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Can coffee bring hope to Honduras?

Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world, so why would Kenco set up a training scheme there?

Honduras: The prison, San Pedro Sula [Part of the Kenco Coffee vs Gangs project] Video by Viv Maher


Waking up in a hotel in San Pedro Sula, said to be the most dangerous city in the world, is much like waking up in any other city – until you read the headlines. In the lobby, talk was of the seven people reported killed while we were sleeping, all in separate homicides. That number would have risen steeply if we’d looked to homicides across Honduras. According to figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras has an intentional homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. Ireland’s rate is 1.2 .

The headlines are a sobering reminder of where we are. For eight months, I’ve been documenting the progress of a training course, run by the coffee company Kenco, called Coffee Vs Gangs, designed to give a small group of young Hondurans a chance to distance themselves from the criminality and violence that defines this complicated country.

It’s been a strange introduction to a place I knew little about and it came laboured with doubt. The world hasn’t been won over by the corporate responsibility of international companies doing good, so a coffee conglomerate working in a poor coffee-producing country had to be met with scepticism. Over the past eight months I’ve interviewed the students by Skype, spoken to experts and read the data. Stories of the violence weren’t exaggerated, but could a training course make any kind of difference? I had seven days on the ground to find out.

San Pedro Sula, with it’s population of one million-plus, is the second city in a country in the grip of a 10-year period of extreme violence and intimidation. It’s mostly drug and gang-related, but it reaches into every part of society and no-one seems to be immune.

In some places it can seem invisible; the city is a business hub with high-rise buildings and private universities. Shopping malls and US brand-name restaurants gleam in the 45-degree heat, but look closer and you’ll see that security is everywhere. Shops, petrol stations, hotels and housing complexes are protected and barricaded. But, for the poor, living in shanty town conditions on less than a dollar a day, there is little protection.

We have security accompanying us at all times and they provide us with tremendous access to the city. They’ve been on the press route before and know what we need to see – they worked with Stephen Fry when he was reporting on the city. They helped Ross Kemp take his journey through Honduras for Sky, and they got the BBC inside the city centre prison that is run by the military police, but controlled on the inside by the inmates.

Policies have changed since and we didn’t get inside, but filming outside the prison was unnerving – not just because we learn that it’s considered a sniper’s alley for hits on prisoners as they are released, but because of the casual lack of interest the police took in what we were doing. We would never get so close to security installations in Ireland, not for safety’s sake, but to protect the privacy of those queuing up to meet their family members inside.

We met the same indifference to people’s privacy at the city morgue. A constant queue of people asking after missing family members, collecting bodies, comforting relatives.

We’re told that a couple of years ago up to eight members of a single family were killed as they waited to collect the body of a relative. Since then, security was tightened, but the only reason we couldn’t get inside was that, reportedly, the building was being renovated.

People seem so desensitised to death and misfortune. It’s logical perhaps, when surrounded by so much of it, but talking to individuals you can see how warm and open Hondurans are. As a society though, in their daily interactions, something appears to have been shattered. We hear that people don’t really know their neighbours as well as they did, that communities have changed, that people are obliged to keep looking over their shoulder.

The city is an intimidating place. Huge swathes of it are out of government control, run by the warring factions that make up the gangs that are holding the country to ransom. It’s almost impossible to get inside these barrios, as they are known, but it’s the young people that live in just these kind of places that we’re here to meet. And so to do that, we travel far from the city and out into the mountains of Honduras to a remote farm where, for the past eight months, Kenco has been running a residential training course for 19 young people. They’re all from disadvantaged backgrounds of one kind or another. They all have their own version of the Honduran horror story to tell us, but they’re tired of it too and are happier to talk about their work, their families, their business plans for the future. They’re a well-chosen group and have bonded well as they learn the business of coffee cultivation.

Some of the students talk of family members killed, others of parents who took the emigration route north to the US, leaving them as children to be brought up by their grandparents. Emigration is an obvious choice but an incredibly dangerous one.

We meet Carlos, who at 17 tried to take the route out of Honduras to the US. He set off on foot from the border with friends, some water and only a few dollars. It was a terrible journey, he says, sleeping rough, avoiding gangs.

He made a large part of the journey on top of a freight train, alongside countless others. He couldn’t sleep or he would fall off, he had to avoid traffickers looking for cash. He slept, freezing, in the desert, went days without food, faced fears and intimidation, all in the hope of making it north to the US border. He reached a point where he couldn’t continue, and after watching a group of young men being picked up and then later hearing they were all killed, he decided to turn around and make the long journey home. He says he thanks God for the second chance he feels he’s been given.

Maria, a young woman with great ambition, talks impressively of what she hopes to achieve. She wants to see women at the centre of the Honduran economy again, reclaiming their place on the land. The Honduran agricultural economy was once one of the strongest in Central America and it’s exciting to see a young woman care so passionately about rebuilding it again.

It seems as though the group are positive about their futures and genuinely engaged with what they are doing. They seem smart, good humoured and focused and it’s hard to imagine that any of them could get wrapped up in criminality or gangs.

As part of the course, they have each developed a business plan and Kenco seems serious about helping these plans come to fruition. The classroom work has been a struggle for some, with each preferring to be outdoors in the fields working the land. But their tutors are determined and they’re emerging from the course each with a serious business plan to develop. While we’re there, the group get word that they will each receive a small amount of start up cash to build their plans. The result is a wave of positivity that’s infectious.

We trek up a hill to visit a coffee plantation. It’s hot and humid, but they’re bursting with ideas. They’re a cool bunch of young people with their entire lives ahead of them and a germ of hope that it might just work out well. Who wouldn’t want to see them succeed? See also irishtimes.com/coffeevsgangs

- This article is part of the Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs project that is being run by Kenco and in association with The Irish Times