"God doesn't live here": A year in the murder capital of the world

We moved to Honduras for an escape -- and entered a minefield of illness, violence and death

Published July 27, 2014 9:30PM (EDT)

I had never seen a newly dead body before. I wasn’t sure what to say or do as the trickle of bleach cut through the pool of blood on the tile floor and puddled around my favorite boots. “You’re ruining your shoes,” my sister-in-law pointed out as we swept the bleach across the floor, desperately trying to remove all signs of the bloodshed that had happened only hours earlier, when my husband’s surrogate father had been fatally shot by a neighbor during a late-night poker game in his home in Tegucigalpa. A man was just murdered here, I muttered to myself. Who cares about shoes? But that’s how it always was in Honduras at times like this. The daily murders, the constant violence, the unspoken threats at every turn had become so routine that I almost never saw anyone get upset by it. Shoes, on the other hand, cost more than a day’s wages. They were worth getting riled up over.

I moved to Tegucigalpa in June 2013. I had recently suffered a miscarriage after several years of trying to get pregnant and the idea of living closer to my husband’s oversize and close-knit family, loaded with plenty of toddlers to play with, lured us both to Central America. I figured I would work on my Spanish, learn to make homemade tortillas, travel to pristine beach towns unsullied by American tourists and bond with the in-laws all while trying to avoid getting kidnapped or murdered.

Even before the move, the country’s unparalleled violence wasn’t just a headline for my family. Only a year earlier, my husband’s youngest sibling had been kidnapped from his job as a bus fare collector and then brutally beaten before the criminals rolled his body down a hill and left him to die in the street. There was no justice in Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world. The death was never investigated and my Honduran family soldiered on by debating the likely cause of his murder. He had had many girlfriends, someone noted. He probably messed with the wrong woman and that was it. Someone else theorized that the culprits had been motivated by the bus fare earnings. I tried to estimate how much money he might have had in his pocket when he died. Bus rides cost roughly 50 cents and the buses held at most 30 people at a time. Why would someone murder another person over so little, I asked my in-laws. They practically laughed in my face. To them, I was always the naive gringa.

Still, despite the murder, my husband and I landed in Honduras a year later with a few suitcases and a desire to live within walking distance of our relatives, even though they resided in one of the poorest, most dangerous areas of Tegucigalpa. We rented a one-bedroom apartment with a large balcony where I would sit in the evenings and watch the saffron-hued sunset before the sound of gunfire filled the night. I was comfortable in my new home, but there was nothing remarkable about it by U.S. standards. To my Honduran relatives, however, it was practically Versailles, with its indoor plumbing, new kitchen appliances and ample space for only two people. In comparison, they got by with limited running water, outhouses and cramped rooms usually shared by multiple generations. Nearly everyone we met in Honduras struggled to survive on wages that averaged about $5 a day. They ate beans, homemade tortillas and little else.

Life in Honduras was an immediate minefield of illness, violence and death. My 15-year-old neighbor’s cellphone was snatched by other teenagers as she walked over the bridge near our home. Another young woman close to our family casually recounted the time a stranger yanked her hair on a public bus before running off with her purse. A fellow teacher at the affluent private school where I taught English arrived to work in a panic one day because the thugs in her neighborhood had decided to charge her an exorbitant "war tax" each month for the privilege of continuing to live in her home. An elderly relative traveled from one of the rural mountain villages that bordered the city to visit us and returned to a ransacked house. The thieves left nothing behind, not even the rags in the kitchen. The teenage daughter of the woman who ran the bodega on our street was murdered after befriending too many gang members. A friend’s brother was kidnapped and then safely returned after his family paid the ransom. A taxi driver who lived in our neighborhood was killed in a dispute over a fare.

The local public hospitals couldn’t afford medicine or certain equipment, and many of the women I encountered told me about a child they had lost to the healthcare system. Armed guards stood outside nearly every business and police officers occasionally combed the streets, stopping to demand identification from every man in sight.

It seemed the 24-hour news channel had a fresh corpse to showcase every few hours. Mutilated limbs, mud-streaked carcasses and beheaded bodies were regularly broadcast into our home. Occasionally the victim would be a child, and I would muster my usual outrage. Why murder someone so young, I would ask anyone within earshot. My Honduran relatives and friends responded with their usual lack of emotion. He probably got involved with the wrong people, they would say of the victim, before moving on to prepare lunch or the afternoon coffee or some other mundane task.

There are so many ways to die in Honduras, it wasn’t enough to simply be wary of the people all around you. The government declared a state of emergency that summer after a particularly bad outbreak of dengue fever sickened more than 12,000 people. I knew the mosquito-borne illness was not contagious, but whenever I saw someone who looked flush with fever or coughing on a public bus, I irrationally imagined my family in the United States receiving a call informing them that in the end I had not succumbed to Honduras’ widespread violence, but it was the damn killer mosquitoes that had done me in.

It wasn’t my first time in such close proximity to brutal violence and startling poverty. My parents fled communist Cuba as teenagers and when I later returned to visit my cousins and uncle, the half-empty grocery stores and crumbling homes explained more than my father’s angry stories about Fidel Castro ever could. I traveled through Israel as a teenager, shrugging off the bombings in the nearby Jerusalem markets over Christmas. I grew up in the worst neighborhoods of Miami, where a man once attacked me with a gun and demanded my backpack as I walked to high school one morning. As an adult, I became a journalist and willingly traveled to neighborhoods teeming with drug dealers and murderers.

But Honduras was a darker, bloodier hellscape. Each time I ran into a friend or relative on the street, it always seemed as if they had just returned from some prayer meeting or were on their way to one. Their faith and optimism occasionally rattled me, particularly on days when I could no longer stomach the images of charred bodies in the news or the rampant poverty all around me. I wanted to grab them by their shoulders as they shared their prayers or showed me their Bibles.“Can’t you see,” I wanted to tell them. “Look around you. God doesn’t live here.”

The weekend before Thanksgiving, as I debated whether or not to make pumpkin pie, we received a call informing us that the man who had raised my husband and arranged for his travel to the United States years earlier had been murdered during a heated poker game after a night of drinking. We rushed to his home just as investigators were removing the body from the living room. The neighbor who pulled the trigger had already disappeared.

Pedro had many friends, but he also had a lot of debt and his success as a small bodega owner and real estate investor had rankled some in his neighborhood. Those are the kind of things that get you killed in Honduras. No one seemed surprised by the death.

We swept and mopped up the blood as we waited for a local funeral home to return the body for the wake. I remained stoic all day, but when I later found myself alone at home, I collapsed in tears. For the first time, after five months in Central America, the violence seemed too overwhelming. The simple pleasures of family dinners, homemade tortillas and beautiful mountain villages no longer outweighed the terror I felt every time my husband left the house. It seemed prudent to set aside some cash for his funeral, just in case, and I began debating with myself which of his siblings I would call first to ask for help with the arrangements. I made my husband promise that if I were to die in Honduras he would tell my family in the United States that I had loved them, and that I was sorry for putting my selfish desire to travel above their concern for me.

We decided to stay through the holidays. My husband was eager to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve in his native country for the first time in more than a decade, and I wanted to try some of the tamales the elderly ladies in our neighborhood had promised to deliver to our home in honor of the festivities.

On New Year’s Eve, everyone gathered in the street outside my brother-in-law’s home to watch fireworks light up the nearby mountainsides. So many people came by with well wishes to the point that I couldn’t name half the people planting kisses on my checks. One young man in particular stood out because he had been so formal and polite, while everyone else stumbled around, intoxicated on rum, Latin music or tamales. He shook my hand and stared directly into my eyes before leaning in for the customary kiss. I asked my husband about him. “Oh, him,” came the reply. “Be careful with him. He’s the boss of the local street gang.” I immediately recoiled, but my husband pointed out that it was unavoidable. When the neighborhood gangster king wants to crash your holiday party, you simply can’t say no.

We finally left Honduras in late April, nearly a year after we had arrived. The transition was harder than I imagined it would be. For the first time in months, I felt safe enough to venture outside alone. Still, the precautions I had learned to take in Honduras were initially hard to shake. Each time I stopped at a red light while driving around my brother’s middle-class neighborhood in Miami, I meticulously checked all the locks and suspiciously eyed the men in the vehicles surrounding mine before remembering that I no longer had to worry about being kidnapped. When I moved to New York two weeks later, I shivered each time a man on the street called out to me. The street harassment prevalent in New York suddenly felt like a prelude to danger and I began avoiding eye contact with every man I walked by as I silently pleaded with my racing heart to enjoy my relative safety. My friends told me I was overreacting, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the young woman in Honduras whose hair had been pulled by the purse-snatcher.

It was surreal when the violence in Honduras suddenly become the topic du jour in the United States so soon after my return. I saw Americans on Twitter argue about whether a place where an average of 19 people a day are murdered could be considered a war zone or not. How bad could it really be, some insisted, as unaccompanied children from Honduras flooded the border.

The wave of migrant children made me think about my nieces and nephews in Tegucigalpa and their many cousins. I remembered how despondent I felt when I learned that their parents never took them to the park because they were too afraid. It made me angry that my 3-year-old nephew could nonchalantly recount the story of his favorite uncle’s murder. I  worry about what kind of men the boys will become when they live in a society where educational and professional success does not ensure personal or financial security.

My husband and I hope to return to Honduras for a few days next year. We will arrive with suitcases full of toys, shoes and clothes. The children will ask me to teach them the words to popular English songs, as they always do. My sister-in-law will somehow manage to cobble together a feast of roasted meat, fresh tortillas, salad and rice. Then we will return to the United States, where there is so much opportunity that I am often overcome by emotion at my good fortune to have been born here. Our relatives will stay there, where murder is part of everyday life. The Hondurans will continue with their prayers, each day waiting for a reply.

By Cristina Silva

Cristina Silva is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the Associated Press, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, Women's eNews and the Tampa Bay Times.

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Central America Central American Refugees Honduras Life Stories Murder Violence