Recently I was in Copan, Honduras, one of that country’s (very) few genuine tourist attractions.
After visiting the spectacular Mayan archeological site, we checked into our beautiful hotel in the centre of the extremely attractive and friendly town.
It was Saturday night and Central American culture was in full swing. There was a painfully noisy evangelical event in the central plaza, people were eating excellent street bbq and we were drinking ice-cold ‘Salvavida’ (lifesaver beer).
Wealthy families from the capital Tegucigalpa and crime-ridden San Pedro Sula were arriving to town and, of course, prostitutes began walking the streets.
I was with a friend who guides in the area and everyone we met and chatted with was friendly, welcoming and clearly happy I had brought some business.
Among our socializing, we ran into the border guard who had stamped us into the country a few hours earlier. I suppose to repay my tip, he bought a round of beers and we sat on the street corner chatting. I may have been talking to a dead man.
At age 21, he had been in the job only a year and told me far too much….
San Pedro Sula, only 4 hours away has the highest murder rate on Earth. I have never been there, so must reserve some analysis, but it appears to be Central America’s focal point of smuggling, arms trade and drugs.
Destroyed by hurricane Mitch in 1998, the city has never entirely recovered and is run by gangs. It is not a good place.
On a previous visit to Copan, I dined with a lovely family from San Pedro who had lost their father to murder. “He was involved with bad people.” This got me researching.
My friend from the border, who will remain entirely nameless, was friendly and social. We began discussing his job and corruption. I asked about the Cubans and he said his border is not a crossing point. It all sounded quite tranquil.
And then he told me a Colombian ‘friend’ who lives in a mansion in San Pedro pays him $500 to cross the frontier into Guatemala hassle-free. My friend had even been to the Colombian’s house, enjoyed his wonderful hospitality and ‘many beautiful prostitutes‘.The conversation shifted.
I asked a few more questions about the Colombian, but at least knew enough to know as little as possible.
At age 21 this young Honduran immigration officer is now effetely owned by a cartel. I assume.
He also told me of Ecuadorians who come south into Honduras from time to time and pay $100 not to have a stamp in their passport. Apparently this occurs with some regularity – passports with no stamps travelling from the North to the South. I can only assume they went up by boat or small plane.
Corruption is an illness that destroys much of the world and almost always affects the most vulnerable.
Through much of Central America, the shadows of a truly oppressive past cast long over the present.
The peculiar mix of poverty, colonial class structure, the cold war, the Catholic Church and a huge and aggressive evangelical presence all knitted together with the double morality of rampant prostitution, people, arms and drug smuggling and an economy based upon remittance money sent back from relatives abroad is hugely complicated.
The lush, volcanic environment of much of the region is tectonically active and beautiful. Almost magically, large groups of indigenous people have maintained their languages and identity (especially in Guatemala).
Every time I have a new insight into the real economy of Honduras I become slightly more disillusioned. For years it has maintained the highest murder rate in the world, but sadly, populist Venezuela has now moved into first place. And that is another disaster to discuss.