ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Three years ago, the neighborhood of Rivera Hernandez had the highest homicide rate in the country of Honduras. Today that neighborhood tells a different story. Sonia Nazario visited Rivera Hernandez earlier this summer. She found a dramatic decrease in violence, and she says programs funded by the United States are partially responsible. Her story will be published in this Sunday's "New York Times," and she joins us now to talk about it. Welcome.
SONIA NAZARIO: Thank you, Ari. It's so great in this grim summer of news to talk about some good news, right?
SHAPIRO: Some good news. Well, before...
SHAPIRO: ...We get to the good news, describe what it was like at its worst. What was Honduras like a few years ago?
NAZARIO: Well, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world. And in this particular neighborhood, there was a 6 p.m. curfew by the gangs. Really, it was a ghost town. Even during the day, children did not go out. Bodies littered the streets in the mornings.
There was a gang - the 18th Street gang, and they had a checkpoint. And if you showed up at the checkpoint, they asked you where are you from; where are you going? And if you didn't have the right answers, they would just shoot you on the spot. This was an incredibly dangerous place, especially for children. And that was producing this exodus to the United States that we saw so clearly two summers ago.
SHAPIRO: I want to talk more about the exodus in a moment. But when you visited the neighborhood this summer, what did you find?
NAZARIO: Well, it was just a remarkable change. I went to a movie night that one pastor held. And he would go and grab kids from one rival gang neighborhood and bring them to this other neighborhood. And you know, it's 9 o'clock at night. He set up this "Scooby-Doo" bounce house. And he set up a movie night in the middle of the street where no one would be before. And it was this transformation - women out with their babies in strollers at 10 o'clock at night - unheard of two years ago.
SHAPIRO: And you say the "Scooby-Doo" bounce house, all the supplies were paid for by the U.S. government. The U.S. spent around a hundred million dollars on violence prevention programs in Honduras. Obviously that goes far beyond "Scooby-Doo" bounce houses. Describe what this program entails.
NAZARIO: Well, I think two years ago really, the U.S. realized we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, and if we want to deal with this exodus of people from Central America that are fleeing the most violent places on Earth, we need to deal with the root causes of this.
So they went to the three most violent neighborhoods in Honduras and set up these outreach centers that kids could go to where they get mentors and they get vocational training and they get help getting jobs. And then they did prevention for at-risk kids.
And then they worked on intervention. Ninety-six percent of all homicides in Honduras are never investigated or go to court or resulted in convictions. So they hired this Honduran nonprofit - the Association for a More Just Society - to investigate all homicides in these neighborhoods, and it's been extraordinary. Now half of the homicides that have been completed - the investigations and court cases are resulting in guilty verdicts.
SHAPIRO: And this has had a direct impact on the United States because you write that two years ago, some 18,000 children from Honduras showed up unaccompanied at the U.S. border. And what's the situation like today?
NAZARIO: Well, it's cut the number of kids coming from this neighborhood by more than half. And Honduras has gone from being number one in sending these unaccompanied immigrant children fleeing to our country to now number three behind El Salvador and Guatemala.
SHAPIRO: There was a bill introduced in Congress this summer that would have stopped the funding because of corruption and human rights violations in Honduras. You say it's true; there are corruption and human rights violations, but the funding should continue. Explain that thinking.
NAZARIO: Well, I think we need to hold people in government who are corrupt and cops who are corrupt accountable. And I think that that's incredibly important. And in the Rivera Hernandez neighborhood where I was, the police chief himself admits that up to 20 percent of his cops are rotten. More of the locals would put it at 50 percent.
So this is a huge problem, but I think that we need to, at the same time that we're attacking that problem - and we need to continue this violence prevention and intervention because it's working, and we should do more things that work. We should replicate them in other countries instead of saying we should cut off funds to something that's clearly working.
SHAPIRO: But does the U.S. then just keep spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Honduras and every other Central American country where these problems are endemic indefinitely? I mean what's the long-range plan here?
NAZARIO: Well, I think we need to do some things better. We need to really push the Honduran government to step up and do more of this. I think we also need to work to deal more with active gangsters in Honduras, which we've shied away from doing.
But yeah, I mean if you're spending a hundred million on violence prevention to preclude having to spend billions once these children are here, that's a no-brainer in my book.
SHAPIRO: Sonia Nazario is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Enrique's Journey: The Story Of A Boy's Dangerous Odyssey To Reunite With His Mother." Her opinion piece from Honduras appears in this Sunday's "New York Times." Thank you.
NAZARIO: Thank you.
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