Welcome to a country that has a higher casualty rate than Iraq. Wander streets considered the deadliest in the world. Wake up each morning to another batch of corpsessometimes bound, often mutilatedlining the roads. Witness the screeching blue light of police sirens and the huddles of “red journalists” who make a living chasing after the bloodshed.
They are scenes that conjure up a war zone, but Honduras is, at least officially, not at war. Ignored by the outside world, this Central American country is ravaged by ultraviolent drug cartels and an equally ruthless, militarized law force. Corruption is rife and the justice system is woefully ineffective. Prisons are full to bursting and barrios are flooded with drugs from South America en route to the United States. Cursed by geography, the people are trapped here, caught in a system of poverty and cruelty with no means of escape.
For many years, Alberto Arce was the only foreign correspondent in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s beleaguered capital. He has seen first-hand the country’s descent into anarchy. In Blood Barrios he shares his experiences in a series of gripping and atmospheric dispatches: from earnest conversations with narcos, taxi drivers, and soldiers, to exposés of state corruption and harrowing accounts of the aftermath of violence. Provocative, revelatory, and heart-rending, Blood Barrios shines a light on the suffering and stoicism of the Honduran people, and demands action from a complacent international community.
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About the Author
Alberto Arce has been an Associated Press correspondent in Honduras and now works for the AP bureau in Mexico City. John Washington is a journalist, novelist, and translator. Daniela Ugaz is a translator and law student at New York University.
Read an Excerpt
INSIDE THE VOLCANO
You'll notice the delicate pink flowers of the bougainvillea crawling over the cobblestoned street corners, the dusty mudbrick of the adobe, and the red tiles of the colorful houses, but only if you can get your head out of the volcano.
Living in Teguz is like drowning inside a volcano. In Tegucicrater — as some of us call it when there are no Hondurans around to hear us — you leave your house at six in the evening, you have your daughter's tricycle wedged under your arm, and, on the street corner in Parque de la Leona, you approach the small group of people gathered around a dead body. You smell the blood; you coolly look at the bullet hole stamped into the head — you've learned to contain your nausea — and you begin, without your notebook, to ask questions, just out of curiosity, just as a citizen. No one can live in a place for two years without feeling a part of it.
To get your head out of the volcano you have to pierce through the hills of trash and the dogs that live in them, the invasive labyrinth of electrical cables and bootlegged wiring, the car exhaust, the pervasive sound of the cityscape, and the night that falls like a blanket over streets without lampposts or traffic lights. As you lift your head you'll start to notice changes in the weather, the rain. By this point you've learned to hurry to beat the mudslide that will soon flood the neighborhood, to stick a hand out of the window to wave on the taxi behind you, and to drive on through the night with the anxiety of a junkie in search of one of the few gasoline stations that sell Marlboro Reds.
To exist here you have to learn to live with fear, rage, boredom, impotence, and frustration. The boredom of interviewing politicians and bureaucrats, the frustration that in a country where a woman is murdered every twenty hours, the half-dozen protesters gathered at a feminist rally can't agree on what their banner should read. The anger of seeing a boy drop out of school to push a squeaking ice cream cart eight hours a day. The impotence of thinking about that girl who was shot in the leg by her dad, but who doesn't want to go to the hospital because they might report the accident — the accident that happened when he, a police officer, was cleaning his gun while waiting for dinner to be ready after a 72-hour shift.
To survive the volcano, I've learned to protect myself against the ugly. I don't need Google glasses; I only need my time machine. In the dead hours of a traffic jam, I've learned to imagine the city in black and white. Dozens of times, I've dreamed of the Teguz of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, with its colonial houses, its gossiping crowds huddled at a church entrance, its billiards, its political hangouts, like the barbershop where Kapuscinski would get a straight shave before waiting in line to send a telegram, and where old men still sit to while away the hours, the type of men who touch the brims of their sombreros to greet passersby.
Most foreign journalists don't pass the first cut, not even with the generous hazard-tax they can charge; they throw in the towel, leaving behind a defeated city where even party streamers are made of rusty barbed wire. Nicaragua, just a few hours away by car, is too close to Honduras to seem a legitimate place of refuge, and correspondents (myself included) lack the intimacy — the political or religious will — to live in Honduras without being Honduran. But those of us who make the cut — those of us who think we've made the cut — we fight it out together in our Central American Melrose Place. In the Giraldilla, protected and surrounded by eucalyptus and guava trees, by squirrels, and by the aloe vera that covers the wall separating us from the streets, and protected by Lucas, a father of eleven children who doesn't know how to read or write, but who, with a machete in hand, guards over us night after night.
Lucas heats up a can of beans and a tortilla over burning embers in the yard; he makes less in a month than we spend on a Saturday night out on the town — we who party and love to talk about social justice, and yet refuse to open our door on a cold night lest Lucas come by to ask us for a little extra money for medication, or because his wallet's been stolen. Nor do we open the door to the million people living just outside, a stone's throw from the few houses remaining in the upper district. Many, in any given moment of bad luck, would kill us for what we have in our pockets. They don't do it, though, because we don't expose ourselves. Because we don't step onto their streets or into their markets, and we think that, in this way, they'll never reach us. The night I write this, however, the dead man, Don Esteban, a taxi driver with Parkinson's, was left slumped with a bullet hole between his eyes on the same street corner I stand on every day while waiting for my driver.
For a reporter who likes both the mud and the lava, this place is basically a rave. Ecstasy comes by way of a hunk of flesh and a spurt of blood. Like the modern mother who swallows pills made out of her own placenta, we reporters seek out the dead bodies to harden ourselves. My neighbor, Germán (the illustrator of this book) dropped his notebook as he was sketching a crime scene, staining it in blood. The blood soaked into the paper, staining it, just like the spurts of machine gun fire soiled our Sunday evening cocktail party a few days before. Yesterday, when Don Esteban, shot dead, slumped over the steering wheel of his taxi, we could only think of one thing: "There's nothing more to tell here."
Tegucigalpa is a city where you don't complain about somebody cutting you off in the street. Especially if that person is driving a double-cab pickup without plates. It's a city where you don't go looking for what you don't want to find. Where you buy beer at the corner market and can feel the fear emanating from Gladys, the cashier who, despite having known you for a year, now only talks to you from behind metal bars, speedily snatching your two dollars before handing you your groceries. Where, when you turn around, beers in hand, you see a fifty-year-old man in rags sitting on a stack of Coca-Cola bottles in the back of a delivery truck, wearing a cheap bulletproof vest and holding a loaded shotgun at the ready. Where the same scene repeats itself on an egg delivery truck. Where they kill these guards to rob them of their shotguns, which cost less than a day's wages. Where the businessmen making money from these robberies are also army colonels or chiefs of police. Where my daughter, just a year and a half old, sees a dead body for the first time and knows that something's different, that I'm trying to hide something from her, that the body we walk by is a dead body, and not a man taking a nap.
This is a country where the president goes on national TV, interrupting regular programming on every channel, to denounce the high-profile businessmen who import, tax-free, French mineral water they claim is necessary for their health. He doesn't name the businessmen, or file any charges, and certainly he doesn't change the laws that he himself approved, which allow the tax-free imports in the first place. The announcement is just his way of extorting the businessmen so they'll help fund his next campaign.
Honduras is a country where nobody has ever seen a mailman or a place to buy stamps, and yet UNICEF released a series of stamps to promote children's rights, and, one Thursday afternoon, you receive an invitation to eat Peruvian food at the Presidential House to help promote internal tourism.
Here we are, those of us who come home after a day's work and say, "I saw six dead bodies today," and those who want to change the subject. Those subject-changers charge thousands of dollars to solve a problem they neither understand nor try to understand. They're the same people who've never had trouble lifting their heads out of the volcano, those who realized much sooner than I have that Tegucigalpa is a city full of trees with red flowers and sunshine that breaks through the fog of the surrounding green hills. Because they can see more clearly looking towards the sky than they can with their eyes fixed at street level.
CRIME BEAT ROOKIE
The telephone rings one Saturday night, bringing news of death.
They just dropped two bodies, the policeman tells me over the phone. We'd asked him to show us the violence in San Pedro Sula, the so-called most violent city in the world. The cop — I can tell — feels useful lending a hand to a couple of international reporters.
I turn off the TV, put on my shoes, and tell the photographer about the call. As he routinely checks his memory cards and lenses, he phones for a taxi and checks the address with the receptionist. It's just another day for him. He's been covering this beat for more than a decade, since before I even started writing. He tells me to bring a phone charger, water, and some snacks to get us through the night — it could be a long one.
* * *
The first shots were fired through the front windshield. The victim's head reclines against the headrest. Inside the shattered skull there's something pink. Blood is spattered on the window, the steering wheel, the shirt.
The next victim is less bloody.
The bullet entered through the open window with nothing to interrupt its path. One shot is all it took — a little red dot at the temple. It's not as messy, but has left the body contorted, slumped to the side where it wanted to fall. The seatbelt is the only thing keeping the victim upright.
The bodies belong to the drivers of two mini-busses. This night, sweating as you can only sweat during Holy Week in the Caribbean, is my first night working the streets of Honduras.
They call it red journalism because of the blood. But the sparks that explode into the darkness are blue. The lights atop cop cars — rhythmic, hypnotic, as on American television shows — flood the scene like a spectacle for the faithful, those attending the nightly liturgy.
The police, four of them dropping grim-faced out of the bed of a pickup truck, look exhausted before they even begin their work. One of them makes a gesture with his rifle and, without even needing to issue an order, the crowd around the two mini-busses backs away. The officers wrap yellow tape around the scene. To get close enough to see, you elbow your way through the wall of crowding neighbors. A notepad or a camera is all the verification needed to let you scrutinize the corpses without raising eyebrows. The photographer doesn't waste time. He lifts the yellow tape, leans in, and shoots the victims again and again.
Lingering, I sit on a curb to smoke. In a little under an hour the scene has turned into a death carnival. Street-sellers jingle their cart-bells and onlookers gather around to buy candy, water, juice, and baleadas, Honduran-style tortilla sandwiches. The public eats, chats, loses enthusiasm. But almost nobody leaves. The television crews, completing the cast, move from one body to another. They get shots of the bodies, the curious spectators, the fat cop working the crowd. This is what they came for. Finally, someone drapes sheets over the bodies, and the local journalists turn off their cameras as if the show were over.
On that hot, viscous night in San Pedro Sula, there were eighteen murders. It's a city that averages fifteen homicides a day, and about 5,400 a year. In San Pedro Sula there are more violent deaths than in Baghdad or Kabul.
To write red journalism is to collect first-hand material from cadavers, to submerge yourself up to your eyeballs. Your Saturday nights will be dates with dead bodies and open notebooks. The challenge for the photographer is to capture the death scene without ruining the reader's breakfast the next morning; my challenge is to explain why it matters that these people are dying. No. That's too clichéd. To deliver to my editors a story that will justify their expenses. To find witnesses who will speak. To get them to talk, though talking puts them in danger. To give their personal details: full name, age, profession. To set up road signs on the map for whoever wants to find them, and charge them — with their lives — for speaking. Just basic professional standards.
I look around. The local journalists aren't asking questions. All they need is the number of bodies and the number of gunshots. They tend to avoid complication. And they help witnesses avoid complications. The script tells you to wait until the dust settles. I'm the kind of writer who always sticks close to the photographer. If he's going to linger at a scene, so am I. Minutes tick by. There, in plain view of the body, we talk about vacation plans, apartment rentals, sex, movies, our kids, Spain, Peru, the heat, the beach, prices for discount flights to Roatán Island — which is just half an hour from here. Another thirty minutes pass. Then an hour. An hour and a half before the forensic official comes to haul away the corpses.
This is the moment when they shine the lights again, when heads in the crowd turn to see: the unsavory moment when the attendants from the morgue have to pull the bodies out of the minivans and stuff them into plastic bags. For a crime photographer, these moments are like a landscape painter's sunset. We're sick. All of us. Those of us who think that our presence is justified because we're working; those who bring their kids to see the spectacle as if they were in their own living rooms watching a cheap movie. The bodies thunk out of their seats; the attendants heave them up again, trying not to drag them across the ground. I'll never understand why bodies always lose one or both shoes. The photographer catches a fresh portrait. Arms hanging like dead weight, a drooping head nodding goodbye, a puddle of blood seeping off the seat, advancing slowly towards the ground. News in this town lasts as long as the blood stays wet. Details harden quickly. What, when, how, and who turn into ends in themselves. The four basic questions of journalism gobbling up the fifth. The repetition blanks the why. There's talk, sure, but not about anything important.
* * *
As soon as they arrive, I spot them. On the street corner, a few steps removed from the circus surrounding the vans. They're not spectators. About a dozen men, a few women. They hug. Cry. Make phone calls. No cops or local journalists approach. Even if they did, they wouldn't want to talk to them. They're the victims. Those who know what happened. The people who can answer the why that nobody's asking.
I don't know where I find the will to overcome my shame, but I walk up to them. A few words of condolence and a short introduction identify me as a foreigner. The friends and family of the murdered drivers, angry and scared, want to step away and ask not to be identified before offering me any comment that might ease their rage. They're willing to talk only because I'm a foreigner. They think that whatever I write won't be read by anyone in town. But with the internet, that's unlikely.
Nobody provides their name. They have faces, clothes, stories, and fear, but they're missing names, which means what they tell me cannot be part of the story. They aren't the anonymous sources that will let an editor, in some office thousands of miles away, believe that through them the world can understand pain and truth. They can't help with my work; but they can help me.
They talk so that they won't be forgotten. But they don't denounce or accuse, nor do they provide details that could lead to the killers — and they know exactly who the killers are. They're not heroes; they don't want recognition, or fame. They don't even want to talk to me for longer than it takes to smoke a cigarette. They don't want to be known for running their tongues, only to have them cut out.
They start with the basic facts.
As they finished their last route of the day, the two drivers parked their vans next to each other to chat as their passengers disembarked. A group of men wielding pistols, their faces uncovered, stormed onto the scene and screamed at the passengers to hurry. The commuters ran, didn't look back, and the men executed the drivers.
Excerpted from "Blood Barrios"
Copyright © 2015 Alberto Arce.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgements Epigraph Map: Routes of cocaine and violence in Honduras Part I: Red Journalism 1. Inside the volcano 2. Crime beat Rookie 3. Night of the Chepos 4. Death of a Taxi Driver 5. Four Boards Strapped to the Back Part II: The Curse of Geography 6. A Little Known War 7. Mosquito Coast Part III: Houses, Coffins, and Graffiti 8. Refugee Camp 9. One Coffin, One Vote 10. Hallucinations 11. Night of the Fire Part IV: The Police 12. An Assassin 13. Death Squads 14. Police Reform 15. El Tigre Bonilla, A Culture of Simulacrum Part V: Storytellers 16. Journalists 17. The Politicians 18. Those Who Imagine Epilogue: What Am I Doing in Honduras?
About the Author and Translators About the Illustrator