Life and death in the murder capital

April 5, 2013


San Pedro Sula, Honduras

By Jorge Cabrera

“Come in if you would like to and try to leave when you still can.”

Some weeks ago, I went to cover a soccer match in San Pedro Sula, considered the industrial capital of Honduras. It also bears the less honorable title of being the most dangerous and violent city in the world.

San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city after Tegucigalpa, has a homicide rate of 169 per 100,000 people and was named the world’s most violent city for a second year in a row. Lax laws allow civilians to own up to five personal guns, and arms trafficking has flooded the country with nearly 70 percent illegal firearms. Eighty three percent of homicides are by firearm compared to 60 percent in the United States.


I arrived when most of San Pedro Sula’s residents escape to the beach. Temperatures were hitting 40 degrees C (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade and the heat was overpowering. I went out for a walk with a fellow journalist who only covers crime and while we were walking he described San Pedro Sula like a supermarket for journalists looking for dangerous stories.

We entered the emergency room of a local hospital and I could sense what he was talking about. It was packed with people, most of them from low-income neighborhoods, nurses and doctors were running around, trying to tend to everyone but it was obvious that there was neither enough medical staff nor materials to treat everyone.

I could hear screams from patients and the smell was suffocating.

Night had fallen and more and more patients with wounds inflicted by violence were arriving. A man with numerous stab wounds was brought in. His hand was almost dangling from his wrist – he had been attacked by members of the Mara 18 street gang who had wanted to kill him with machetes and then tried to dismember his body. He was crying while he was telling me how he had managed to escape to a road and how people helped him. But he moved and looked around as if nothing had happened to him. He seemed to be completely unconscious of his wounds and must have been in shock.

More and more injured people were brought in. Most of them had gunshot wounds. Some had been hit by stray bullets, others had been shot at deliberately.

I stayed in the hospital until late and I looked at the nurses and doctors. The fatigue of the night and each different case they had worked on was reflected in their faces. The emergency room was in a dire state. The medical staff have to buy most of the medical supplies themselves, paid for out of their own pockets, and patients have to bring in gauze and bandages.

Later on, a colleague walked me to the morgue of the hospital. He explained that normally all the dead who die a crime-related death are taken to the morgue of the Public Ministry but because the place was so full they started keeping the bodies in the morgues of the hospitals.

When a security guard approached us I thought he would kick us out but when my colleague asked him how many bodies were in the morgue, the guard just opened the door and let us enter without saying a word.

I was impressed. I’d never seen something like that. Everybody helped us and we had access to almost everywhere. I believe it was to show us what conditions the medical staff were working under and how critical the situation was for the patients.

The next day it was time for some Cronica Roja (Red Chronicle aka crime reports) and although the streets were deserted, little by little my colleague started receiving calls, some from the police or his newspaper talking about crimes that had just happened.

The first victim was a woman who had been sitting outside a wooden kiosk when suddenly two strangers on a motorcycle drove by and shot her. According to the police, she had been selling drugs but failed to pay her suppliers (the same Mara 18 street gang).

The most astonishing thing was that a police station was just five houses away from the crime scene. When I asked one of the police officers if they hadn’t heard anything, he said, yes, but that they didn’t interfere because they didn’t want to die.

While we were watching the forensic technicians doing their work, another call came in and we went to the next crime scene on a highway which leads to Tegucigalpa. A woman had been shot three times in the head and she was kneeling on the ground. It was a grotesque scene. It looked like she had been asking her killers for mercy.

Neither the police nor the onlookers were keen to stay too long at the crime scenes. everybody leaves as fast as possible in order not to become the next victim. Certainly everybody seems to know who the killers and shooters are but they are too afraid to say something.

When I went back to the morgue, a different guard opened the door for me, he was eating and seemed to be slightly drunk. He opened the door to the morgue and said:

“Come and see, today all the dead are of violent crimes”
I asked: “How many are there?”
Guard: “Three who have not been picked up, five who are in the freezers and a young boy who arrived today. Nine in total.”
Me: ”How long does a body last outside the freezer?”
Guard: “Do you feel the foul smell? Those over there are already rotten/putrid.”
Me: “And you can eat here?”
Guard: “I’m used to it. It’s normal to me. Nothing makes me sick”

I took some pictures and I had to leave because of the nauseating smell.

In between I did cover the soccer match. It was a 2-2 tie between Honduras and Mexico and the locals were happy and celebrating. It seemed they were finally able to forget all the gruesome violence for some hours.

But it didn’t last long. Two hours after the game we got another call and we rushed to a neighborhood where two men and two women had been shot dead. We stayed there for a long time but the forensic team never showed. It was already very late and I wanted to leave, so I asked a neighbor if I could call him to see if the forensics had shown up. I called him the next day and he told me that they had picked them up at around 11am. The bodies had been on the street for almost 16 hours.

The scene looked like it had been taken out of a movie. For me it was an example of how normal murders seem to be in San Pedro Sula. There is not enough paper to print all the dead in this city.

To whichever crime scene we went, we all went together; police and journalists, they call themselves la caravana morguera (The mortuary caravan). Wherever you go you hear the same phrase:

“Come in if you would like to and try to leave when you still can.”

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There is a relationship between guns, corporate fascism, and evangelical Christianity which can be traced to the state of Texas.

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