In one of the deadliest cities in the world, an embattled group of young men had little but their tiny patch of turf — and they would die to protect it. Journalists from The New York Times spent weeks recording their struggle.
4 MAYO 2019 / THE NEW YORK TIMES
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Three sharp cracks rang out, followed by three more in quick succession. The thoroughfare emptied. Two old men ducked behind a corrugated fence. A taxi jerked onto a side street. A mother shoved her barefooted toddler indoors.
The shooter, an MS-13 gunman in a tank top and black baseball cap, stood calmly on the corner in broad daylight, the only person left on the commercial strip. He stuck the gun in his waistband and watched the neighborhood shake in terror.
Bryan, Reinaldo and Franklin scrambled into a neighbor’s dirt yard, scattering chickens. In panicked whispers, they traded notes on the shooting, the third in less than a week. Only days earlier, a child had been hit in a similar attack. Bryan, 19, wondered what response the few young men still living in the neighborhood could muster, if any.
Mara Salvatrucha, the gang known as MS-13, was coming for them almost every day now. It raided homes, deployed spies and taunted them with whistles at dusk, a constant reminder that the enemy was right around the corner, able to charge in at will.
There was no avoiding it. The neighborhood, a patch of unpaved roads no bigger than a few soccer fields, was surrounded on all sides.
To the east, near the Chinese takeout where the three friends used to splurge on fried rice, MS-13 was planning its takeover of the area. To the south, past the house repurposed as an evangelical church, the 18th Street gang was plotting to do the same. North and west were no better. Gangs lined those borders, too.
In reality, not much differentiated the neighborhood where Bryan and his friends had grown up from the ones already controlled by gangs. There was a sameness to them — the concrete homes worn by age; the handcarts offering fried chicken and tortillas; the laborers trudging to work at sunrise, waiting for buses on busy corners.
But for Franklin, whose family had been there for generations and who had a child of his own on the way, the neighborhood was his entire world. Reinaldo and Bryan felt the same way.
Only bad options remained for them: stay and fight, abandon their homes and head elsewhere, maybe to the United States, or surrender and hope one of the invading gangs showed them mercy.
All three had been members of the 18th Street gang, but were sickened by the cadence of murder, extortion and robbery of their neighbors, the people they had known all their lives. Seeking redemption, they kicked the gang out of the neighborhood, vowing never to allow another back in.
Now, they were being hunted — by their former comrades in 18th Street, and by MS-13, which wanted their territory.
And so the young men doubled down for their own protection, transforming back into the thing they hated most: a gang.
“The borders surround us like a noose,” said Bryan, standing in the yard with the others in their group, the Casa Blanca. “We don’t want the gangs here, and for that we live in constant conflict.”
Reinaldo, 22, stood guard, watching the street for any signs of movement.
“Lots of people ask me why we’re fighting for this little plot of land,” he said. “I tell them I’m not fighting for this territory. I’m fighting for my life.”
Some of the boundaries shown here are imprecise, and uncolored parts of the map show areas where gang control is unclear.
From 2018 through early 2019, The New York Times followed the young men of Casa Blanca in this tiny corner of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, one of the deadliest cities in the world, and witnessed firsthand as they tried to keep the gangs at bay.
Shootouts, armed raids and last-minute pleas to stop the bloodshed formed the central threads of their stories. MS-13 wanted the neighborhood to sell drugs. The other gangs wanted it to extort and steal. But the members of Casa Blanca had promised never to let their neighborhood fall prey to that again. And they would die for it, if they had to.
Almost no one was trying to stop the coming war — not the police, not the government, not even the young men themselves. The only person working to prevent it was a part-time pastor who had no church of his own and bounced around the neighborhood in a beat-up yellow hatchback, risking his life to calm the warring factions.
“I’m not in favor of any gang,” said the pastor, Daniel Pacheco, rushing to the Casa Blanca members after the shooting. “I’m in favor of life.”
The struggle to protect the neighborhood — roughly four blocks of single-story houses, overgrown lots and a few stores selling chips and soda — encapsulates the inescapable violence that entraps and expels millions of people across Latin America.
Since the turn of this century, more than 2.5 million people have been killed in the homicide crisis gripping Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Igarapé Institute, a research group that tracks violence worldwide.
The region accounts for just 8 percent of the global population, yet 38 percent of the world’s murders. It has 17 of the 20 deadliest nations on earth.
And in just seven Latin American countries — Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela — violence has killed more people than the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen combined.
Source: Igarapé Institute and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Cities include the 50 highest homicide rates in the world and a group of prominent others for comparison, all with populations of at least 250,000. Average homicide rates are from 2016-2018 or the latest data available.
The violence is all the more striking because the civil wars and military dictatorships that once seized Latin America have almost all ended — decades ago, in many cases. Most of the region has trudged, often very successfully, along the prescribed path to democracy. Yet the killings continue at a staggering rate.
They come in many forms: state-sanctioned deaths by overzealous armed forces; the murder of women in domestic disputes, a consequence of pervasive gender inequality; the ceaseless exchange of drugs and guns with the United States.
Underpinning nearly every killing is a climate of impunity that, in some countries, leaves more than 95 percent of homicides unsolved. And the state is a guarantor of the phenomenon — governments hollowed out by corruption are either incapable or unwilling to apply the rule of law, enabling criminal networks to dictate the lives of millions.
For the masses fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, the United States is both a cause and solution — the author of countless woes and a chance to escape them.
Frustrated with the stream of migrants treading north, President Trump has vowed to cut aid to the most violent Central American nations, threatening hundreds of millions of dollars meant to address the roots of the exodus.
But the surviving members of Casa Blanca, who once numbered in the dozens, do not want to flee, like tens of thousands of their countrymen have. They say they have jobs to keep, children to feed, families, neighbors and loved ones to protect.
“There is only one way for this to end,” said Reinaldo. “Either they kill us or we kill them.”
‘The Next Time, They Will Kill Me’
The men entered without a word, pushing through the thin curtain hanging over Fanny’s front door with the barrels of their AK-47s.
She let out a stifled yelp as they spread through the house, their assault rifles shouldered. After the shooting the day before, the MS-13 gunman had watched Bryan, Reinaldo and Franklin race into Fanny’s backyard, one of the few places they felt safe.
Now it was night, and Fanny was alone. The men did a final sweep for Casa Blanca members, then left as suddenly as they had entered. The message was more terrifying for its silence: They could come and go as they pleased.
A single mother of three, Fanny was a surrogate mother to the Casa Blanca members. She had known them since childhood; they had defended her son from bullies in grade school. As they grew up, her house became a refuge, a place to escape broken homes.
And now, for her closeness with the young men, she had fallen into the cross hairs of MS-13. Shaking with fear, she called her cousin, Pastor Pacheco.
“The next time, they will kill me, I know it,” she told him.
Fanny drew respect in the few blocks controlled by Casa Blanca, but she had no sway beyond the neighborhood, which was where the pastor came in. He knew the leaders of all the gangs.
He had a slight paunch and a wide face that permanently lingered on the verge of a smile. An evangelical minister, he delivered Sunday sermons outdoors in the stifling heat and worked construction to make ends meet.
Then in 2014, a 13-year-old girl in the neighborhood was kidnapped by gang members. Her parents owned a small corner store and had failed to pay their extortion demands. As retribution, they abducted the girl and took her to a private home, where they raped and tortured her for three days before killing her and burying her in the floor.
“People watched as they grabbed her from the street, yelling for help, and no one did anything,” recalled Mr. Pacheco, 40, known mostly as Pastor Danny. “They were all scared for their lives.”
Pastor Danny’s daughter was the same age as the girl. Overwhelmed, he visited the house after the police had cleared the scene. The shallow grave was still open, a small hole in the living room, scraped out of the clay floor. He filled it with his hands.
“I made a promise there,” he said. “I was going to do something.”
Four years on, he still kept the newspaper clippings of the murder, to remind him of that promise.
Most days, he shuttled around the gouged-out streets in his hatchback, a car recognized across gang lines. More than once, he had intervened when the police were beating gang members, or placed himself between rival gangs on the verge of killing one another.
He resented the government, the arbitrary brutality of the police and the relentless corruption that had driven so many Hondurans to leave in caravans to the United States. Though murders in his country were dropping, he often said, the underlying problems weren’t.
Now, with Fanny’s life on the line, it was personal. The pastor knew many of the Casa Blanca members and appreciated the quandary they faced. He didn’t want gangs to dominate the neighborhood, either.
But he was a realist — there was no way to keep them out. MS-13 had made its intentions clear. It was advancing across large swaths of San Pedro Sula, using its numbers, tight organization and ruthlessness to overwhelm smaller, less sophisticated groups.
The way he saw it, Casa Blanca was next. And the invasion was coming, one way or another.
Casa Blanca now had fewer than a dozen members in all. Some had been killed, others imprisoned. The remaining ones were the least experienced in gang warfare. A few were barely old enough to shave.
Bryan worked 12-hour shifts in a factory and began his day at 5:30 a.m. To avoid ambushes, he crept out of the neighborhood each morning, then back in at night. He hardly slept. A combination of fear and candy kept him awake on the job.
He arguably had the least to fight for, living alone in a one-bedroom apartment, estranged from his mother. He only heard from her every other week, when he got paid.
“She’s not like other mothers,” he tried to explain, embarrassed.
Franklin, 19, worked construction, when there was work. He had a steady girlfriend and wanted out of the violence because of the child on the way. But he had a brother who harbored no such fantasies. When the time came, he said, his brother would die fighting.
Reinaldo was the quietest. When others boasted of their exploits, he laughed softly but never joined in. He rarely raised his voice and was tender at times, wrapping Fanny’s youngest son in an embrace after she scolded him for collecting gun shells from the street and shaking them like dice.
Reinaldo wanted a way out, too, but refused to abandon his friends, or the neighborhood. He could scarcely imagine himself anywhere else. His expectations were as hemmed in as his movements.
If Casa Blanca had any leader left, it was Javi, in his early 20s, frighteningly skinny and the most violent by nature. A braided scar ran from his right cheek down to his throat, compliments of a gang that had kidnapped him a year earlier. Everyone called him the Macheted.
In November, Javi had taken off for Guatemala in search of a fresh start. Now, he was back.
“I can’t leave this place,” he explained. “It’s my home. I’m not going to run away.”
Like the legions of young men swept up in the region’s homicide epidemic, they felt trapped in a cycle they were powerless to break. Even in trying to escape the violence — by defecting from gangs altogether — they had only managed to summon more of it.
Pastor Danny considered it a good sign that MS-13 had not harmed Fanny. But the sudden escalation worried him. There would be more bullets, more casualties. He was sure of it. Bryan, Franklin and the others could not even spend a quiet afternoon in Fanny’s backyard anymore. It was marked now.
So the pastor made a plan, one that bordered on diplomatic lunacy.
He wanted to broker a meeting between Casa Blanca members and MS-13, the gang threatening their lives.
‘Life Was Good’
Anner stood shirtless on his porch, watching his daughter play tug-of-war with a small dog.
“This is going to be hard,” he warned the pastor. “These guys have lost too much to just give up.”
Anner, 26, was a workingman. He stocked produce at a grocery store, and felt proud of the small house and motorcycle it afforded him. He had grown up with everyone in Casa Blanca. He was not a member, but two of his brothers-in-law, including Franklin, were.
The pastor needed Anner to convince Casa Blanca that peace was the only way. They grabbed Franklin and went inside, where the air-conditioner ran full blast in a losing battle with the heat. Anner wanted the pastor to understand what he was up against — the feudal history of Casa Blanca.
In the early 2000s, he explained, the territory belonged to 18th Street, and the local members operated from a white house, or Casa Blanca.
In 2016, though, a police operation landed the leaders in jail, leaving the neighborhood up for grabs. A new gang stepped in and the locals, who still referred to themselves as Casa Blanca, joined.
But the new gang was brutal and petty. It killed residents for failing to hand over extortion payments, and robbed them even when they complied. The Casa Blanca members were ashamed — people they had grown up with were suffering at their hands.
They revolted, seeking the help of a faction of 18th Street. When they prevailed months later, they joined 18th Street once again.
But the threats, robberies and violence continued. They had lost people, and for what, Anner asked. Simply to swap out one gang’s abuse for another’s?
So they mutinied again and won, kicking out 18th Street after months of bloodshed.
“They converted into an anti-gang group,” Anner said. “Life was good. No more robberies, no more extortion and no more violence against people living in the neighborhood.”
“And then,” he said, “the police came.”
Through the summer of 2017, the police arrested half a dozen Casa Blanca members. Others fled. The ranks were decimated, leaving the lowest-profile members on the street.
“Now the young ones are left alone,” said Anner.
He listed the survivors, and how they would respond to an MS-13 takeover. Franklin’s older brother wouldn’t take it well, he said. He had shot at MS-13 in the past and refused even to sit down with the pastor.
Franklin nodded in agreement. “He says the only truce he needs is the one he carries in his waistband,” Franklin said, miming a gun with his hand.
Others might be game for a truce, Anner said, but the older members, when they got out of prison, could break whatever agreement was made.
Pastor Danny realized what he was wading into: Casa Blanca was leaderless and unpredictable, governed by young men whose instincts for self-preservation were in constant conflict with their bravado.
“If something doesn’t change, there’s going to be a massacre before the end of the year,” Pastor Danny snapped.
“End of the year?” Anner snorted. “I think more like end of the week.”
At that moment, a loud crash erupted, the sound of a rock hitting Anner’s roof. The group raced outside. Franklin signaled for them to be quiet.
“MS-13 is on the block,” he whispered, pointing up the road.
The street was long and narrow, running for more than 30 meters, like a firing range. The pastor, worried about MS-13 gunmen, called the police.
The block cleared out, except for a middle-aged woman walking slowly down the street, alone. After she passed, Anner sighed in relief.
She was the sister of one of MS-13’s leaders, and most likely a lookout, Anner explained.
“She’s a lookout?” Pastor Danny asked sharply, pointing down the block. “That woman was a lookout?”
He was furious at the missed opportunity. Had he known, he told Anner, he would have introduced himself, to ease the tension. As a religious leader, he would pose no threat, he argued.
Instead, they waited on Anner’s porch, praying the gangsters down the way would hold their fire. After half an hour, the pastor made a break for his car, flooring it on his way out.
As he cleared the neighborhood, the police arrived. The pastor rolled down his window to brief them, surprised they had even shown up.
But before he could say anything, the officers ordered him out of the car. The pastor thought it was a joke, until the officer’s voice grew stern.
“But I’m the one who called you guys,” Pastor Danny protested.
The police made a few calls before waving the pastor on. He twisted his hands over the steering wheel and muttered an expletive.
“And you wonder why we have to solve our own problems,” he said.
‘The Last Card I Have to Play’
The pastor slowed at the knot of unpaved streets separating MS-13 from Casa Blanca. He switched on his hazards and eased past a desolate cinder block structure, where the outlines of young men were visible in the glow of cigarette tips.
A man with tattoos covering his arms and neck appeared at Pastor Danny’s window.
“What do you want,” he asked, taking a long glance up and down the street.
“I want to see Samuel,” the pastor said. “We know each other.”
Just hours after leaving Anner’s house, the pastor had received an alarming call. Armed men on motorcycles were kicking families out of their homes in Casa Blanca’s area, taking the neighborhood by force. He couldn’t wait any longer.
So Pastor Danny fell back on his usual tactic — improvisation — and raced into MS-13 territory, hoping to place himself at the mercy of Samuel, the MS-13 leader in the area, before someone died.
“This is the last card I have to play,” he said.
The pastor scanned the vacant lots and darkened buildings, taking heavy breaths to steady himself. He was used to taking risks, but this was different — Samuel was an important figure, not just a soldier with a quick temper. Even asking for him could arouse suspicion. And scared criminals were dangerous.
The tattooed man stepped back and surveyed the street a second time. Satisfied, he pointed to a peach-colored home. “Check there,” he said.
The pastor drove by a well-lit corner, where two women were smoking with a slender man in a collared shirt and jeans.
It was Samuel. The pastor slammed on the brakes and leapt out of the car, leaving it in the middle of the street with the door still open.
Samuel excused himself from the conversation with the women and stubbed out his cigarette. He looked to be in his 30s, with short hair and the calm bearing of someone used to being in control.
He walked over and embraced the older man. “Pastor Danny, how are you?” he asked.
“I’m not great, brother,” the pastor said. He often took his time when enlisting people’s help, spooling them up slowly. He was, at heart, something of a performer.
But now, nervous and somewhat stunned at finding Samuel, Pastor Danny got straight to the point.
“I have to ask you a personal favor,” he said.
Samuel raised his eyebrows and answered like a politician. “If I can do it, I will,” he said.
“I know your guys are looking to move into the territory of Casa Blanca,” Pastor Danny continued. “But I’m asking you, begging you, please don’t do it violently. Please don’t kill anyone.”
Samuel listened impassively, saying nothing.
“I’m not in favor of any gang,” the pastor went on, filling the silence with his standard refrain. “I just want to protect life. And I have a cousin who lives there and I’m worried she and others could be hurt.”
“We already own that territory,” he said. “It’s already ours.”
The pastor didn’t know whether he was speaking literally or figuratively. MS-13, while advancing fast, had not yet taken over. This much the pastor knew.
“But there are people there now, kicking a family out of their home,” the pastor insisted. “I have people in the community who are witnessing it.”
Samuel leaned against the pastor’s car, then, seeing it was covered in a film of dirt, eased back off it.
“It can’t be us. We don’t have anyone there right now,” he countered. “What did they tell you?”
The pastor called Anner. “What exactly is happening right now?” he said into the phone.
Anner told the pastor that men on motorcycles had come in masks and kicked out a family half a block from Fanny’s house.
“We don’t have any motorcycles in that area,” Samuel said, shaking his head.
Anner corrected himself. The men had arrived on bicycles, he now said. But he was sure they were kicking people out of their homes.
The back and forth continued, with Samuel asking the pastor and, by extension, an unwitting Anner for more specifics. Anner grew suspicious. The pastor tried his best to explain the location to Samuel, based on the vague answers he could squeeze out of Anner.
“No that can’t be right,” Samuel said. “Where you are talking about is where the old woman sells firewood.”
Samuel sketched a map into the dirt covering the pastor’s back windshield. They took turns drawing streets and landmarks.
“I think where he is describing is here,” Samuel said, tapping his finger against the glass. “And that’s not in Casa Blanca territory.”
The pastor winced. Samuel was right. Whatever was happening, it was not in Casa Blanca territory.
It didn’t matter, though, Samuel said. Everyone knew that Casa Blanca was weak. He had already ordered his lieutenant — a man called Monster — to take over the neighborhood.
His men weren’t forcing families out of homes tonight, he said, but they would enter soon enough.
Samuel then asked the pastor to draw the exact location of Fanny’s house. “Do not worry about your loved ones, we won’t hurt them,” he promised.
And what about the Casa Blanca members, the pastor asked. Would they also get a pass?
“Like I said, the territory is already ours,” Samuel replied. “If we can avoid violence, we will. But that depends on them.”
Samuel relit his cigarette and walked into an abandoned building.
‘We Make Our Money Selling Drugs’
Monster led the pastor into a backyard, where more than a dozen MS-13 soldiers stood in a circle, cloaked in a cloud of marijuana smoke. A boy no older than 10 stood among them, his hat turned sideways, smoking a cigarette.
Pastor Danny introduced himself. Two days had passed since his encounter with Samuel. Now he was back in MS-13 territory, face to face with Casa Blanca’s enemies.
The gunman responsible for the shooting a few days earlier was there, wearing the same black baseball cap. The men who raided Fanny’s house were there, too, standing next to a giant mound of dirt. The pastor kept his gaze on Monster, the man ordered to take over the neighborhood.
When speaking to groups, Pastor Danny had a roundabout way of getting to the point. He flattered, shared bits of intelligence, or preached parables from the Bible, depending on his spot assessment of what would get through to the crowd.
“You guys are a structure, a disciplined group with organization and resources,” he told them, drawing genuine smiles from the gang members. “It will be hard for the members of Casa Blanca to fight back, and they know that.”
At 26, Monster had become one of Samuel’s top lieutenants. After struggling to make a living in construction, the gang offered him employment, and a community, he said.
It also taught him discipline, which was paramount: No lying to the gang; no drug use (marijuana was the exception); and murder had to be approved by the leadership, unless in self-defense.
“Killing someone isn’t what helps you climb the ladder,” Monster explained. “What matters is how you think, your intelligence,” he added, tapping his forefinger against his temple.
Monster spoke like a small-time official, spouting platitudes and promises with ease. Top-notch security. Respect for residents. No forced conscription. No extortion. It was a surprising speech for a member of a gang that terrorizes people from Central America to the United States.
“We make our money selling drugs,” Monster explained, “so we don’t rob from the people who live in our areas.”
“We need them,” he added.
It all sounded hopeful to the pastor, maybe too hopeful. There was no way to know if Monster was telling the truth. They were killers, after all, no matter what they said about peace.
Still, the pastor wanted to walk away with something concrete. The conversation went on for more than an hour before he finally pushed his plan.
“You know, it might help to meet one of them,” the pastor said casually, as if the idea had only just occurred to him. “I mean, if they’re willing and you’re willing.”
‘Paralyzed by Fear’
In the car, Fanny asked half-jokingly whether the pastor was taking her to be killed. She had dressed up for the occasion, wearing bright red lipstick.
“Don’t be stupid, Fanny,” he said. “I’m trying to save your life.”
They were driving to his brother’s house, outside of Casa Blanca territory, so he could explain his meetings with MS-13.
“Fanny doesn’t listen when she’s at home,” he explained. “She’s just paralyzed by fear.”
Pastor Danny wore the same clothes for the third day in a row. Bags had formed under his eyes. Between counseling Fanny and keeping Casa Blanca from falling apart, there was little time for anything else, even his own family.
His daughter had been hospitalized for a lung condition. When he wasn’t in the neighborhood, he was with his wife, checking on her. Bills were piling up, and finances were not his thing. He preferred being in the streets, his ministry of action.
And right now, Fanny’s safety was his first concern.
“Fanny, you need to think about you and your family,” the pastor said, sensing her doubts. “They told me they wouldn’t touch you.”
Fanny began to cry. After the events of the last few days — the shooting, the invasion of her home — the pastor thought she would be happy with the news. But his promise that she would be safe merely reminded her of all the others who wouldn’t be.
“How would you feel if I told you that I could save your life, but children you have known and loved since they were young might die?” she sobbed. “How would you feel if I told you I could only save you?”
The pastor was confused, hurt even, after all the sacrifices he had made, the chances he had taken. He often joked that there was no gratitude for the work he did, and for the most part, he didn’t expect much. Still, he didn’t want to be chastised for it.
He handed Fanny some tissue to wipe the mascara streaking down her face.
“If others in the neighborhood want to put up a fight and die, that’s their choice, I guess,” Pastor Danny said, shrugging. “I’m trying to save the lives of those who want to be saved.”
Two days later, when the pastor decided to tell Casa Blanca about his plan for a truce, Fanny didn’t join. He gathered everyone at Anner’s house, including a few parents, hoping they might force the young men into accepting it.
It was late evening. Bryan raced in after work, his hair still wet from a shower. Franklin sat on a sofa, legs outstretched.
“They say they will pardon everyone as long as they can enter peacefully,” the pastor said, explaining MS-13’s terms.
The pastor had a way of stretching the facts to their most optimistic lengths. MS-13 had said it did not want to kill. But it never promised to pardon everyone, not explicitly.
Bryan interjected, describing his most recent brush with MS-13 members.
“They didn’t whistle, or look at me in any sort of aggressive way,” he marveled, crediting the pastor’s efforts for the atypical behavior.
Whether the change was at all related, the meeting seemed to be going well. And in the end, the pastor’s true gospel was hope. If he could make Casa Blanca believe that peace was possible, maybe it could be.
By the end of the discussion, Anner agreed to sit down with Monster.
“This is inevitable,” Anner said. “I mean, look at the odds — it’s like 50,000 of them versus eight of us.”
‘We Don’t Want Any Problems’
Anner dressed in his work uniform, a polo shirt with the grocery store’s insignia stitched on the upper left pocket. His boss had given him a few hours off, and Anner was anxious to get going.
In the back seat of Pastor Danny’s car, Anner talked without pause, a nervous habit that could make it hard to get a word in. The pastor hoped he would settle down before they met Monster.
Then, suddenly, Anner grew quiet. He pressed his face to the tinted window and stared.
“I haven’t been on this street in seven years,” he said as they passed into MS-13 territory, struck by how such a small neighborhood could be so rigidly divided — and how isolated it left everyone.
They reached a building with a tin portico. Beneath it, Monster sat on a low-slung chair, smoking weed. He smiled slightly as his visitors looked for a seat. Anner found a splintered crate, the pastor an overturned bucket.
After a brief introduction, Anner began to talk, in his nervous way, for nearly the entire meeting — about his kids, his job, his life in the neighborhood. He even named a few MS-13 members he knew personally.
“I’m not involved in any of this, but I know all of these guys,” he explained.
Monster continued smoking. Inside the building, a pinball machine clanged to life, playing “Limbo Rock” while gang members took turns.
“We don’t want any problems with MS,” Anner said, scooting his crate a little too close to Monster.
“I don’t want to see violence,” he continued. “I work and have a family and I don’t want to lose my house.”
Monster, now very high, shook his head and uttered a soft “No.”
“What about the others?” Anner asked. “Some of these guys have shot at MS before,” he said. “Sometimes out of fear.”
Monster started to speak, but Anner cut him off.
“I just want to ask as a favor that if they don’t resist, if they don’t put up a fight, that you pardon them,” he said.
Monster looked at the pastor, then at Anner.
“Our goal is not to kill anyone,” he said. “If they don’t put up a fight, if they go with the program, we won’t need to.”
Anner slumped over slightly, his tension ebbing. “Thank you, brother, this is a big relief for me. We’ve all been so worried about what would happen, every day. It’s been like living in a war zone.”
Two cars rolled past and the drivers honked their horns to salute the gathered MS-13 members. Children played nearby, kicking a small rubber ball up and down the street.
“Look around,” Monster boasted. “People live more freely here than anywhere else.”
“This could be how it is in Casa Blanca,” he concluded.
‘They Don’t Care’
The bodies appeared one January morning, mutilated, wrapped in black trash bags and deposited on the border that divided Casa Blanca from the 18th Street gang.
The warning spoke for itself: 18th Street had learned of the burgeoning truce with MS-13 — and had no intention of accepting it.
A few weeks later, Reinaldo disappeared. He had been walking inside the boundaries of Casa Blanca territory when someone snatched him.
Bryan and Franklin circulated his photo, in case anyone had seen him. After a few days, the pastor learned that 18th Street had taken him. They never got the body back.
The pastor’s fragile peace began to crumble.
MS-13 never entered the neighborhood, as Samuel and Monster said it would. Though it stopped attacking Casa Blanca, as promised, 18th Street picked up where its rivals had left off.
The pastor tried to put the Casa Blanca members at ease, but he had nothing new to offer. For all his efforts — the one-man missions, the clandestine meetings — he had managed only to swap one enemy for another.
Even that didn’t last. Early this year, Samuel and Monster were promoted. After they moved on, there was no one to guarantee the peace. Monster’s replacement in MS-13, Puyudo, resumed the attacks on Casa Blanca — why, exactly, the pastor did not know.
Casa Blanca was still outgunned, still outnumbered, still trapped. In March, a young boy in its territory was wounded in a shootout. A few days later, MS-13 took shots at Anner after work.
A week later, a member shot at Fanny while she was walking her son home from school.
Pastor Danny’s mission became much more daunting. He began saying that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Trying to change the neighborhood, much less all of San Pedro Sula, or the rest of Honduras, seemed futile.
In his mind, the fact that everything fell on him — a solo peacekeeping campaign, with no help from the government — was a reflection of how dire the situation was.
“All of the things that end here on the streets, it all starts with government corruption,” he said. “I can’t keep fighting against this monster — the government, the country. It doesn’t matter to them. They don’t care.”
He told himself this would be his last intervention. However the Casa Blanca standoff ended — peacefully or not — he vowed to find a life where he wasn’t fighting the monster, as he called the state, and could take up a less demoralizing cause. Maybe he would even leave Honduras.
But that didn’t last, either. His cynicism gave way to hope, as it always did. A few weeks after MS-13 took shots at Fanny, the pastor managed to meet with Puyudo, the new leader in the area. Pastor Danny’s disillusionment fell away.
He gave Puyudo an abridged version of the speech that, by now, he had practiced a half-dozen times. He slipped right back into diplomacy mode.
“I think I can convince him to stop the shooting,” the pastor said. “We are supposed to meet again soon.”