A Peek Into The Violent Culture Of San Pedro Sula

By Elizabeth Russo

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Image Credit: Alma Leiva, From "Celdas" (Prison Cells) "Celda #7" (Prison Cell #7). Photograph

Artwork has the ability to create effective, powerful, and even unnerving thoughts among its viewers. As a photographer Alma Leiva stages her work to address the consequences of violence in Central America, she presents her viewers with the absurd characteristics of a society stigmatized by human rights atrocities. These violent patterns are triggered by gang membership, drug trafficking, and extreme poverty. Leiva's work explores the culture of conflict in her homeland and its effect on the innocent who endure the bloody realities of modern-day Honduras. Leiva states that her work "has to do with the coping mechanism among individuals who have to live under extreme violence and it's inspired by the current social situation in my native country and the way that the immigrant has to deal with those issues" (Cohen 1). As an artist, Leiva attempts to bring awareness to both her social and political concerns about the state of living in Honduras.

Alma Leiva realized that she lived like a prisoner during her childhood. She was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in 1973, while the country was under military regime (Leiva v). She was unable to go out into the city by herself to get bread and coffee. Instead, she had to wait until somebody could go with her because the city was too dangerous – she could get robbed or potentially even killed (Cohen 1). Although she came from a working class family, she was still exposed to the poverty that pervaded the slums in San Pedro Sula. She saw child vendors on the streets tirelessly attempting to make a few Honduran lempiras to help feed their families. Leiva, only a child herself, had witnessed an enormity of human rights violations committed by the military. She saw a "chafarote" – the derogatory term used to describe soldiers in Honduras – badly beat a man on the streets, which caused him to pass out (Leiva 3). This man was beaten because he stole a few oranges from a vendor. She also heard stories about the abuses of the "chafarotes" from her grandfather. He was a union worker and active member of the Honduran Communist Party, who became a target of the military (Leiva 3). He was later arrested and one of the "chafarotes" made him stand up on a chair, tying a string to his testicles and then tying the other end to a metal container. Other soldiers came into the room throwing small rocks inside the container and even swinging the container back and forth. Her grandfather said he almost passed out from the pain (Leiva 9). As a six-year-old girl, she knew that if she ever protested against her country and its injustices, then she would soon be killed for having a voice. People in Honduras learned to live with this harsh reality. There were no luxuries and no freedoms during Leiva's early childhood. She was fortunate enough to escape the oppression after moving to the United States at the age of fourteen. In July 1988, she arrived in Miami for a better life with her brothers, where they could all eventually begin university studies without becoming targets of the Honduran military system (Leiva 10). Although she escaped the horrors in Honduras, the memories always remained with her.

As an artist, Alma Leiva draws on two perspectives – her native one and that of her adopted country. The beauty of art is its ability to cut across racial, cultural, and economic barriers. Leiva recognized this beauty by staging her photographs to depict the horrors faced by Central American immigrants forced to live in the midst of ongoing drug and gang violence. She comments that she began her photographic installations titled Celdas after learning that her uncle was murdered back in Honduras. She was appalled by the fact that he was murdered in front of his family while coming home from a soccer game. "I felt there was something that I needed to do about this, that I had to speak about this… I just needed to do it for myself and for the people as a good cause," she asserted (Cohen 1). Leiva's personal experiences into the corrupt society of Honduras add a sense of truth and honesty to the messages revealed through her work. In August 2009, she returned to Honduras after the military coup (Leiva 12). This was her first visit back to Honduras since her childhood and she immediately experienced a sense of oppression. Although everything on the surface looked normal, the violent problems took on a magnitude beyond her imagination. Before she returned, she was living in Miami and watched on television how the Honduran military interventions were praised. The "chafarotes" were portrayed as courageous heroes. However, Leiva quickly realized that these international news media accounts were biased. Military trucks were driving through the streets of Honduras carrying heavily armed soldiers. When she tried reaching for her camera to take a picture of one of these trucks, her aunt quickly stopped her and harshly asked if she wanted to be pulled out of the car by her hair. Her aunt almost acted as if the act of taking a photograph warranted a death sentence. In fact, according to the Honduran military, it could indeed; her aunt explained that a journalist had recently tried to take a similar photograph before being dragged out of her car and attacked (Leiva 13). By the end of 2010, the Honduran military murdered ten journalists (Leiva 18). The ever-growing murder record and unnecessary violence committed by this corrupt military system were pervasive throughout this county. Alma Leiva was disappointed that the actual, horrific events occurring in Honduras were distorted by both Honduran and biased international media.

Since the 1980s, the culture in Honduras has promoted a corrupt military. The common practices were and continue to be kidnappings, murders, torturing, auto theft, and the disappearance of civilians. The military continues to target university students and leaders, union workers, and activists among the large peasant population. Besides Leiva's personal accounts, there is an overwhelmingly large array of testimonies describing the crimes committed by the Honduran military. Specifically, the 15th Battalion of the Honduran military has been reported by both human rights organizations and the news media for its abuses. In 2012, this battalion had illegally entered the town of la La Concepcion and searched houses without a warrant through the excessive use of force (Bird 31). Another account describes how lawyer Antonio Trejo was shot and killed in a parking lot after conducting a marriage ceremony. This man was the legal representative to MARCA, the Authentic Revindiciative Campesino Movement of the Aguan, which is an opposition group to the corrupt military (Bird 31). A campaign of targeted killings has been initiated by the Honduran military since 2010, which has already caused a minimum of 88 members or associates of these campesino movements to be killed (Bird 1). Although investigations are being carried out by the U.S. State Department that may suggest some of these killings are the result of confrontations with the military, the vast majority of them had only one apparent objective, which was assassination (Bird 22). The 15th Battalion and other military forces in the Honduras are involved in what is considered as death squad activity.

Preoccupied by the extremity of violence occurring in Honduras and its continued surging levels, Alma Leiva wanted to address the consequences. She returned again to the country in 2010 to work on a series of photographs called Fuera de La Celda, meaning "Outside the Cell" in Spanish (Leiva 14). She was motivated to depict human rights violations in her photographs after finding graffiti on almost every building in San Pedro Sula, which accused the military and government of these atrocities. Violence was prevalent everywhere in the country. Through her photographs, Leiva showed the way that people reinforce their home security and confine themselves from the horrors of the city by putting up gates and constructing high walls. In the poorer neighborhoods, she also found some houses stained with crosses and inscribed with the names of those who were murdered (Leiva 15). The cycle of terror surrounding Honduras and even other parts of Central America leads average citizens to barricade themselves in their homes. Children have grown up in a society where they cannot trust the police to keep them safe and, therefore, resort to joining gangs for a twisted sense of protection. Most Hondurans want to protect themselves from the constant crimes on city streets and gang members armed with rifles.

Honduras is plagued by horror stories and its violent culture is only worsening. Recently, the United Nations announced that Honduras is now considered the deadliest country in the world. More people per capita are murdered in Honduras than in any other country, including Iraq and Afghanistan (Verini 1). The Peace Corps pulled all of its people out of Honduras, which used to be its largest mission, because of severe safety and security concerns. One man who has reported on organized crime in Latin America since 2007 stated, "Honduras, which has a population of just under 8 million and used to be best known for its bananas and pristine beaches, is now gangland's ground zero" (Verini 1). The country is dealing with routine gang violence, assaults, robberies, and rape. With 36,000 people involved both on and off the streets, Honduras has the largest concentration of gang membership (Perez 226). These people are struggling to find protection outside of their homes as the streets are filled with gang crimes and the corrupt military has prohibited the police from offering any aid. Whether directly involved in gangs or just witnesses to their terror, all Hondurans face widespread fear and animosity surrounding this gang culture.

Even the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula has surpassed Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to become the most dangerous city in the world. Life in San Pedro Sula is defined by the most vicious feud between two transnational rivals – Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Calle 18 (18th street) gang (Reisman 148). They are the most well organized and violent gangs in the region. The hatred between them is felt by all Honduran citizens. These local gangs got their start in prison and on the streets of Los Angeles. During the violent Central American armed conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s, many people fled to Los Angeles. Once they were all settled in, they established their own networks to rival the existing Mexican and African-American gangs (Reisman 148). This immigration surge allowed most of the older gang members to spend much of their life in the United States. However, many of them were later deported back to Honduras, where they remain in the prison system of San Pedro Sula, to serve life sentences for murders and other deadly crimes. These gangs, called maras, compete for recruits – especially teenage ones – and do the "dirty work" for the larger organizations (Matza 1). Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, violent massacres and bus burnings have been reportedly committed by gang members in San Pedro Sula. On December 23, 2004, they boarded a bus transporting passengers on their way home from Christmas shopping. These gang members opened fire and killed twenty-eight passengers, including six children (Crean 1). Popular gang crimes include bus burnings and the murder of bus drivers. Murders have also been persistent problems. From January to June 2014, the city logged 538 homicides, which is an average of more than three a day (Matza 1). Although this violent gang culture is widely apparent throughout the world, the Honduran government continues to turn a blind eye to it all because its officials lack both the resources and the willing voice to address the seriousness of these crimes.

Through her artwork, Alma Leiva focuses on the children's perspective in order to show how they would cope with the horrors that they see on an everyday basis. In San Pedro Sula, the gang members often call themselves children of the civil wars. Known as the Central American civil wars, they occurred in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996 and in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992 (Perez 222). Both government officials and the news media accredit these civil wars as the precursor for young teenagers ready to use violence. The peer pressure on young men to join gangs is both intense and unhealthy. As teenagers, these men are drawn in by a sense of opportunity and belonging to something bigger than themselves. They view membership in a gang as a means of stability, identity, and status. Some young men, who either have no parents or spend a majority of their time on the streets, seek protection from the gangs. However, if they fail to affiliate themselves with the gang or meet the gang's wishes, then a death sentence could be in order for them. These feelings of confinement and submission to the gang's wishes are captured in the Celdas series. Leiva photographed a single room while revealing two different dimensions – its interior versus its exterior. The latter relates to the struggles faced by these Central American children. The exterior of the room physically represents the confinement and possible isolation from all of the violence in the outside world. There are no children present in the photograph, only their toys. Without the presence of children, anyone viewing this photograph will be unable to read the expression on their faces or even analyze body movement. The viewer is left to imagine the confinement that the children are facing. The liminal spaces in Celdas represent the convergence of the children's perspectives, in which they see the violence and gang pressures as an everyday reality, with Leiva's personal perceptions from when she returned to Honduras. Together, they bring attention to the need for giving children in Central American a better life – one that does not drive them to joining a gang.

Children are struggling to flee the violence in Central America and find asylum in the United States. In April and May of 2014, gang members from one Honduran city murdered eight minors, possibly because they refused to be recruited (Grillo 1). The role of both children and teenagers in the gang activity of Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 is crucial to their operations. Within these gangs, there are different categories. A majority of youth are involved in the juvenile gangs, whose members are anywhere from 9 to 20 years old. They engage in minor crimes, such as burglary and petty theft. There are also juvenile criminal gangs with clearly defined organizational structures. They are involved in organized crime and conduct more serious offenses such as homicide, rape, and larceny (Perez 225). Youth are widely perceived to be the single, most important contributors to gang violence in Honduran cities. Although extreme poverty has long been a cause of emigration, many children assert that violence is the reason for their flight. They are obviously desperate to escape. Recently, the Obama administration and state governments have begun to question if these children should be considered refugees. Many of them are trying to plead their cases to U.S. asylum officers. The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization, collected individual stories from these children (Ferriss 1). Although children are currently trying to make the life-threatening trek into the United States, their possible asylum is still controversial.

These children have one worry on their minds, which is their ability to survive. At the age of 15, a young girl from Central America was interviewed to essentially plead for her life by asking for refuge from the violence (Ferriss 1). Under the pseudonym of Maria, she exclaimed that her best friend died in a manner that was cold-blooded, as she was cut to pieces. The police asked her to identify her best friend's body parts after pulling them from a bag dumped in a river. Maria noted that she knew it was her body because she recognized the birthmark on her leg. She lived her life convinced that she would be another victim of these gang crimes. Maria was also horrified by the other acts of violence that she witnessed, including a boy being shot and dragged away after a soccer game. She cried in front of the asylum officer, revealing how she was traumatized by a fear of dying alongside these other children and desperate to flee from the possibility. Within the last year, a record number of minors from Honduras have applied for asylum into the United States based on gang persecution, which is a basis for refugee status currently being debated (Ferriss 1). Even though personal stories are televised on the news and published online in articles, outsiders to the violence do not truly understand the reasons that are driving many Central American women and children to try to immigrate to the United States. Many of these stories have been silenced and the names of their victims have been forgotten. Alma Leiva recognized that people do not really understand the realities of those living in Central America. Through her artwork, she attempts to uncover the violence exerted against the silenced, innocent victims.

Alma Leiva truly represents the way that homes in Honduras act as both prisons and safe havens in her staged photographs. Although she does not acknowledge herself as an activist, she does bring awareness to the Central American immigrants forced to live among the ongoing drug trafficking and gang violence. Leiva wants her audience to become empathically aware of the struggles faced by these immigrants. She proudly asserts, "An important aspect of my work is the contradiction between cultural assimilation and the persistence of cultural identity and memory" (Reinoza 1). Thousands of women and children prefer the risk of fleeing to the United States to the likely possibly of death awaiting them in they stay amongst the violence pervading the lives of Honduran people. Growing up in Honduras, these children face the inevitability of being desperate to survive. They live in the constant fear of retribution from the corrupt military or gang recruiters.

As a photographer, Alma Leiva was inspired by thinking from children's perspectives and how they process a situation that makes the rooms depicted in her photographs seem more like a home. By implementing the use of childish imagination and perceptions, her audience enters a magical world of games, like playing on a play set, breaking open a piñata, or kicking around a soccer ball, in order to process and adapt to the hostile environment in Honduras outside of the walls. While children are aware of their harsh reality in Honduras and have learned to live with it, they do not want to lives to be defined by this normalcy of violence. Their own imagination is the coping mechanism adopted by the Central American people. Ultimately, children represent hope for the future and an opportunity to achieve the "American dream." However, in one of her photographs, Leiva captures the images of an empty swing still in motion and a single toy left behind to suggest the dream may be abandoned. Especially for the children who are deported from the United States and forced to come back home to Central America, they now have broken hearts and broken dreams.