Violence on the streets of San Pedro Sula during the state of emergency

While the Honduran government announced that homicides decreased in 2023, multiple disappearances have been registered in the Rivera Hernández district, San Pedro Sula, since the state of emergency was imposed in December 2022. But these cases of violence do not appear in official registries. A large segment of the population considers that the fight against crime is moving backwards, and promises to tackle organized crime in neighborhoods around the country have withered along with Hondurans’ trust in security forces.

Text: Allan Bu
Photography: CC Archive

Graphs: Vienna Herrera 

 

Wilmer Argueta used to work as a photographer for various media outlets, but unemployment forced him to set his camera aside and earn a living as a taxi driver in Lomas del Carmen, San Pedro Sula. He held that job until Sunday, March 25, when his relatives told news outlets that he had been kidnapped by unknown individuals. Since then, no one knows his whereabouts.

On January 18, Anthony Montoya, a mechanic, was kidnapped while walking to a store in the Manuel Pedrosa neighborhood, Jucutuma district, at 7:30 p.m. On February 9, a woman, not facing the cameras to protect her identity, denounced on national television that her daughter Kimberly Navarro had disappeared in the Asentamientos Humanos neighborhood, Rivera Hernández district, five days before. In late April, relatives of taxi driver Bayron García reported him missing; he was last seen early in the morning of Thursday, April 24, in a white Kia, in which he offered private services as a driver.

These events, which were reported by the press, took place in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second largest city, industrial capital and one of its main epicenters of violence. Disappearances reported by victims’ relatives on social media or news outlets are not the only ones; many go unnoticed when families remain silent.

In April, pastor Daniel Pacheco, who has been raising awareness of security issues in the Rivera Hernández district for over a decade, told Contracorriente that 12 disappearances were registered in 15 days, stressing that “those are the ones we know about.”

A source from Chamelecón who asked to remain anonymous said that groups who control that area remove victims from communities “to avoid heating up the area and undermining their most profitable business: drug trafficking.” The person also said there are clandestine cemeteries in Chamelecón and Rivera Hernández.

A couple of days later, authorities found a clandestine cemetery in Lomas del Carmen, where by May 27 forensic medicine personnel and special prosecutors had found the remains of 10 people. At the time of publication, the victims had not been identified, a difficult process due to the bodies’ advanced state of decomposition, authorities say.

Pacheco opined that the reduction of homicides in 2023 reported by the Secretariat of Security – 31 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest rate in the last 19 years in the country but the highest in Central America and second highest in Latin America – could be owed to the disappearances. “Some homicides have not been reported because there is no system to keep track of disappearances, most of which are not reported by family members,” he explained.

Pacheco tried to convince former Secretary of Security Ramón Sabillón that the numbers are not credible: “Sabillón is a native of the Rivera Hernández district, but I couldn’t convince him to do something. I told him: ‘For the love of God, don’t take those stupid reports seriously. You’re an intelligent person. Why would you believe such lies?’”

The National Police in northern Honduras acknowledged the disappearances in areas controlled by criminal groups. Valle de Sula’s Chief of Police David Ortega told Contracorriente there is a criminal typology related to this issue: “some people file reports, and some of the disappeared are found, while others are still missing,” he said.

Ortega said authorities can act as soon as people come forward, “but it’s hard to find out about cases if no one files a complaint. However, there are methods for conducting investigations.”

Pacheco denounced that people who don’t file complaints are forced out of their homes by criminal organizations in some districts like Rivera Hernández and Chamelecón. This is a by-product of gang violence. The homes are later used to house members or as torture chambers, also known as “casas locas” (madhouses).

He says the dispossession of homes and disappearances are not reported by anyone. “No one trusts authorities, and the population has reached a breaking point. I’m not saying all police officers are bad; there probably are exceptions, but how can you tell the difference?”

Pacheco’s outlook is sustained by the National Police’s shady past, considering several of its members have been actively involved in all kinds of crimes, including drug trafficking. The Special Commission for the Purging and Reformation of the National Police was created during the administration of Juan Orlando Hernández. According to reports by Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), 6,168 police officers have been purged, and about 33 percent of these cases were forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.

More than 1,000 officers filed a lawsuit against the Honduran State, questioning the purging process and arguing their right to due process had been violated. This process didn’t bring back the population’s trust, and Pacheco says it’s “terrible” because Hondurans have no one to turn to if the police are corrupt. “I have never seen organized crime infiltrate an institution so deeply,” he said and affirmed that the police leadership is well aware of this situation.

In March 2024, Hernández was found guilty on three charges related to drug trafficking. In the same trial, two high-ranking police officials pleaded guilty to the same charges: Mauricio Hernández Pineda, former deputy commissioner, and Juan Carlos Bonilla, known as “El Tigre,” former head of the institution.

That month, Contracorriente published a report on crimes, including disappearances, that have taken place during the state of emergency. The crimes were allegedly committed by men wearing the uniform of the Police Directorate against Gangs and Organized Crime (Dipampco). Although authorities say criminal groups have been impersonating police officers, victims say the State is responsible. In April, the Attorney General’s Office arrested five Dipampco agents accused of aggravated kidnapping and other crimes.

Extortion during the state of emergency

The disappearances mentioned earlier occurred during the state of emergency, which was imposed on December 6, 2022. As a result, Hondurans’ constitutional rights have been suspended, including the inviolability of the home – that no person is allowed inside a home without the owner’s consent or a warrant issued by a judge.

This measure was the government’s response to a surge in crime, particularly threats of extortion. According to data from the Secretariat of Security, between December 2022 and April 2024, 34,064 people were detained for various crimes; drug trafficking being the most frequent offense for which 6,989 people were detained. However, only 503 people were detained for extortion, the purported reason for imposing this measure.

Security consultant and analyst Leonardo Pineda says the results of the state of emergency are barely noticeable: “What one has seen in communities during the state of emergency is groups and special police units burst into homes and take people away without a warrant.”

He maintains that only 5 percent of arrests have been effective during this time. “I’ve heard that some criminal groups, who have very good lawyers, successfully presented their case to judges, who acquitted and released them,” he concluded.

Contrary to that analysis, Chief Ortega stressed authorities’ hard work, which he thinks has produced favorable results like reducing homicides, even though other crimes, such as breaking and entering and robberies, have become more noticeable. “Operations have been carried out in commercial areas in order to give the population a sense of security,” he said.

When asked about the rise in extortions, Ortega – almost like reading from a script – said some sectors like transport have filed complaints of extortion, and asserted that there are investigative processes for those cases. “We ask people who have been threatened in any way to file a complaint to authorities. The more people overcome this fear, the faster we can react to avoid those criminal acts,” he stated.

Pastor Pacheco says people in neighborhoods are not scared but terrorized. “Who terrorizes these people?” I asked him.

People are afraid of gangs, he said. They live in fear and must adapt to the rules of an “invisible government” within neighborhoods. And as long as they adapt and are aware of criminal groups’ security protocols, “they will be more or less fine and survive.”

Pacheco emphasized that the population almost utterly mistrusts State security forces. “People are terrorized by authorities and that’s worse than being terrorized by gangs. But instead of getting upset when one tells them so, they should find a solution,” he added.

Pacheco’s statements contradict the government’s campaign boasting about the progress of community police, which is purportedly close to the people, has earned their trust and respects human rights. But that’s not the case, Pacheco says, and the climate of violence did not originate in gangs. “This is much deeper and reaches other levels of society. I don’t have a clear explanation of this, and I cannot wrap my head around it.”

While the pro-government discourse on security is repetitive and highlights the decrease in homicides, insecurity is still one of Hondurans’ main concerns, according to a poll by Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC-SJ). Nineteen percent of respondents say crime and insecurity is the country’s most pressing problem, and only 3 percent thinks that the government’s fight against crime is a success.

Pacheco is skeptical about the government’s advances in the fight against criminal organizations, which, he thinks, are still controlling neighborhoods. “People are fleeing their communities and looking for a place to live,” he said, referring to those displaced by violence, and added: “Others stay and don’t speak up. They lose a family member, who is never seen again, but they stay. And where would they go? Who benefits from the terror?”

Pineda says one cannot attribute what’s happening in San Pedro Sula to a single cause because it’s a large city, and there are many dynamics at play. It seems that extortion has dwindled in some areas, while increasing (including higher fees) in others, he said. Gangs are the main actors, but there are criminal groups that cannot compete with the Barrio 18 or MS-13 gangs, so they strike deals with their much powerful counterparts to carry out certain criminal activities.

According to data from the Secretariat of Security, 29 criminal groups that operate in six departments have been identified. Eight criminal groups operate in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, in addition to the Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs. Seven groups operate in San Pedro Sula besides those two gangs. Six, four and three criminal groups operate in Choluteca, Atlántida and Olancho, respectively.

Pineda says the Chamelecón district is apparently peaceful now. “But data from 10 or 12 years ago indicate that 400 people were killed in that district alone per year. There are 7 to 20 killings per year now, according to the data. I’m not saying those numbers are credible, but they are notable.”

According to Pineda, the drop in homicides in that district is due to several factors: a) criminal groups imposing rules, which residents have adopted, in new territory; b) de-escalation of conflicts between gangs, especially Barrio 18 and MS-13. “One gang has imposed itself on the other, and conflicts don’t lead to tragic results; one of the gangs simply leaves to avoid a conflict. This is known among gangs as ‘not heating up’ the territory to protect their other, more profitable, business: selling drugs. But violence still exists,” he explained.

Pineda added that the Secretariat of Security has tried to recruit more police officers, but such attempts have fallen short because with 90 agents assigned to Chamelecón, which has a population of 150,000 inhabitants, “there isn’t even one officer per 1,000 inhabitants, and the median should be three. The same goes for the Rivera Hernández district: police officers try to get some things done, but they’re stretched thin.”

It’s been more than two years since President Castro took office, and Pineda says he’s still trying to understand what’s going on. “It seems like the administration is doing things right, but, on the other hand, there are five arrest warrants against five Dipampco agents. This raises the question: Are these new agents? Were they recruited during this administration or the previous one? The sooner I find answers to those questions, the sooner I can explain what’s happening,” he concluded.

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Multimedia reporter. She focuses on extractivism, the environment, power structures, gender and sexual and reproductive rights.

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