By Jared Van Driessche; Photos by AS Solution staff, all taken within the last 10 days
The town’s reputation precedes it. But for many foreigners, the reality of violence in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, far exceeds the hype. No matter what you’ve heard prior to your arrival in this Central American city, the level of brutality is still alarming. For much of the local population, its effects on practically every aspect of life are devastating.
When AS Solution opened a new executive protection branch in San Pedro Sula last month, we knew what we were getting into. As Christian West stated in our press release: “San Pedro Sula is a dangerous place that requires exceptional caution in order to stay safe. But because we’ve operated here and have clients that live and work here, we have a clear understanding of the challenges that come with the territory.”
We aim to share some of that understanding and local perspective with you in this blog. Because whether you live in or travel to San Pedro Sula or elsewhere in Honduras, we believe it’s crucial for you to know about the city and country, their current struggles and any potential dangers. The more you know before you go, the better your odds of staying safe, happy and productive.
Welcome to the murder capital of the world
San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras, is frequently referred to as the murder capital of the world.
Although all such figures should be taken with a grain of salt, San Pedro Sula’s official murder rate is still astounding: 168 homicides per 100,000 residents, or roughly three homicides per day on average. To put this into perspective, Detroit, the most violent major city in the U.S, ranks at number twenty-two worldwide and has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000. Chicago, also renowned for its violence in the U.S., is not even listed in the top 50 and has a rate of “only” 16 per 100,000. London has 1.6, Tokyo 0.4. You get the picture.
In a region where gang violence, drug, arms and people trafficking, crumbling economies and corrupt officials are the order of the day, San Pedro Sula manages to stand out for all the wrong reasons. It’s also a hub for many legitimate international businesses – and the home of AS Solution’s newest outpost.
Honduras in 2015: Not an easy place to live for most
Honduras, a Central American republic with a population of over 8 million people, is bordered by Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The region and this country have suffered political crises, military conflicts and natural disasters throughout much of their history.
Hurricane Mitch in 1998, for example, was so destructive that a former Honduran president claimed it had reversed fifty years of progress. In addition to leaving 7,000 dead, the storm destroyed 70% of the country’s crops, nearly 80% of its transportation infrastructure and tens of thousands of houses. And this was only one weather-related disaster among many others.
Honduras is hardly an example of excellence in government. While ostensibly a democratic republic with a president and congress, the latest constitutional crisis of 2009 led to a coup d’état and resulted in even more political chaos. As things stand today, the country—and its major cities in particular—have significant issues when it comes to safety and security. Here are the main ones:
- Poverty and poor living conditions: The level of poverty here is severe. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with over 60% of its population living in poverty. Over half of households in rural areas are marked by extreme poverty, with daily incomes of less than $1.25. Many families, particularly those residing outside cities, do not have easy access to clean water or medical care; diseases that would be easily treatable in other countries often turn into deadly ones.
- Gangs and violence: Honduran violence rates are four times higher than other countries in gang-plagued Central America. And the gangs in Honduras are without a doubt the main reason for the country’s extreme levels of violence.
Two of the most notable gangs are MS13 and Barrio 18, who can trace their roots to the barrios and prisons of California. Nearly two-thirds of their members are concentrated in San Pedro Sula.
Overall, Honduras has an estimated 115,000 gang members. The actual number might be even higher. If these numbers seem chilling, the reality is especially so. Turf wars are ruthless and unending. Gangs recruit children as young as eight years old to conduct some of their many brutal hits. It’s not unusual to see a teenage boy on a city street with scars all over his chest, caused by car battery acid burns: This is a common form of torture by gang and cartel members. Leaders of gangs and cartels routinely hold their own press conferences, attended by media.
- Drug, arms and people trafficking: These are all controlled by gangs, and the problems are serious for Hondurans. If you have money and know the right people, you can buy machine guns, RPGs and even C-4 on the streets. Drugs are similarly accessible. Honduras is a major hub for the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children. Night clubs are notorious for drugged drinks, robberies, rapes and more.
The place sometimes feels like the Wild West without the Hollywood shine. Guns are a common sight almost everywhere. Weapons laws are loose (anyone can own up to five firearms) and largely unenforced. Many wear a gun belt in public; armed security guards keep watch at every major business and many minor ones, and often ask you to turn in your gun before entering.
- Corruption: Corruption runs rampant throughout the country. The government denies this, of course, but it is commonly believed that the political system has been infiltrated and is being at least partly manipulated by criminal groups due to their abundance of funds and power. Bribes of law enforcement officers are common practice. So is police harassment. As of 2012, the Honduran police had the lowest confidence rating for law enforcement officers in Central America. Since then, the government has stepped up its militarization of the police force in an attempt to maintain civil order and keep armed violence from spiraling further out of control; so far, the move has only led to more unrest.
Know the risks: The 4 things to know before you pack your bags for Honduras
So you’re coming to Honduras. What should you, as a non-local, be on the lookout for? Much like traveling to other poor or unstable countries, it’s important that you know the primary risks:
- Violent crime is a serious threat. Given Honduras’ level of poverty it’s not uncommon for tourists and business travelers—particularly isolated ones—to become easy targets for their cash and other valuables. But even in supposedly secure neighborhoods, the possibility of violent crime is what you should be most mindful of.
According to the U.S. Department of State, U.S. citizens are victims of street crime at levels similar to those of the local population. Muggings and armed robberies are the most common occurrences, but home invasions and extortion scams pose clear risks. Kidnappings are a definite concern, even for travelers and expats as they are generally perceived to have the means of paying large ransoms.
- Gang violence may not target you, but it doesn’t have to in order to kill. Over the last few weeks there have been seven murders within a 10-block radius of our office. And we’re not in a rough part of town.
Much like in other countries, gang warfare in Honduras tends to involve only gang members. But with the proliferation of firearms and the ruthless violence often on display, finding yourself between two rival gangs is an unfortunate possibility. While getting caught in crossfire is not common for foreigners, that doesn’t make the risk any less real.
Certain gang-controlled neighborhoods are so dangerous that if you drive through them without the locals recognizing you, and you don’t roll your windows down so they can see you, your car will get shot up as a matter of routine. Hertz and Avis won’t necessarily mark these areas on your map. Having a local contact that knows where to go – and especially where not to go – is crucial.
- The roads are not your friends. If you’re hitting the road, in public transportation or a private vehicle, you should brace yourself for a rough ride.
Maintenance is often substandard on all but a few roads. Poorly illuminated and unmarked roads are commonplace.
Don’t expect traffic laws to be followed or enforced, either. Traffic signals, when they do function, are frequently ignored by local drivers. Consider traveling by road to be just as dangerous an activity as walking around in an unsafe area. Especially at night, when the lack of signals, lights, and signs make conditions even more dangerous, you should always exercise extreme caution – and seriously consider allying yourself with a professional security driver.
- Sanitary conditions are often poor. This one is particularly relevant the farther from the big cities you are. You shouldn’t expect a reliable supply of potable water in many rural areas. Similarly, medical care should be okay in the cities, but you should do everything possible to not need medical assistance in rural areas.
To stay safe: Be prepared, street-smart and aware. Then ally yourself with some local knowhow.
Now that you’re familiar with the potential risks of traveling in Honduras, the question remains: What can you do to minimize those risks, and hopefully still have a good time in the country?
If I were sending a loved one to San Pedro Sula, I would want first and foremost to get some travel support from a local pro who knows the ropes.
Take the guy who helps me get around here (yes, even EP professionals use close protection in San Pedro Sula!). He knows the neighborhoods to avoid, the gang and cartel members and others that are involved in bad things. He’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. He’s survived five gun battles, been shot six times and attacked twice with machetes. One of the machete attacks was an attempt to decapitate him as he was fighting off gang and cartel members. I’d have him in my corner any day! Great person and father of four…
Here are some other tips:
- Stick to populated areas when possible, and limit your activities after dark. As obvious as it might sound, wandering through unknown areas by yourself is a good way of attracting the kind of attention you don’t want. Nighttime only makes it worse. Isolated beaches at any time of the day are not a good idea; at night they are a no-go, period.
- Travel in groups of two or more. Because solitary targets are seen as the easiest targets.
- If you do hit the road, be extremely careful. The road conditions are bad, as mentioned, but car jackings are less likely if you lock your doors and roll up your windows. And yes, do avoid nighttime driving.
- Be alert for two men on a motorcycle. This is against the law, and there’s a very simple reason for that: This is how hits are generally executed. All motorbike passengers should be considered armed and dangerous until proven otherwise.
- Look out for tattoos—especially facial ones. These are often a sign that you’re dealing with a gang member.
- The usual travel tips apply. You know them, and they’re as relevant as ever:
- Get your vaccines in check. Bring painkillers and any other medicine you might need, and assume you’ll need more than you actually do.
- Go for the bottled water, not the tap.
- Let people know where you are, or where you’re going, whenever
- Don’t show off your phone or valuables, and keep your wallet close-by and out of reach.
- Make it easy to dial emergency numbers. Look up the number for your local embassy. Save the numbers for your hotel, emergency contacts, embassy, and local emergency numbers and make sure they can be dialed quickly.
- If your country has a Traveler Enrollment Program, sign up for it ahead of time. If you’re a U.S. citizen, this is the one you want: State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
Yes, you should be careful, but…
At the end of the day, Honduras’ current problems are hard to deny. But in spite of all this, tens of thousands of people from all over the world visit Honduras year after year—whether to travel, study, do business or engage in volunteer work. More often than not, they do this without incident.
While tourists or expats should not consider themselves safe from harm, they’re not necessarily prime targets either, and visiting or working here are perfectly possible. In fact, since 2014, the government has decreed tourism to be a “national priority”, and has attempted to vastly increase its security measures in tourist-centric areas.