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Neighbourhood watch: covering the crime beat in Honduras

After a week travelling Honduras with the Coffee Vs Gangs project, Gary Quinn joins a journalist reporting from the scene of a murder in a gang neighbourhood

 

Journalist Maria Caceres has had a quiet weekend. Only two homicides have come across her desk in downtown San Pedro Sula, the second city in Honduras, in the past two days, she says. Maria is a crime reporter, working across three television news networks in what is often described as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. (Honduras has a crime rate of 90.3 homicides per 100,000 people. Ireland’s rate by comparison is 1.2 per 100,000).

Night after night Maria travels around the city with her small team, bringing viewers to the scene of homicides and violent crimes. She works hard to be responsible to these stories, she says, working closely with colleagues to report fairly and ethically. It’s not a role that goes unnoticed and people shout her name from cars as we talk on the street. She loves her city despite its reputation and talks eloquently of a future where San Pedro Sula is known for more than simply gangs and violence.

But the reality is stark. Fifty-nine journalists have been killed here since 2009 and the government is struggling to be seen to protect them. A new law came into force in 2015 but only four people have been convicted in all of these cases. For Maria, staying safe involves working with the gangs that control the city, not misrepresenting them (as she describes it) and accepting that when she is on their turf things work by their rules. The media here have accepted rules of engagement for entering gang neighbourhoods. They roll down their windows as they enter, put on their hazard lights, let people know who they are immediately. By working with the gangs in this way, Maria explains, they can report what is happening, get access but also stay relatively safe.

It’s hard for us to understand the background to this country, often described as a victim of geography, positioned as it is on the main drug route from South America to the US. Over the past 20 years criminal gangs have become dominant in large parts of Honduras, profiting from the drug trade and controlling entire neighbourhoods. After seven days travelling the country meeting young people on the Coffee Vs Gangs project, a corporate responsibility programme run by Kenco, it’s hard to reconcile the ambition of these participants with the harsh reality of life here. We need to see what these neighbourhoods are really like. It’s been hard to get access but we hope that Maria can bring us in.

She gets a call that someone has been killed in a well-known gang neighbourhood and says we can come along. We follow in our car and I’m nervous as we speed through the city traffic. The streets are busy and the ground is uneven as we turn off the highway and into the neighbourhood. It’s a dark crowded place with small streets, houses and improvised shops. Children play in the road and adults sit on porches watching us as we pass. We’re told to wind down our windows and sit close to them so that everyone can see us. These are the rules.

As we weave in and out of the small streets we take directions from locals who eye the gringos in the back seat with interest. We’re the first media to arrive and a single policeman has pulled a yellow police tape across the road. A bicycle lies on waste ground behind it and lights have been put up illuminating the area. The body is hidden from view. Maria gets to work, talking to the police, the local people and making calls as the residents stroll down to see what’s happening. More media arrive, then some soldiers. Another camera crew sets up nearby and a man comes out of a nearby house with a dinner plate in his hand, still eating as he watches the newscast take shape. A small crowd has surrounded the area now and cameras come to life.

A colleague of Maria’s turns up and she updates him as he takes over the newscast, reporting with drama from the scene of the latest crime. He weaves around the area followed by his camera crew, telling the story of another death for the nightly news. Parents and children look on and it’s unsettling to see how normal a homicide has become here. The person lying dead only feet away was seen one too many times in another gang neighbourhood we learn. This is enough to raise suspicion here and it’s suggested that this was why he was killed.

It’s fascinating but troubling for me, a European journalist, to stand and watch this all unfold. Everyone I’ve met in Honduras has inspired me with their hard work and determination to break away from gang neighbourhoods. Suddenly, here I am, standing in the middle of one, watching the apparatus of the state and media do their work. All across San Pedro Sula neighbourhoods like these go about their business – poor, heavily populated, badly planned but full of life and ordinary ambition.

It’s this same ambition that seems to drive people to try to emigrate to the US and beyond. It drives the participants of the Coffee Vs Gangs programme and it drives the work of their coaches and trainers. There is so much hope in Honduras but it’s a terribly complicated place to live in with crime and death so common that statistics can’t keep up.

In the face of this, Kenco’s project can easily be dismissed as a drop in the ocean – an impossible attempt to stem the tide of violence and criminality. But when you talk to people face-to-face you realise that for the close to 40 young people that have passed through the Coffee Vs Gangs project to date it has been a huge opportunity. It’s a small number that can’t begin to affect change any wider than among the people involved but for them it’s been a tremendous journey. They have become business owners, employing others and attempting to build a solid future – one that is as far away from this scene as can be imagined.

ABOUT THE COFFEE VS GANGS PROJECT

This series is a sponsored project by Kenco to raise awareness about Honduras, its complicated social instability and the role of the coffee industry there.

It is structured around documenting the progress of a training course run by Kenco, designed to offer 20 young disadvantaged Hondurans an opportunity to develop careers in the coffee industry. This is the second year of the project. In year one The Irish Times collabaration won Gold and Silver at the Irish Digital Media Awards as well as being nominated for a Global Media Award by the International News Media Association (INMA)

Kenco set up the Coffee Vs Gangs project in 2014. It’s a small-scale, resource intensive project that attempts to offer an alternative to young people who are considered at risk of gang membership in their neighbourhoods. A year-long residential training course, it teaches modern coffee-farm production techniques as well as intensive business coaching and business start-up support (financial and advisory) to its graduates. Based in the highlands of Honduras, it seeks to build on the growth of the coffee industry there and introduce the participants to skills and knowledge that will allow them to set up, own and manage coffee farms.

Now in its second year, the graduates from year one have already established their businesses and continue to be supported by Kenco in their development. The year two graduates are preparing to put their business plans in action and take up interest free loans managed by Kenco to allow them to purchase land to establish their farms.

You can read more at: irishtimes.com/sponsored/kenco