Gang Leader for a Day: Don’t Call the Police

From television shows and movies, we know housing projects are rife with crime: women raped, children shot, men beaten.

But no matter how bad it gets, if you live in the projects, you don’t call the cops. Why?

For one, a 911 call from the projects is seldom answered. Emergency calls from housing estates known for trouble are not handled like calls from other neighborhoods; that is, they’re ignored.

This means that if you live in the projects, you learn to handle emergencies yourself, and dial 911 only in the most extreme emergencies.

In one example that the author witnessed, a man was physically assaulting a woman. Residents got together and beat up the man, instead of calling the police. And because a call for an ambulance probably wouldn’t be answered either, residents drove the woman to the hospital themselves.

That said, even if the police did show up, they probably wouldn’t be welcomed in the projects.

Residents often throw bottles at cops when they respond to a call; worse, they can be shot at, too.

The police aren’t entirely innocent, either. Some officers of the law have been seen abusing residents, as part of a blackmail scheme.

“Officer Jerry,” for example, runs a protection racket. The author once witnessed him and three other police officers enter an apartment, handcuff a teenager and then brutally beat the teen’s father while demanding money.

Once the father revealed the location of his cash, the officers stopped, uncuffed the teen, grabbed a paper bag the father pointed out and left.

The author was even warned against writing about corrupt cops by other honest police officers, who were concerned about his safety. They even told him that some of the corrupt officers broke into the author’s car, intending to steal his notebook.

How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer

Three years ago, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world. The city of San Pedro Sula had the highest homicide rate in the country. And the Rivera Hernández neighborhood, where 194 people were killed or hacked to death in 2013, had the highest homicide rate in the city. Tens of thousands of young Hondurans traveled to the United States to plead for asylum from the drug gangs’ violence.

This summer I returned to Rivera Hernández to find a remarkable reduction in violence, much of it thanks to programs funded by the United States that have helped community leaders tackle crime. By treating violence as if it were a communicable disease and changing the environment in which it propagates, the United States has not only helped to make these places safer, but has also reduced the strain on our own country.

.. Honduras has dropped from first place to third among Central American countries sending unaccompanied children to the United States illegally.

.. most Americans think the United States should “deal with its own problems” while others deal with theirs “as best they can,” a sentiment that’s at the core of Donald J. Trump’s “America First” slogan and “build a wall” campaign. Many seem to have lost their faith in American power.

.. The funding for violence prevention in Honduras — which this year cost between $95 million and $110 million — has also come under attack from the left.

.. This summer, a bill was introduced in Congress to suspend security aid to Honduras because of corruption and human rights violations. These concerns are legitimate, but cutting our support would be a mistake.

.. What is working in Honduras may offer hope to Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries in crisis.

.. The gangs enforced a 6 p.m. curfew. Bodies littered the dirt streets in the morning. The 18th Street Gang set up a checkpoint

.. gangsters playing soccer with the decapitated head of someone they had executed.

.. In two years, homicides have plummeted 62 percent.

.. America’s support is “getting results,” said James D. Nealon, the United States ambassador to Honduras. We are, he said, reducing migration. But we are also repairing harms the United States inflicted — first by deporting tens of thousands of gangsters to Honduras over the past two decades, a decision that fueled much of the recent mayhem, and second by our continuing demand for drugs, which are shipped from Colombia and Venezuela through Honduras. If the United States sustains its anti-violence work in Honduras, Ambassador Nealon says, “in five years they will get their country back.”

.. the Ponce gang grabbed 13-year-old Andrea Abigail Argeñal Martínez because her family couldn’t afford the “war tax” the gang imposed on its tiny store. They raped Andrea for several days in that house, and called her mother so she could hear the girl’s screams as they cut her to death.

.. When he hears about a gangster cornered by the police, he will stand in the line of fire yelling, “Stop shooting!” until the officers allow the gangster to surrender. In this way he has gained the trust of all six gangs. He does the same when he hears that someone is about to be murdered by one of the gangs

.. The United States modeled its prevention strategy on what had worked in Boston in the 1990s, and later in Los Angeles: Concentrate efforts on the most violent hot spots.

.. One of the most effective tactics is the creation of neighborhood outreach centers

.. “The U.S. government has been a bigger partner in change than the Honduran government.”

.. One stocky player wearing a No. 11 jersey told me he had killed 121 people, charging $220 or more per hit.
.. “If they play each other, they see each other less as the enemy.
.. focuses on children who are identified by trained counselors as having a number of risk factors for joining gangs, like substance abuse, unsupervised time and a “negative life event” — having been the victim of a violent crime, having a family member killed.
..  In recent years, 96 percent of homicides did not end in a conviction. Everyone in Rivera Hernández knew what happened to witnesses who stepped forward: Their bodies were dumped with a dead frog next to them. The message: Frogs talk too much.
.. The A.J.S. assigns teams of psychologists, investigators and lawyers to look into all homicides and to coax witnesses to give testimony. More than half of completed homicide cases in seven pilot neighborhoods now result in guilty verdicts.
.. “It’s not like before — kill someone and there are no consequences,”
.. Half the family members usually know the killer; one in four witnessed the murder. They say it takes four to 15 visits to persuade a witness to testify.

.. Witnesses can testify anonymously, as they do in Italian Mafia cases.

.. She had witnessed three murders, but this was the first time she had told anyone. Afterward, in the car, she beamed. “I feel liberated!”

.. One afternoon several months ago, a Mara Salvatrucha gangster was caught by the police in Rivera Hernández with a hacked up body in the front basket of his bicycle, casually on his way to dispose of it.

.. 174,000 Hondurans, 4 percent of the country’s households, had abandoned their homes because of violence.

.. Gangsters stripped their houses of anything they could sell — window frames, doors, roofs — leaving whole blocks in rubble.

.. It will take much more than this project to change the reputation of the United States in this part of the world, where we are famous for exploiting workers and resources and helping to keep despots in power.

.. A 2016 study commissioned by U.S.A.I.D. found that working with people within the gangs — those who are active participants and those who want to leave — produced the biggest drops in violence. And yet the United States does hardly any of this, for fear of being seen as working with or paying off gang members.

.. The next priority must be to clean up the police.

.. I asked if any would go to the police station to report a crime. Not one hand went up. “No one with their five senses would report a crime,”

.. up to one in five of his cops was dirty, but community leaders say the number is closer to half.

.. two families who reported a crime to the police. Officers ratted them out, and three family members were killed that very day.

.. Mara Salvatrucha gangsters in Rivera Hernández say they receive warnings from the police of impending sweeps and are handed captured rivals to execute

.. Police officers also engage in extrajudicial killings.

.. Community leaders say the United States must find a better way to punish bad cops without withholding programs that help children.

.. half of the funds Congress budgets for Honduras go to the State Department bureaucracy or American companies paid to administer programs, so-called beltway bandits, rather than directly to local nonprofits or Hondurans.

.. The United States will also need to pressure Honduras to ante up more of its own money for violence prevention;

.. Fourteen-year-old Carlos Manuel Escobar Gómez told me things were so bad two years ago that he was ready to hop freight trains through Mexico to the United States. Both his parents and a brother were dead, and he was sure he wouldn’t survive his 11th year

.. he said with awe, “I haven’t seen a dead body in a year.”