In Honduran schools, gangs are in control

AP News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2014 2:03 PM
In Honduran schools, gangs are in control

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — 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 Tegucigalpa's 130 public schools. Gang members circulate catalogues of girls offering sexual services for sale.

Street gangs don't need to recruit in Honduran schools. In a country of limited opportunities, more schoolchildren want to join the violent Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street and other new gangs than the bands can absorb.

Just as they control most Tegucigalpa neighborhoods, street gangs rule over most public schools in the capital. Many students are gangsters, along with some of their parents. The gangs lay claim to buildings with graffiti, and monitor the police monitoring them.

"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 charged with security in the country of 8.2 million people.

Gangs rely on kids for their grunt work because they won't face long jail sentences if they're caught. More than a third of the estimated 5,000 gang members with criminal charges against them in 2010 were under 15, according to the only study examining age in gangs. Police say this year they have detained more than 400 minors for gang activity, some as young as 12.

Police say some gangsters intentionally repeat grades just to hold onto their illegal operations in a school, which means kids between ages 11 and 17 may be in the same class.

While most gang violence occurs outside school walls, there have been rapes and kidnappings inside, and extortion is rampant. Along with the occasional gantlet forcing teachers to cough up pocket money, gangs order educators to 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."

Ruiz said that in many schools, a teacher has no choice but to get along with the gangsters. If a gang grabs a child from a classroom, most teachers know to keep quiet, even if the student is never heard from again.

"The fear is indescribable ... because these children are capable of anything," Ruiz said.

The front of the Jose Ramon Montoya Institute in eastern Tegucigalpa is painted with MS-13 graffiti, tags of the Mara Salvatrucha.

Until recently, dozens of gangsters used the second floor of the primary and secondary school to sell drugs and organize girls into prostitution. A 14-year-old can earn $500 a month in prostitution — more than a police officer's salary, said police Officer Yojana Corrales of the capital's gang prevention unit.

Last year, three students became pregnant after being raped on Montoya's second floor, according to a teacher. Officials called for protection at the start of the new school year, but gangsters threw furniture from the second floor when police moved in.

After officers were stationed at every door, the gangsters retreated and authorities regained control.

"We painted the walls inside the school three weeks ago. They'll come put their tags on them again, and we will paint them again," said teacher Marcio Pastrana.

"There are more good kids than bad," Pastrana said. "We do everything humanly possible, but the problem isn't in school, it's in society."

Administrators say only about a third of Honduran school children live with two parents. Many of their parents have left to seek work in the United States, while others have been killed or abandoned the household. Many students don't have enough to eat, or work before and after school to help their families. They are surrounded by violence in a country with the world's highest homicide rate.

Many Honduran children also leave for the United States out of fear or in search of opportunity, often long before finishing school. 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 they were being allowed to stay in the country.

Teachers, administrators and police acknowledge that efforts to protect schools with military police and gang prevention programs are not showing results.

When Corrales, the gang prevention officer, arrived at the La Hera school in northern Tegucigalpa one recent afternoon, a group of children climbed into the back of her pickup truck before she got out. They put their hands behind their heads, mimicking detained criminals.

"This is the image of the gang leader," Corrales said. "The detainee is a somebody in the barrio, and those kids want to be a somebody."