Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Question of Litter and Violent Crime in Central America

by Andy

What are the ideal conditions for humans to be their best selves? Does it have anything to do with litter?

While I was preparing to go to Honduras it was announced that the Peace Corps had decided to withdraw all of its volunteers after almost 50 years. The reason given was that the security situation has deteriorated and Peace Corps thought that Honduras was too much of a risk. Later, in Honduras, we found that Peace Corps will be removing or not replacing volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala too. Japan is also withdrawing its significant volunteer presence in Honduras. It can be quite distressing to see the country I know and love tainted by violence.

Before we left for Honduras, we were interrogated by concerned friends and family about the violence in Honduras. After having traveled to Central America for 20 years, I had felt pretty good about the plans we had made. I know that Honduras in general is pretty safe outside of certain neighborhoods of the big cities and the places we were going and staying are safe. However, with all of the concern out there, we did modify plans in order to get picked up and dropped off in San Pedro Sula, instead of taking public transport. We had no problems during the trip. But the question of increased violence in Central America followed us throughout the trip. Specifically, we asked our Honduran friends and other people we met about the violence, and their answers were all over the board.

First off, although it may be overblown in the media, the violence is real and it seems to be increasing. In January of 2011, a Honduran newspaper reported that San Pedro Sula has an annual murder rate of 125 people per 100,000 citizens, making it the 3rd most violent city in the world, behind Juarez, Mexico and Qandahar, Afganistan. Tegucigalpa comes in 6th and Guatemala City is 7th. Our friends told us personal stories about San Pedro and Tegus. There is gang violence. There are neighborhoods that the taxis will not enter. There are places where you need to roll down the windows of your car because if you drive around with polarized windows, gang members will assume you are rivals and shoot into the car. One friend has a cousin who was killed in cross-fire. Some of our Honduran friends are no longer willing to take city buses or collective taxis within the two big cities.

Although it is worst there, it is not just in the big cities. My friend Melvin told us of a small rural village where a family feud has recently left 14 people dead. Another friend told us of criminals who got on his bus in rural Guatemala and used knives to menace people into giving up all of their valuables. In Comayagua, our hotel's staff warned us not to go walking at night and even to be careful about which taxis we take. We met a Christian mission group in a Comayagua restaurant and discovered that, based on prior experience, they had hired an armed guard to be with them every time they go out and about. Our Honduran friends are seemingly always slightly on guard and under sense of caution that has seemed to grow every time I go to Honduras. Those Hondurans who have money have always built fortress-like walls around their houses, but now it seems the walls are bigger and even more protected with razor wire and such.

When I lived in Honduras in the 1990's, I did not fear for my own safety. My understanding of the situation was that while petty theft was rampant, that actual violence was not common. I hitch-hiked and rode my bicycle all over Honduras. I took public transport everywhere and often walked or taxied through San Pedro or Tegus to get to the bus station or shop. Of course, I took the usual precautions that any person would take in any big city anywhere in the world (not going alone at night, staying out of "bad" neighborhoods, and trying not to draw attention to myself - by looking as much like a local as I could). In my own site of Comayagua, I never thought twice about walking or riding my bike alone at night. I did hear of a few isolated incidents, but as a rule, I felt safe. I have checked in with my Honduran friends and they confirm that they also used to feel safe, in general. So what has happened? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

We heard many possible explanations for the increase in violence:

1. The police are ineffectual, and even worse, the police are responsible for violence. This is distressing, because most of the Honduran politicians' solutions to the violence involve increasing police power. Recently the son of a University president was assassinated in Honduras. He was involved in resistance against the current government, and his death was big news. In the ensuing investigation it turns out that elements within the police force have become criminals for hire, with the killing of this man being attributed to police. Another friend talked about how he knew of a man who had committed rape in his rural community and was arrested, but was able to somehow walk free after his father visited the police who held him. The implication is that he bought his release. The inability to trust the police is what may have been the proximate cause of the the Peace Corps withdrawal. However, I do not buy this as the cause of the general rise in violence in Honduras, because it has been a long time since anyone trusted the police in Honduras.

2. Others spoke to us about the drug trafficking and gang violence as the cause of the rise of violence. I confess, this theory resonates with me. It seems that all of Mexico and Central America is under a mafia-like web of ever increasing lawlessness. There has come a point in many places where the gangs and drug cartels are the primary authority. In my mind I am having a hard time accepting the rise of drug cartels as the reason Honduras is becoming so violent, when as far as anyone can tell, the drugs are just passing through. Why are there street crimes, kidnappings, and assassinations? And why is this coming up now? I do not know enough about organized crime, but my guess is it doesn't help the situation. Hondurans assured me that there is a growing drug problem in the cities. Maybe they are running out of markets in the U.S. Or maybe they dump the inferior quality drugs in Central America, like coffee or bananas.

3. A general reason that I have heard more than once is that poverty levels have driven the crime wave. People are desperate and they do desperate things. I cannot imagine the level of poverty experienced by the majority of Hondurans on a daily basis. There is a hunger, an uncertainty, and a lack of options that I have never experienced. I know that poverty must contribute to crime, but I also know that people have been poor in Honduras for a long time, and the violent crime is relatively new. In fact, in comparison to 20 years ago, Honduras is more prosperous in general. It can't just be poverty.

4. There are conspiracy theories, most of which have enough truth to continue to circulate. One theory is that the U.S. military has trained a whole generation of people in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. This training happened in-country and in the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia. These trainees formed the heart of the vicious paramilitary groups of the 80's and 90's, and they got rich skimming money from the lavash U.S. military aid. Then, when Central America lost geopolitical importance, the U.S. funding dried up and these men who were trained in violence and terror were set loose on the Honduran populace. Yikes. But does that account for current crime wave? The timing is a little off.

5. Another conspiracy theory is that the wealthy elite who run Honduras through corrupt politicians and controlled media have a strong interest in a population that is afraid. The theory is that if a people's primary concern is crime, then they will be willing to vote primarily based on a message of "security" and vote for politicians who offer a "strong hand" with criminals. The issue of security will eclipse other issues and people will continue to accept inequality. Although it sounds good, it is hard to believe that business interestes would actually prefer a violent lawless Honduras. In terms of the media loving violence, one Honduran friend complained that the newspapers and tv stations in Honduras sensationalize the violence in order to sell more. "If it bleeds, it leads," and in Honduras every front page of every newspaper seems to have a requisite dead body or an SUV riddled with bullet holes. But does showing violence encourage more violence?

6. My own inclination is to blame litter. Yes litter. Also I might place some blame on the breakdown of families due to the decline of the Catholic Church and emigration to the United States. In a recent re-reading of the book The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, I rediscovered the chapter about violent crime on the New York City subway. It is worth a look. The thesis of his book is that little things can make a big difference.

Malcolm Gladwell describes something called the Broken Windows theory of crime, which was the brainchild of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling: "Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of of disorder. If a window is broken  and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. I a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes: "Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions."" For Gladwell, this is the epidemic theory of crime, implying that crime is contagious. He claims that context can be so much more important in influencing criminal behavior than other factors, that it can be used to control crime.

In the 1980's the New York subway was a dangerous place, and instead of only dealing directly with the criminals, the authorities also tackled the problem of violence by literally cleaning up the subway. They had a zero tolerance policy for graffiti on public property. They prosecuted minor crimes such as turn-stile jumping on the subway. They dealt with litter. There was an almost miraculous drop in violent crime about the same time. The idea was that inherent in the small visible crimes of graffiti, fare-jumping and litter was an implicit general lack of respect for authority and the public good. When little crimes are not prosecuted, there is a tipping point where bigger crimes take off, and vice-versa. The tipping point within any one individual that causes them to not carry out a violent crime might be a relatively small thing, or rather the accumulation of many small things.
Honduras is full of litter. It is everywhere and to developed-world eyes it makes the whole country look like a dump. My opinion is that until relatively recently, the now ubiquitous plastic was not around and most items that people threw away were biodegradable. Thus, the habit of tossing stuff out used to not be a problem. It has only now become a problem because of a change in packaging. The U.S.A had to come to a new consciousness about litter in the 1970's (remember the crying Indian?), and Honduras has not shifted its consciousness there yet. Thus, unintentionally, Honduras has slowly become a seemingly incontrovertible trash heap. I am not saying that litter causes violence, but rather that litter is symptomatic of what can seem to be a general disregard for the public good and law in general. Another example is the way people drive in Honduras. There is no respect for when and where to pass, the speed limit (if there is one), or traffic signals. For that matter, we might include a general lack of respect for time schedules. The roads are poorly maintained. Petty theft continues to be a daily preoccupation for most Hondurans. If we are talking about a disordered context as a factor in crime, then Honduras is a prime example of a country in disorder.

I do not believe that disorder is inherent in the people and culture of Honduras. In fact it is just the opposite. If you look at how people dress, you notice that everyone is "put together" in a way that seems superfluous to my North American sensibilities. Shoes are shined. Even if a person has two changes of clothes, somehow they are always clean. Fashion is important. Cars and buses are cared for, adorned and washed. In Honduras, there is a long history of the family and the church being the central units of authority. With large, interconnected patriarchal families, people have a long tradition of living together in the same place. The consequences of actions within a family unit living together are immediate and self-reinforcing. The church has functioned for centuries as an unquestioned moral touchstone. So it would seem that if disorder were the cause of the recent crime wave, then it must be recent factors that have undermined traditional centers of authority and caused a tipping point in society

What has changed that might have caused such a societal shift? Various factors have brought about the dispersal of Honduran families. Many people have emigrated to the U.S. Many have moved within Honduras, looking for economic opportunity. U.S. free trade policies have caused long term stagnation in the price of corn and beans, pushing peasants off the land and into cities. The same free trade policies have encouraged maquiladoras to spring up, offering work to the displaced masses. With the disintegration of the family as a center of authority, Honduras has also experienced a decrease in the authority of Catholic Church in peoples' daily lives. The rapid growth in the Honduran population can only contribute to entropy in society, when families expand beyond the carrying capacity of the land and people are forced to move to new places.

If Honduras has had litter and poor driving in the past, why now does it lead to violent crime? And what can be done about it? In Gladwell's terminology, there has been a tipping point where authority and the public good have lost respect. And there could be a tipping point in the other direction. The safest place in Comayagua is the central plaza. It is not only patrolled by armed guards, it is also immaculately clean, well-lit and beautifully landscaped. This is part of a push to make Comayagua into a tourist destination, but the local population must to benefit greatly. To end violence in Central America may require a strong hand, but I think best way to end violence will be for there to be a national push for adults and children to take pride in cleaning up their communities. A beautiful, orderly environment will help people to think and act in beautiful and orderly ways. Somehow little crimes must have consequences. It is a big job. New York did not clean up its subway overnight. They did it little by little, but eventually they took back a sense of order, with incredible results.

I know this critique can look like cultural paternalism. Here I am in clean, law-abiding, on-time Wisconsin and I blame Honduras' problems on the fact that they are not like me. If this is the case and I am wrong, then I apologize. Something real is happening here and we need all ideas.


  1. Hi Andy. My name is Dan Maurer and my brother Joe sent me a link to your blog. It's an interesting story and, I must admit, an intriguing proposal to help with the situation in Honduras. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Keep up the good work. I'll follow and read in the future.

    If you get a chance, check out my blog at:



  2. Interesting . I will be interesting to have more information in social environent in honduras. I m studying violent crimes in USA and the cultural and social environment are really different.but I detect some similarity as the poverty .