In Honduran Schools, Gangs Are in Control

Alberto Arce, Yahoo! News, December 8, 2014

In primary and secondary schools of this Central American capital, “hallway” is not just another word for corridor but slang for a gantlet of gangsters who hit up instructors for money on the way to the classroom.

Teachers who don’t pay, don’t teach.

Gang prevention police distribute US-funded pamphlets on manners and anger management in about two thirds of the 130 public schools of Tegucigalpa. Gang members, meanwhile, circulate catalogues of their girls offering sexual services for sale.

It can’t exactly be said that street gangs are recruiting in Honduran schools because gangs in Honduras don’t need to recruit. In a country of limited opportunities, more schoolchildren want to join the violent Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street and other newly formed gangs than the illegal bands can absorb.

What can be said is that, just as they control most of the neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa, street gangs rule over most public schools in the capital. Gangsters are students and students are gangsters, as are some of their parents. The gangs lay claim to buildings with graffiti, and monitor the movements of police who are trying to monitor them. When the government sends in the military to retake a neighborhood and its schools, the ruling gang may lay low for a time, but they can’t stay quiet for long or competitors will move in, setting off a wave of violence.

“The schools are a base of organization for the gangs, and the point through which all children in the neighborhood pass,” said Lt. Col. Santos Nolasco, spokesman for the joint military and police force in charge of security in the country of 8.2 million people.

Gangs rely on kids to do much of their illegal grunt work, knowing that even if they get caught, they won’t face long jail sentences. More than a third of the estimated 5,000 gang members with criminal charges them against in 2010 were under 15 years old, according to the only study that examines age in gangs. This year, police say they have detained more than 400 minors for gang activity, including some as young as 12.

Poorly educated students may have to repeat a grade several times before passing exams, and police say some gangsters intentionally repeat years just to hold onto illegal operations in a school–their means of making a living. As a result, kids between the ages of 11 and 17 may be in the same class.

While most gang violence takes place outside of school, there have been rapes and kidnappings inside, and extortion is rampant. In addition to setting up the occasional gantlet, where a teacher has to cough up pocket money on the spot, gangs demand that educators pay 1,000 lempiras or about $50 a month, more than 10 percent of their salary.

“The extortion takes place through the school director, ” said Liliana Ruiz, the Ministry of Education’s director for Tegucigalpa. “They make an appointment with the director at the mall and he has to arrive with the money. In Honduras, the extortion has to be paid.”

In many schools, the power of the gangs is omnipresent and once a gang takes control of a school, Ruiz said, the teacher has no choice but to get along with the gangsters, or ask to be moved. If a gang grabs a child from a classroom, most teachers know to keep quiet, even if the student is never heard from again.

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Only about a third of Honduran school children live with two parents, according to administrators. Many of their parents have headed north to look for work in the United States, while others have been killed or simply left the household. Many students don’t have enough to eat, or work for several hours before and after school to help support their families. They are surrounded by violence in a country with the world’s highest homicide rate.

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Many children leave Honduras out of fear or in search of opportunity in the United States, often long before they finish school. The school districts do not have global dropout numbers, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it apprehended 18,244 unaccompanied Honduran children in fiscal year 2014, up dramatically from the previous year, after rumors circulated that they were being allowed to stay in the country.

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