Why they flee: Life in the murder capital of the world, San Pedro Sula, Honduras

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras–A crowd gathered around the crime scene tape to look at the latest victims — the bodies of six men, including a police officer.

They were all killed in a gunfight on a Thursday evening in a residential neighborhood, just before sunset.

Less than 24 hours later, the scene repeated just a few miles away. This time, three men were shot in a supermarket parking lot. Music played on the outdoor speakers while police searched for shell casings.

One of the victims lay behind his bullet-riddled pickup truck for hours. He was a bystander killed in the crossfire, according to Honduran military Col. German Alfaro, who arrived on the scene.

A man killed during a shootout outside of a supermarket. Photo by Encarni Pindado

When Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández took office in January, he deployed the army to quell the violence—promising a soldier on every street corner.

Col. Alfaro blamed the shootout—which occurred while the supermarket was full of local residents buying groceries —on a conflict between drug traffickers. The U.S. government estimates that as much as 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the U.S. via Mexico first stops in Honduras, and the gangs here fight for local distribution rights.

“That’s how it is,” he said. “You could be at the wrong place at the wrong time when things like this happen and anyone can die.”

These are typical scenes for a city in the grip of a violent gang war.

MORE: Deported mom lives in fear after returning to Honduras

San Pedro Sula has—for the last two years—had the highest murder rate of any city in the world, according to the Mexican think tank Citizen Council for Public Security, Justice, and Peace. The homicide rate in 2013 was 169 murders per 100,000 residents.

Shoes covered in blood left in the back of a car outside San Pedro Sula’s Hospital. Photo by Encarni Pindado.

By comparison, the most dangerous city in the United States on the list, New Orleans, had a rate of 56.13 murders per 100,000 residents for the same year.

Gang warfare has left its mark on places like Chamelecon, a working class neighborhood in the southern part of the city where two gangs with roots in Los Angeles – the MS-13 and 18th Street gang – battle for control.

We accompanied a military patrol through the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon. On one corner, a barber shop stood vacant and riddled with bullets. The gangs impose taxes on businesses and families here. If you don’t pay, you run or get killed.

We counted 25 vacant homes during our tour. Our military guides let us into one. It appeared the former residents had left in a hurry: belongings were scattered across the floor — teddy bears, passports, a woman’s shoe, and a fourth grader’s homework.
Officers told us that families started to leave a few years ago.

Walking through their bedrooms, I could only imagine how afraid they must have been to leave everything behind. They had a life here. It was easy to wonder where they went, whether they made it, and if they are still alive.

A mother looks for her two disappeared son outside a morgue in San
Pedro Sula, Honduras. Photo by Encarni Pindado

They may well have made the same choice that so many of their compatriots have in recent months – and fled north.

Since last October, more than 63,000 undocumented minors — many younger than 12 — have been detained at the U.S. border. Most of them were from violent cities and towns in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. A Pew research study showed that San Pedro Sula sent more children to the U.S. — about 2,200 — than any other city in the region.

A 16-year-old is treated for a gunshot in his arm at San Pedro’s Sula Hospital. He said that if ever goes back to his home he will be killed by the gang he escaped from. Photo by Encarni Pindado

To understand the reasons for the exodus, we spoke to a wide range of people who confront the crisis of violence in San Pedro including a mother who lost one son to the violence and feared for the life of another, a military commander trying to restore order and a “coyote” who works smuggling people out of the country.

We learned firsthand why people flee, and how those who stay behind try to survive in a city where death — or fear of it — is a part of daily life.

MORE: A coyote speaks: interview with a human smuggler in Honduras

MORE: A reporter’s notebook: 7 days in the most dangerous city in the world

Producers: Roberto Daza, Evelyn Baker
Camera: Roberto Daza
Editors: Carlos Navarrete, Randy Summers, Dino Pascarelli, Darwin Phillips