Three Weeks Embedded in Honduran Gang Territory

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The story, or at least its beginnings, came to light over coffee with Orlin Castro, who might be the most recognized Honduran journalist in all of San Pedro Sula. Night after night, he and his team of cameramen roam the streets of the city, chasing down the most ominous iterations of urban poverty — homicides, robberies, drug raids, assaults and even fires.

I met him one night, while in San Pedro Sula on another assignment, to ask for help. I was beginning research on a new project — a deep dive into the homicide epidemic plaguing Latin America and the Caribbean.

The region is the deadliest in the world, bar none, and its seven deadliest countries have produced more homicides in the last 20 years than the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen have combined.

In Honduras, warring gang factions have plunged the country into a state of crisis. Groups like the Mara Salvatrucha — or MS-13 — and the 18th Street Gang, which both originated in the United States, have laid siege to communities. They govern much of daily life for residents living in their areas of control, stand-ins for a corrupt and ineffectual government.

I wanted to capture just how inescapable the violence was — to show readers what it really felt like.

The backdrop, of course, was the tens of thousands fleeing the region on foot, in search of a better life in the United States. The attendant drama of that — the caravans, presidential tweet storms and misery along the border — made such a story all the more relevant.

But that wasn’t all. I find it limiting that the daily horrors endured by Central Americans are often viewed solely through the prism of U.S. policy. For every person making the choice to leave home, there are tens of thousands more who never make it out — who by choice or default decide to stay, and sometimes pay for it with their lives. I wanted to depict what life for those individuals was like — to describe their reality on their terms.

Mr. Castro went through his encyclopedic knowledge of the different areas of the city, describing what he knew about the dynamics at play. I mentioned one neighborhood, where a war was unfolding between MS-13 and an independent, small-time gang that was fighting to maintain its independence.

He shook his head. That neighborhood was off-limits: Sloppy reporting for a documentary had given the police a detailed roster of gang targets and locations and had burned access for future journalists.

And so Mr. Castro and I skipped to other parts of San Pedro Sula. I asked, on a whim, if there was anywhere that locals had taken up arms against the gangs: a self-defense group. These sorts of groups popped up periodically in Mexico, Afghanistan and others places I’d worked. It seemed logical something similar might be happening in Honduras.

He smiled.

“You should talk to the members of the Casa Blanca,” he said.

He didn’t know all the details, but the rough version involved gang defectors taking up arms to fight the gangs they formerly belonged to. Now, they were marked men and had no choice but to defend themselves in a fight for their lives.

The next day we went to meet them, and a local pastor, Daniel Pacheco, who was trying to find a way to calm the near daily shootings they were facing.

Seated in the backyard of a friend’s home, they told me their story. They once belonged to the 18th Street gang, but in 2016 the police had taken down its leadership. Those still on the street decided to join a new gang, but after a few months grew sickened and ashamed of the way they were treating locals.

So they rebelled. And won. More fights ensued and, eventually, they won those, too.

But if leaving a gang is not easy (it is often a death sentence), kicking one out of a neighborhood violently was unforgivable. To make matters worse, since defecting, new threats had emerged, including from MS-13. They told me MS-13 harassed and threatened them every day.

I asked them what they meant by threatened. They whistle, they told me. At sunset, just as the sky darkened, MS-13 gangsters would come to the border and whistle at them.

Sure enough, 30 minutes later, the whistling began.

It was chilling, in some ways as terrifying as what was to come — shootouts, armed raids and clandestine meetings with the same MS-13 leaders trying to kill Casa Blanca members.

Terrifying because in that moment I realized how completely surrounded these children were — and I say children because most were in their teens, scarcely old enough to shave. I knew that to tell their story I needed to be in the community, not traveling between a hotel and the neighborhood. I wanted intimacy and proximity: to be there all the time, to bear witness to events as they unfolded. And I wanted to reflect the realities of life in Rivera Hernández through the voices of those living there — gangsters, residents, shopkeepers and families.

So I asked the pastor if Tyler Hicks, the photographer, and I could live with him for the weeks we were in town. At first, I didn’t know what a major character he would be in the story; I assumed he would help us here and there, but that my time would be spent with Casa Blanca members. And he lived just a few blocks away, in 18th Street territory.

But the more time we spent there, and in particular after the first shootout, where I witnessed an MS-13 gunman sow terror in the neighborhood without even flinching, the story began to center on the pastor. He was taking action — risking his life to intervene.

And so more of my time was spent by his side, reacting to every event described in the piece. All told, we spent about three weeks together.

I witnessed firsthand every scene in the story — except for the raid at the home of Fanny, who provided refuge to Casa Blanca members. (I arrived only moments after the gunmen left.) I was there when an MS-13 gunman shot up the neighborhood in broad daylight; when Mr. Pacheco tracked down the MS-13 leader to plead for the lives of Casa Blanca members; when he sat down with the MS-13 soldiers who were tormenting the neighborhood; when a representative of Casa Blanca finally sat down with MS-13.

The timing just worked out that way — I couldn’t have planned to be there when all of the violence unfolded and Mr. Pacheco risked his life to stop it. The drama — the shootings, the threats, the fear — bound us all closer and therefore, oddly, made access to members of Casa Blanca easier.

They got used to seeing me, confiding in me. I was there every day, listening, taking notes, asking questions. But mostly, my station at the pastor’s side, a reporting lens I had not anticipated when we first met, was the most credible way into the lives of people with whom it might have otherwise taken years to speak.

I admired the pastor, and he was good company. He laughed all the time, even in the darkest scenarios. He was sharp, and his intentions were pure. I think he came to find comfort in my presence, too.

On more than one occasion, when we would sit down to speak with a gang leader, the pastor would introduce himself and then abruptly toss the baton to me. I was stunned: I had come to watch, not talk. But eventually I got used to his tactics, and learned to break the ice and ask the questions I genuinely wanted to know — how the gangs worked, what their plans for Casa Blanca were and what role violence played in their structures.

These interviews gave him a chance to seize on their answers to my questions. He was trying to bend people to his will — convince them to sue for peace while at the same time making it feel like the idea was their own. By the time our three weeks ended, with the prospects of peace on the horizon, Mr. Pacheco told me this was the most involved and risky intervention he had ever tried. And it was emotional. On the way home from one of our meetings with a source, he wept.

After I left, things began to unravel — the peace deal, the accord with MS-13 and even the direction of the violence. One of the main characters was murdered by the 18th Street gang — Reinaldo, a quiet and decent young man whom I’d met on my first day in Casa Blanca territory.

Finishing the story, I struggled with how to draw something from the experience. For all the effort, time, risk and heart that went into the pastor’s campaign, in the end he could not save those lives he risked his own to protect. And yet, he would keep trying, without help from the outside world and largely in the sight of no one.

In the end, that was as hopeful an ending as anyone could expect.

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