The string of 24-hour funeral businesses outside the city hospital in San Pedro Sula is quiet. It’s been a relatively peaceful night in the city, the second biggest in Honduras, and the emergency room was calmer than usual, we’re told. It’s my second visit to the Central American country and it’s still hard to grasp the reality of being in a place which, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, has the highest intentional homicide rate in the world.
On the face of it, San Pedro Sula looks like any other large commercial hub. American brand names line the malls, teenagers and families hang out at international restaurant chains and models smile down from billboards on modern highways and universities. And yet the funeral parlours do brisk business, queues to collect bodies start early at the city morgue and the country’s newspapers and television news are filled with tales of death and corruption.
It’s a troubled place, situated on the main transit route to North America and right at the centre of an international drug-trafficking chain. This in turn brought a gang culture to the country that has created intense insecurity, widespread corruption and made violent crime a daily occurrence.
I’m here to revisit the Kenco project, Coffee Vs Gangs, a corporate responsibility initiative set up by the international coffee chain that sets out to offer a real alternative for small groups of young people from gang-dominated areas in the country. Coffee is one of the biggest industries here, but difficultuies in achieving land ownership and a lack of education in modern coffee-farming techniques makes establishing a business in coffee farming an impossible target for most young people.
Kenco aimed to change that on a small but realistic scale for 19 individuals in 2015 and The Irish Times documented the progress of the first year of the course in 2015. It was an award-winning campaign, taking gold and silver in two categories at the Digital Media Awards and being nominated for a global media award by the International News Media Association for Best Execution of Native Content.
Now we’re back to chart how the graduates have progressed, to visit the businesses they have established with interest-free loans from Kenco and to meet the new group of graduates that have joined in year two. We want to measure whether the positive PR the company received has translated into similar success for the graduates. Over the next six months, we’ll chart that story, visiting the students in their homes and on their land. We’ll measure how the lives of these young men and women have changed, as well as telling the inspirational stories of their lives on the land.
The Kenco farm is high in the mountains in Honduras, hours from the city, but before we travel there we want to get closer to life here in San Pedro Sula and see first-hand what life in a gang area is like.
There are two main gangs in Honduras: Barrio 18 and MS-13, with new smaller gangs emerging all the time, all ready to fight their own turf wars. According to international reports, gangs control entire districts in the city, dominating criminal activity and constantly recruiting new young members. Membership is a dangerous path, offering little hope of escape but with few other options for young people.
Honduras is a poor country with low levels of employment. Faced with being forced to join a gang, many people attempt to make the perilous journey to the US, not realising the huge dangers that lie between their home and the American dream. Many don’t survive the journey and those who do, we learn, do so only by paying a huge personal price.
Wilfredo Tervel has a tattoo business in a Barrio 18 neighbourhood. He’s spent his savings on equipment and decoration in the windowless room in the house his grandfather built, decades before. It’s a three-storey colonial house, once splendid with decorative tiles, picture windows and architectural detail, but it has seen better days. A heavy metal door blocks the stairway to the upper floors, steps and architraves damaged and in need of repair. Clutches of electrical wires spin from poles to the building and the workspace on the rooftop that once housed a thriving business, we’re told, is now derelict and unused.
Corrugated iron shades a bright orange car from the 35 degree heat outside and while his family welcomes us in, Wilfredo tells us of a younger life where fast cars, crime and easy living shaped his day, before tragedy struck home. His tattoo business is growing now but it was his older brother who introduced him to it. Immediately smitten by what he saw, he promised his brother that he would train as a tattoo artist and that his very first tattoo would be on him. It was agreed but, not long after, his brother was killed in a car hijacking: shot nine times, three times in the face. The level of violence in this tale is shocking but he tells it with an acceptance that seems to come from long experience.
It turned his life around, he says, pulling him away from the petty crime path that he was then following and would have probably ended with his own death, he says. As we talk, a group of teenagers pull up nearby on bicycles and watch us. Scouts, our guide suggests, sent to find out what the gringos are up to.
Tattoos are a sensitive subject here, layered with much more meaning than the fashion statements they’ve become in Europe and the US. For many years, they were a signal of gang membership and a trend that locals say was imported from neighbouring countries like El Salvador and US-based gangs. A law forbidding them and the fact identification of gang membership was much too easy for the police has pushed them underground. Wilfredo only tattoos himself where they can’t be seen, on his thigh and stomach.
He has never been asked to do a gang tattoo but says he wouldn’t do one if he has a choice. He has covered up tattoos for others that might be mistaken for gang tattoos but more often his designs are in memory of people who have died. So many people have been killed, he says. “I work on likenesses, children's names, parents, whatever people need.” It’s an emotional experience, he says, listening to the stories that bring his customers in: grief, loss, abandonment.
Today, he’s working on a friend’s tattoo, developing a design he’s been shaping for many months. His friend is a mechanic and they barter with each other – exchanging tattoos for motor maintenance. It’s a fair trade, he says. Life is cheap but art costs.
Wilfredo is full of life as he talks, recounting tales of his childhood, his mother photographing him as he’s interviewed. There’s great pride in this house but loss too. Later we stand on the street outside his house. “This was once full of young people,” he says, looking up and down the deserted road. “They’re mostly gone now. Mostly dead.”
Next month: Meet the new recruits – year two of Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs