COMAYAGUELA, Honduras: Armed soldiers receive orders in their battle against gangs in Honduras as children play during recess at a school that will serve as a polling station on Sunday’s presidential election.
Some 100 military police officers arrived three weeks ago at the Jose Angel Ulloa School in Comayaguela, sister city of the capital Tegucigalpa, turning it into a barracks from which they fan out to patrol neighborhoods dominated by the Mara 18 gang.
The gang is locked in a brutal war with their rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha, which has left Honduras with the world’s highest homicide rate, at 85.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
The runaway violence and the country’s role as a key transit point for US-bound cocaine from South America are major issues in the presidential campaign.
“Many of the threats the gangsters made to terrify or extort came from here,” Capt. Carlos Martinez, who heads the contingent stationed at the school, told Agence France-Presse. “This is why we’re here.”
Maj. Santos Nolasco, the military police’s spokesman, said drug traffickers and the “maras,” or gangs, are heavily armed with AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles as well as grenade launchers.
“This is a war against organized crime, which has powerful weapons and an organization,” Nolasco said in a courtyard where children were jumping, staring at visitors or eating ice cream.
The ruling National Party candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, promises to keep the troops in the streets but leftist rival Xiomara Castro wants to replace them with “community police.”
In the last opinion poll allowed by law last month, Cid-Gallup found that 28 percent of voters supported Hernandez compared to 27 percent for Castro.
‘They killed my son’
Human rights groups have criticized the militarization of society and warn that soldiers, who ran death squads and made leftist opponents vanish in the 1980s, are not suited for the job.
Martinez countered that troops received human rights training to support civilian police, which is overwhelmed and infiltrated by the gangs.
While people want the soldiers here, some call them “Robocops,” he said.
“The situation is difficult. Bodies often appear. [The gangs] have invaded the entire territory,” said Sandra Vasquez, who watched her eight-year-old son after dropping him off at school.
“Now we feel protected because [the school]is surrounded by soldiers,” she said.
Near the school, Aquilina Reyes, 48, recalled her son’s murder as she washed clothes in a laundromat because there is no running water on the hillside where she lives.
“The violence is dreadful,” she said as she scrubbed a discolored blouse with soap. “It’s good that they sent the soldiers out into the street.”
“They killed my son eight months ago. They made him get off a bus, took him and left him in pieces. I have other sons and I don’t want the same thing to happen to them,” she said.
The gangs force shop owners, taxi and bus drivers, and entire families to pay a “war tax,” or extortion payments, under the threat of death.
“There is a lot of corruption. They remember the poor during the elections. After the process ends, we will be abandoned again,” said Jaime Perez, 37, who lives in a house on the hills.
Nearby, a 47-year-old woman who runs a grocery store said she closes early to avoid the bullets that sometimes come flying in the neighborhood.
“The marginalized neighborhoods are the ones that suffer most from the violence. For us, it’s every man for himself,” said Margarita, who only gave her first name.
God first, soldiers second
The children have become witnesses to the violence. Twenty days ago, some saw a young man killed near the school, said teacher Luz Cardenas.
“They talk about the time a grocery store was robbed, when [the gangs]enter homes to grab their enemies or whoever didn’t pay the extortion money. They are familiarizing themselves with violence,” Cardenas said.
“We teach the children that security is important and that weapons are to defend ourselves against enemies who could harm us, not for self-destruction. God first, armed forces second,” she said.
At the school, six-year-old Samuel said the soldiers who joined their classes are here “to take care of us because there is danger in schools.”
“The thieves come and kidnap us,” he said as his friends drew a Christmas bell as soldiers armed with assault rifles walked by.