled to the U.S. or Mexico because of murder threats, they said they don't want to hear the gangs' apology. For them it's too little too late. And I'll tell you another story. Our taxi driver pays a weekly rent, so-called rent to the gang. He says he still had to pay this week's rent and it really is no small sum. He has eight taxis and he pays about $400 a month, which is incredible here in Honduras.

MARTIN: So, Carrie, to what extent is the U.S. government involved in any of this? I mean, the drug trade directly affects American cities. As you said, these gangs have members that are from the U.S.

KAHN: Congress put a hold on some of the anti-drug fighting money. I've spoken with Members in Congress who have told me that they just believe there are no trustworthy actors to work with here in the country. But the State Department continues to fund police crime fighting and training initiatives. I spoke with the U.S. ambassador to Honduras and she says: Look, we just can't turn our back on Honduras right now. There are honest actors that we can find to work with. To change a situation, they deserve our backing.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn. She joined us from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Carrie, thanks so much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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