A sad Christmas ballad
Honduras no longer seems livable.
It has become a conduit for drugs.
Its institutions are in total collapse.
Its political class is deranged by greed
and the plundering of resources.
Its social movement hasn’t found its own voice
and its citizens can barely stammer amid the deafening gunfire.
Violence in our country is breaking world records.
How does one rebel against all this?
We were about to go Christmas shopping the morning of December 23, 2012, when I got a call from my daughter’s sixth grade teacher, Kevin, with whom we had planned to have lunch that day. “They’ve just killed the father of one of my students,” he told me in a broken voice.
Neither of us felt like continuing with our plans. The saying “one proposes and God disposes,” is almost a mantra in Honduras. It’s hard to get through a day without some scare forcing you to change plans.
Another fatherless childThis wasn’t the first child in that school to lose his father last year. Kevin told me that in his section alone three children had been orphaned by the criminal violence scourging this country.
The murdered father, José Ramón Lagos, was a well-respected lawyer and those who knew him said he was a decent and fair man. His was a senseless murder, like so many others mourned in the provincial city of El Progreso in recent years. He was driving his car at 11am, less than 55 yards from the police station, when he was riddled with bullets. The client with him—who was also killed—was supposedly the one sought by the perpetrators.
It’s not unusual in today’s Honduras to die from a bullet that wasn’t intended for you. Killers don’t think about collateral damage. The young gunmen don’t care that an 11-year-old boy is left fatherless, as they themselves live with one foot in the grave and were the victims of poverty and governmental neglect before becoming hired executioners for others and for themselves, accepting and imposing a life marked by speed, drugs and terror.
Anuar Lagos is fortunate in that he has a family that will mitigate the emotional damage and help him continue his adolescence. Every year, hundreds of boys and girls face far worse situations. Because an act of violence robs them of their father or mother, they have to leave school early to go to work and/or join the many children living on the street.
Those who don’t make it On December 24 we breakfasted on tamales in the house of a neighbor, an enduring tradition that expresses the spirit of sharing that prevails during this season like no other. Who hasn’t gone to a friend’s home at this time of year to eat a little tamale with their coffee? But this time, tradition gave way to distressing current events. From there we went to the funeral home to keep vigil for 39-year-old Fernando Alvarado, a close friend and former Radio Progreso announcer, who died the same day as Lagos. His death wasn’t a direct result of the crime wave although it was related to the structural violence that seals the fate of those using public hospitals, where staff and medicine crises have become chronic, condemning thousands of patients a year to preventable death.
to Christmas Eve
After such an emotional Christmas Eve morning, we went out to do our last-minute shopping. The consumption and superficial happiness brought on by Christmas is interwoven with the deepest sadness. Indeed, consumption and violence still have strange similarities. Everything—even life and death—is speeded up and those who can, and still have credit, try to live the holidays as if they’ll be the last. In such an unpredictable society where work, housing and even life itself have become so vulnerable and ephemeral, one doesn’t criticize this attitude.
At least 54 moderately-healthy Hondurans woke up on December 24 expecting to celebrate Christmas but didn’t make it to give the traditional Christmas hug at midnight. During the course of that tragic day they died suddenly, under different circumstances, in both rich and poor neighborhoods, at various ages but with a common fate. Hired killers proliferate in the macabre hotbed of drug-trafficking, devaluing and putting an outrageously low price on life. In a country where the functionaries of justice have made themselves scarce, the cheapest and most efficient way to resolve a problem is to pay those who have acquired the habit of killing, no questions asked. Probably no other country on Earth had so many homicides on Christmas Eve: another unusual, sad record for the republic that has also had the most civil wars and tumultuous political uprisings, including coups, in Central America.
Death on every cornerThe day after Christmas, another friend’s call interrupted my dinner with some former co-workers. Clearly overwrought, Aleyda was barely able to get out enough words for me to guess at why she was so inundated with fear, even without grasping the details. Between her sobs I finally understood that she had just witnessed a triple murder. Some young men who had been trying to enter a home were chased by the owner and shot down right in the street, just a few blocks from Aleyda’s house. She and her nine-year-old son were driving nearby in her car when they heard the gunfire and—petrified—she braked, thinking for a moment the bullets were coming her way. She could hear one of the victims ask for help as he lay on the ground before being finished off by the man who had decided to take the law into his own hands.
How can you explain to your child that life is so futile it can be snatched away in a moment without a word? What level of impunity have we reached when someone can brazenly open fire on three people and then coolly return home without anyone asking any questions? What kind of future awaits these children, accustomed to living with death and with fear stalking them on every corner?
Nobody knows how to handle such a situation and I wasn’t sure what advice to give that would at least calm Aleyda. She took the only decision she could: she left her neighborhood immediately and rented another place in a gated community with private security. This solution is not available to everyone. Most people have no choice but to pick up their bits and pieces and take to the road.
People displaced from this warThousands of poor Honduran men and women are now displaced from their homes, uprooted by the consequences of violence, aimlessly wandering about in the city slums. The problem has become so acute that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has also dealt with internally displaced persons for many years, is thinking of setting up an office in our country again, as it did in the 1980s when civil wars were devastating the region.
In fact, it could be argued that a kind of war is being waged in Honduras: only countries experiencing armed conflict have 86 civilian deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.
On a powder keg of weaponsIt’s December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day when people in Latin America play pranks on each other similar to April Fools’ Day, and a day when it’s impossible not to remember all the murdered children in our country. More than 5,000 children have been murdered in Honduras since 2000, according to Casa Alianza, a nongovernmental organization working with homeless children. The statistics are inexorably rising today: the news talks about a 12-year-old boy who casually fired on his 10-year-old sister with a shotgun, instantly killing her. An accident that could happen anywhere on the planet, but obviously more likely in a country with 8.5 million inhabitants and over 3 million firearms, most of them illegal. We’re living on a powder keg and it’s no surprise that sometimes these things happen.
We had lunch at home with some friends. As usual on this day, we joked around some and made plans for the new year. We laughed and talked about the latest events reported on Radio Progreso’s now famous news program, Noti Nada (Nothing News), which reviews even the most tragic aspects of national reality with humor and a healthy dose of irony. In times like these having a sense of humor is essential to avoid being crushed under the weight of events.
We deliberated on the origin of so much violence. Is the fact that 80% of the cocaine consumed in the US passes right under our noses enough of a reason? What part does the political and business class play in this entire catastrophe?
Police in hellWill the current police purge do any good? Are there any good cops in our precincts? Dr. Ricardo says that several of his patients are police officers. He says their life is hell, because they’re pressured by a chain of command that has made the institution into a public calamity. Those who don’t want to stain their hands inevitably end up tainted by their peers’ misdeeds or six feet under with their mouth sealed forever. At one time we watched the law of silence in mafia movies and now we see it multiplied tenfold in this small country where nobody is safe, not even the strongest or the richest.
Corpses that send messagesOne of our lunch guests, Patricia, lives in Tegucigalpa. In 2012 her brother was kidnapped and murdered. The night of the kidnapping, friends accompanied her from one police station to another until at midnight they concluded that unfortunately her brother wasn’t officially arrested, even though those who took him away wore uniforms. Some hours later, in another blood-soaked daybreak, the radio reported the appearance of four lifeless bodies in various gutters in the city: her brother was one of them.
Nobody was told anything or made further enquiries. The local neighborhood gang came to the wake to express their condolences and make it clear that others were responsible. In Honduras, marking or breaching territorial control exacerbates fear: human corpses become messages from those who are in charge and give orders, to let everyone know and take heed.
Another taxi driver murderedUndeterred by so much violence, people celebrate the holidays with insistent joy. Pork sandwiches—or at least chicken—are plentiful everywhere; there’s no shortage of eggnog and beers among those who are a little better off; and friends give each other presents to show their appreciation and reaffirm the solidarity that enables us to resist the surrounding ambient.
On the 29th, I was about to take Benjamin a gift when he phoned me to say that his good friend Oscar had been murdered. Yet another family cuts short its celebration and prepares to mourn. For 20 years Oscar worked as a salesman in a hardware store in the center of El Progreso. For 20 years, from 7 in the morning until 5 in the evening, you could find him at his post. Despite his steady work and exemplary behavior, he couldn’t pay for his family’s increasingly costly unmet needs. That’s why, three years ago, he bought an old taxi and worked the early morning hours, always with regular, known clients so as to avoid risk.
Oscar was a cautious man. It’s very likely that, like most taxi drivers in Honduras, he set aside part of his earnings to pay “war tax.” On the morning of the 29th he was about to return home when he was intercepted by gunshots from two young men who, after robbing him, took him under a bridge and killed him. He wasn’t the last taxi driver to die in this way in 2012, a year where more than 50 throughout the country perished from deadly bullets.
Another delayed autopsyWithin 20 hours of his death, his mother’s humble home on the banks of the River Pelo, where Oscar grew up half a century earlier, was surrounded by old friends who came from all around to share the family’s grief. It didn’t matter that it was only a few hours before the year’s end. Nobody scrimps on their solidarity under these circumstances. People are generous with their time and—some more and some less—understand the powerlessness of these critical moments and the importance of feeling accompanied. There was no shortage of food or hot coffee, provided by the mourners, while waiting with unprecedented patience for the forensic doctor to deliver the body. It wasn’t easy as the morgue is crowded and the authorities, who are neither responsible nor diligent, also seem to know nothing about pity.
As if the grief of losing a loved one isn’t enough, you have a long useless wait for them to do an autopsy that never leads to any investigation. To the horror of death is added this indifference, a disregard for the waiting relatives, who are affected by the tragedy and only want to accompany, lovingly attend, care and hold a Christian wake for the now-lifeless loved one in his/her last hours above ground.
More women deadThe year ends, as always, with laughter, songs and fireworks. In some residential areas, those with greater resources, the neighbors organize a small fireworks party. In others they burn a doll representing the old year and there’s no shortage of those firing live bullets into the air. The powers-that-be warn about the danger of doing this but they lost authority some time back so each person takes their own precautions. It’s better for us to stay safely in some friends’ house and wait until the explosion of joy and gunpowder ends before returning home.
María Estela works in a women’s organization. She verified that the number of women murdered in 2012 has risen proportionally more than that of men. It’s a sure sign that the weakest suffer the most from this endless scourge. She asks, as does everyone in this country: What’s happening? What are we doing? Why does nobody intervene? How does one rebel against so much injustice? Where do we begin? A friend commented that in the eighties, with the national security doctrine, we knew where the blow was coming from; we were warned about where danger lurked…now it’s more complicated.
Honduras is a death trapThe small country of Honduras no longer seems livable. It has become a conduit for drugs, with utterly collapsed institutions, a political class deranged by greed and the plundering of resources, a social movement that can’t find its own voice and a weakened citizenry that barely stammers amid the deafening noise of gunfire.
The country has become a death trap, one from which some manage to escape but in which the majority can do nothing but survive each day with courage, stoicism, dignity and even tenderness. They are collateral damage, not adversaries, in this conflict, which will probably not even get sorted out in their own country, but many, many miles to the north.
Where to get the strength?Christmas is over. Santa Claus flitted by and the New Year begins with a return to the old secular problems. The worst part isn’t the staggering fiscal deficit that today afflicts the economies of both families and the government. Nor is it the rampant unemployment that continues to fill buses with men and women going or trying to go north. It isn’t even the democratic travesty expected for the upcoming elections, with old or refurbished political formations all abandoning alternatives to the real problems. It’s thinking that if the statistics hold to the pattern, 8,000 more Hondurans will die this year. Where do we find the strength to remain sane?
The crying and uncertainty eventually become a New Year prayer that hardly needs words; a sad ballad filled with hope to ward off fear, gathering together and opening our hearts to all our shared experience, to feed our dreams and summon life…always life.
Alejandro Fernández is an envío collaborator.