How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer

August 11, 2016

San Pedro Sula, Honduras — Three years ago, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world. The city of San Pedro Sula had the highest homicide rate in the country. And the Rivera Hernández neighborhood, where 194 people were killed or hacked to death in 2013, had the highest homicide rate in the city. Tens of thousands of young Hondurans traveled to the United States to plead for asylum from the drug gangs’ violence.

This summer I returned to Rivera Hernández to find a remarkable reduction in violence, much of it thanks to programs funded by the United States that have helped community leaders tackle crime. By treating violence as if it were a communicable disease and changing the environment in which it propagates, the United States has not only helped to make these places safer, but has also reduced the strain on our own country.

Two years ago, some 18,000 unaccompanied Honduran children showed up on the United States border. Now community leaders say the number of youngsters heading north from this neighborhood has been cut by more than half. Honduras has dropped from first place to third among Central American countries sending unaccompanied children to the United States illegally.

Smart investments in Honduras are succeeding. This offers a striking rebuke to the rising isolationists in American politics. A Pew Research Center poll in April found that most Americans think the United States should “deal with its own problems” while others deal with theirs “as best they can,” a sentiment that’s at the core of Donald J. Trump’s “America First” slogan and “build a wall” campaign. Many seem to have lost their faith in American power.

The funding for violence prevention in Honduras — which this year cost between $95 million and $110 million — has also come under attack from the left. This summer, a bill was introduced in Congress to suspend security aid to Honduras because of corruption and human rights violations. These concerns are legitimate, but cutting our support would be a mistake.

What we really need to do is double down on the programs that are working and replicate them elsewhere. Even as fewer children are coming to the United States from Honduras, the overall number from Central America could set a record this year. What is working in Honduras may offer hope to Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries in crisis.

Until recently, parents didn’t let their children outside in Rivera Hernández, for fear of the six gangs that controlled the sprawling neighborhood of 150,000.

The gangs enforced a 6 p.m. curfew. Bodies littered the dirt streets in the morning. The 18th Street Gang set up a checkpoint, and every entering driver was asked: Where are you from? Where are you going? Anyone with wrong answers was shot on the spot. I heard from multiple sources — including in the State Department and the Honduran police — about gangsters playing soccer with the decapitated head of someone they had executed.

“It was like a ghost town,” said Jesús René Maradiaga, a community leader. Two of his daughters had been shot, one fatally.

No longer. In two years, homicides have plummeted 62 percent. On a recent Thursday night, I went to Daniel Pacheco’s twice-a-month movie night. A pastor and part-time carpenter, Mr. Pacheco picks up kids from the 18th Street Gang’s territory as well as kids from the area controlled by its fiercest rival, the Mara Salvatrucha gang.

Then, in swampy heat, in the middle of the street, he sets up a tent, projector, screen and speakers. He lines up plastic chairs and inflates a Scooby-Doo bouncy house.

By 7:30, the night I was there, more than a hundred children were playing together. They shrieked with glee in the bouncy house, then settled in to watch “Inside Out.” Finally, they lined up as a police officer handed them water bottles and grocery bags inscribed with 911, urging them to call the new emergency system to report crime. The United States provided the equipment and everything Mr. Pacheco needed for the event.

America’s support is “getting results,” said James D. Nealon, the United States ambassador to Honduras. We are, he said, reducing migration. But we are also repairing harms the United States inflicted — first by deporting tens of thousands of gangsters to Honduras over the past two decades, a decision that fueled much of the recent mayhem, and second by our continuing demand for drugs, which are shipped from Colombia and Venezuela through Honduras. If the United States sustains its anti-violence work in Honduras, Ambassador Nealon says, “in five years they will get their country back.”

Mr. Pacheco ran his programs out of a green and white house called Casa de la Esperanza, or House of Hope. Not long ago, it was what is known as a Casa Loca — a house used by gangs for torture and murder.

On June 26, 2014, members of the Ponce gang grabbed 13-year-old Andrea Abigail Argeñal Martínez because her family couldn’t afford the “war tax” the gang imposed on its tiny store. They raped Andrea for several days in that house, and called her mother so she could hear the girl’s screams as they cut her to death. They buried Andrea under a grapefruit tree in the patio.

Mr. Pacheco recalled how he had stood over the hole after Andrea was exhumed and vowed: “In your memory, I am going to do something.” Then he scrubbed the blood from the floors.

Now he goes around preventing murders. When he hears about a gangster cornered by the police, he will stand in the line of fire yelling, “Stop shooting!” until the officers allow the gangster to surrender. In this way he has gained the trust of all six gangs. He does the same when he hears that someone is about to be murdered by one of the gangs, madly pedaling his bike to the scene.

He has found an eager ally in the United States, which was desperate to stem the exodus of unaccompanied children. The United States modeled its prevention strategy on what had worked in Boston in the 1990s, and later in Los Angeles: Concentrate efforts on the most violent hot spots. In 2014, U.S.A.I.D. and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs began organizing community leaders in three pilot locations in San Pedro Sula, including the one in Rivera Hernández.

One of the most effective tactics is the creation of neighborhood outreach centers; the United States has sponsored 46 of these. Typically, a church donates the building, and the United States remodels it and provides computers, equipment and initial funds to hire a coordinator. The centers recruit mentors and provide vocational training for residents and help finding jobs for them as barbers, bakers and electricians. Arnold Linares, a Baptist preacher who runs one of the centers, says that, despite many shortcomings, “The U.S. government has been a bigger partner in change than the Honduran government.”

The United States has provided local leaders with audio speakers for events, tools to clear 10 abandoned soccer fields that had become dumping grounds for bodies, notebooks and school uniforms, and funding to install streetlights and trash cans.

In addition to equipment for the movie nights, Mr. Pacheco received uniforms and balls to field 25 soccer teams. One recent night, he held a game between the Casa de la Esperanza team and a team of killers — 20 sicarios, or assassins, from the Los Tercereños gang. One stocky player wearing a No. 11 jersey told me he had killed 121 people, charging $220 or more per hit.

Tonight he was running up and down the field, trying to score. “When the gangsters go home, they go to bed tired. They won’t kill anyone tonight,” Mr. Pacheco said, smiling. “If they play each other, they see each other less as the enemy. They say: When’s the next game?”

One pilot program also focuses on children who are identified by trained counselors as having a number of risk factors for joining gangs, like substance abuse, unsupervised time and a “negative life event” — having been the victim of a violent crime, having a family member killed. After a year of family counseling, children in that program were deemed 77 percent less likely to commit crimes or abuse drugs or alcohol, according to Creative Associates International, the company administering the program.

Finally, the United States is helping to bring criminals to justice by supporting a nonprofit operating in Honduras called the Association for a More Just Society (A.J.S.). In recent years, 96 percent of homicides did not end in a conviction. Everyone in Rivera Hernández knew what happened to witnesses who stepped forward: Their bodies were dumped with a dead frog next to them. The message: Frogs talk too much.

The A.J.S. assigns teams of psychologists, investigators and lawyers to look into all homicides and to coax witnesses to give testimony. More than half of completed homicide cases in seven pilot neighborhoods now result in guilty verdicts.

“It’s not like before — kill someone and there are no consequences,” said Mr. Maradiaga, the community leader.

A.J.S. members approach victims’ families gently: They are a Christian organization, can they help? They go to the morgue and offer to transport the body and provide coffee for the wake, or a month’s rent. Finally, they press for information. Half the family members usually know the killer; one in four witnessed the murder. They say it takes four to 15 visits to persuade a witness to testify.

Witnesses can testify anonymously, as they do in Italian Mafia cases. At a courtroom in May in San Pedro Sula, the A.J.S. team arrived with a jittery witness hoping to finally bring the killers of 13-year-old Andrea to justice.

Luis López, the team psychologist, helped the witness go over her testimony. She saw two gangsters grab Andrea, guns drawn. She overheard one tell the girl, “You’ll see what we do to you.” Two days later Andrea’s grandmother and mother were showing photos of the missing girl to people in the street. The witness said nothing. A week later, she heard muffled cries from the green and white house.

The psychologist said, “I need you to be calm.”

“They will see me” — terror in her voice.

“They won’t see anything. They cannot see you,” he reassured her, showing her how to breathe deeply if she went mute with fear.

She slipped on what looked like a black burqa, covering her from head to toe, along with rubber boots and black gloves. At the courthouse, she stepped inside a wooden mobile armoire with a one-way window, through which she could see out but no one could see in, and she was wheeled into court.

When she glimpsed the two men charged with the murder, anger welled up in her. She calmly laid out what she had seen, her voice distorted by a machine.

She had witnessed three murders, but this was the first time she had told anyone. Afterward, in the car, she beamed. “I feel liberated!”

“People want justice, that’s all,” Mr. López said. Three weeks later, both the accused were found guilty of murder.

In the area where Andrea was killed, no one has been murdered in two years, according to Mr. Pacheco. He estimated that the number of gang members in Rivera Hernández dropped 25 percent in three years. “We are taking away the gang’s lifeblood: new recruits,” he said.

All this is not to say that the place is anywhere near safe. Children continue to be murdered: Last year 570 were killed in a country with a population smaller than New York City’s. One afternoon several months ago, a Mara Salvatrucha gangster was caught by the police in Rivera Hernández with a hacked up body in the front basket of his bicycle, casually on his way to dispose of it.

A 2015 study found that 174,000 Hondurans, 4 percent of the country’s households, had abandoned their homes because of violence. Most have not returned. About a thousand families left Rivera Hernández under threat. Gangsters stripped their houses of anything they could sell — window frames, doors, roofs — leaving whole blocks in rubble.

It will take much more than this project to change the reputation of the United States in this part of the world, where we are famous for exploiting workers and resources and helping to keep despots in power.

And no one denies that much of the change now is self-interested: The surge of refugee children in 2014 resulted in President Obama’s request to Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency assistance.“It’s not charity,” said Ambassador Nealon.

A 2016 study commissioned by U.S.A.I.D. found that working with people within the gangs — those who are active participants and those who want to leave — produced the biggest drops in violence. And yet the United States does hardly any of this, for fear of being seen as working with or paying off gang members. Rivera Hernández leaders see this as a critical omission.

The next priority must be to clean up the police. The State Department had been funding police officer training courses, but efforts to get cops to know community members and to engender trust between them flopped. Late last year, it pulled financial support for the Rivera Hernández police, under a human-rights law that prohibits providing aid to police officers who engage in gross human rights violations.

At a weekly meeting of community leaders in Rivera Hernández, I asked if any would go to the police station to report a crime. Not one hand went up. “No one with their five senses would report a crime,” said Mr. Pacheco. The Rivera Hernández police chief, Eduardo Turcios, said that up to one in five of his cops was dirty, but community leaders say the number is closer to half.

Mr. Pacheco knows two families who reported a crime to the police. Officers ratted them out, and three family members were killed that very day. Mara Salvatrucha gangsters in Rivera Hernández say they receive warnings from the police of impending sweeps and are handed captured rivals to execute, for anything from $440 to $2,200 a head.

Police officers also engage in extrajudicial killings. Last Oct. 9, following the murder of a police officer in Rivera Hernández, officers arrested a 15-year-old, who was found dead the next day, with signs of torture on his body.

“You touch one place and it’s full of pus. You touch another place, and it’s full of pus. The whole body is rotten,” said Luis Ortiz, who heads the San Pedro Sula chapter of the A.J.S., of the police.

And yet cutting off funds for the police also cuts off support for the violence prevention programs they organized, including everything from painting peace murals over graffitied walls with local kids to medical brigades and anti-gang programs in schools. Community leaders say the United States must find a better way to punish bad cops without withholding programs that help children.

Finally, about half of the funds Congress budgets for Honduras go to the State Department bureaucracy or American companies paid to administer programs, so-called beltway bandits, rather than directly to local nonprofits or Hondurans. Even the support Mr. Pacheco receives falls short of what he needs; he sells horchata (a milky drink) on the street to make up the difference. Recently, he had to vacate his Casa de la Esperanza outreach center, because the family that owned it sold it. U.S.A.I.D. can do nothing to help.

The test now is whether the United States can scale up from a few pilot programs to truly make a difference nationwide, and what it will cost. “A program like that has to be massive, with lots of money, not isolated programs here and there,” said Kurt Ver Beek, a co-founder of the A.J.S.

The United States will also need to pressure Honduras to ante up more of its own money for violence prevention; it spends only 6 percent of a tax aimed at reducing violence on such programs. And it needs to condition aid on Honduras’s making progress toward cleaning up epic levels of corruption.

But at least now there is hope. Fourteen-year-old Carlos Manuel Escobar Gómez told me things were so bad two years ago that he was ready to hop freight trains through Mexico to the United States. Both his parents and a brother were dead, and he was sure he wouldn’t survive his 11th year. He saw two people murdered, both while going to the store to buy milk. He was robbed at gunpoint. He rarely left the house. Now, he said, he no longer wants to migrate north.

“You can be outside, sitting and talking,” he said, as if it was a luxury to linger in the dust-choked street. He spends afternoons selling mangos and bananas door to door, and goes to Mr. Linares’s center to get help with homework or to play soccer. And, he said with awe, “I haven’t seen a dead body in a year.”

Sonia Nazario is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother.”