In Honduras, gangs recruit children by offering affection: ‘I received my first hug from a gang member’

A 27-year-old Honduran man — who got entangled with the gangs when he was a child — now works so that children in his country have alternatives. He shares his story with EL PAÍS

Las maras
Edras Suazo at the school he attended, in Comayagua (Honduras).Nelson Guevara (ACNUR)

Edras Suazo is one of the thousands of young Hondurans who have been victims of the maras, or the gangs — urban organized crime structures that take advantage of poverty and broken homes to recruit minors into their ranks. In exchange, they offer a false illusion of love and protection, which many children have never received from their families or the authorities.

With the exception of Edras, all the names in this report have been changed for the safety of the hundreds of young people from the organization that he works with: Jóvenes Contra la Violencia (“Youth Against Violence”). He helps young people in his country search for brighter futures without fear.

Even though all stories are unique, I know that mine is similar to that of thousands of young people in Honduras. My name is Edras Suazo and, not long ago, I was about to become a gang member.

To explain this, I must summarize my life from the beginning. I was born 27 years ago in Comayagua, a city in the center of the country. Just a few feet away from the colonial buildings that tourists visit, you can find the reality faced by ordinary people. You just have to cross a bridge to be closer to the city that I lived in. A Comayagua with dirt floors, wooden houses and aluminum roofs. I grew up there, between different neighborhoods and rental houses, with my mother and two of my four brothers. We were all children from different fathers. I never knew mine.

A street in disrepair in Comayagua, where Edras grew up.
A street in disrepair in Comayagua, where Edras grew up.Nelson Guevara (ACNUR)

His absence — along with the lack of love in my house — made me an easy target for the most important gangs in Honduras. Those — represented with two numbers — that have eyes and dominion everywhere. “The boys” offered me the protection and affection I needed, while my mother hit me at the slightest provocation. I remember that she never hugged me as a child. I received my first hug from a gang member.

Pablo told me that I was the son he always wanted. In my dreams, I turned him into the father I longed to have. He was one of the leaders of the gang that controlled my area. His tattoos, his weapons and the power he exercised over others gave me a morbid feeling that made me want to imitate him. Everyone obeyed him, while they didn’t even respect me at home.

One of my brothers mistreated me and the owner of the house would rip up the tiles on us if we were late with our rent payments. A very different reality from that of the district’s boss. At 12-years-old, I told myself that I wanted to be like him. I was willing to prove my loyalty to Pablo, in exchange for the familial love he offered me.

He examined my character by measuring my capacity to do harm. He took me up a hill and made me kill a puppy. I remember he had to help me pull the trigger. I also remember the explosion of that little white dog’s head. At that moment, I stopped liking those animals. Pablo and I realized that I couldn’t be a killer.

In many of the streets of Honduras it is common to find the symbols of the gangs as a sign to demarcate the territories.
In many of the streets of Honduras it is common to find the symbols of the gangs as a sign to demarcate the territories.Nelson Guevara (ACNUR)

Today, I know that the test had nothing to do with affection. It was merely an occupational exam, which responded to a modus operandi. The gangs tested your abilities to classify you. Afterwards, they offered you the illusion of belonging to something and having people by your side. Both things occurred within a world of drugs, which could lead to jail or a grave… as later happened to Pablo.

After the challenge of killing, no more orders like that came. I got used to helping with simple things. Actions that I thought were risk-free, like running errands, or hiding packages without asking questions.

I went to the National Penitentiary in Comayagua with my school backpack loaded with marijuana, cocaine and crack rocks, camouflaged among containers of food for prisoners. I didn’t question anything. My childhood obedience was an asset that the gang members earned with food, affection and tips. This is how things work in many areas of Honduras. This is how many children — who nobody sees — manage to survive.

With what I earned, I helped out around the house. I felt proud every time I brought 100 lempiras ($4) to my mother so that she could eat. Those were the moments when I could relate to her. If she asked me where I got the money from, I would make something up. I pretended to tell the truth and she pretended to believe it.

This is how the years passed, between small assignments for the gangs, shortages at home and arguments with one of my brothers. He would kick me out of my bed and I would have to sleep on the floor, while my mother ignored everything. That filled me with rage. A fury that I felt along with the resignation of not having a father, two things that made me take refuge in alcohol and my two best friends.

My brother and I ended up fighting because we joined different gangs and we only met once, secretly, to say goodbye to our friendship. Meanwhile, the boys from the colony kept winking at me, telling me to take the definitive step of joining their cause. Although the idea was tempting, I was still undecided. I knew that, if I entered the gang seriously, I would never be able to get out of it. At least, not alive.

Two boys in a school in Comayagua.
Two boys in a school in Comayagua.Nelson Guevara (ACNUR)

However, the idea began to resonate more in my head when the gang members offered to prove their loyalty by executing those who had hurt me. It was tempting to think about the end of those who had slighted me. Even my brother, who never loved me.

It wasn’t difficult to leave my family behind, because there wasn’t any. We never celebrated Christmas or birthdays. Living together, alone, seemed like an accident dictated by blood. I associated maternal love with indifference, brotherhood with violence and fatherhood with fantasy. As it was, the promise of a family tempted me to become a gang member, all the way until I was 16-years-old.

I was finally going to move from theory to action. I had already talked to one of the bosses about the possibility of joining the gang. They liked my character and my charisma — they even offered to pay for my university degree. That’s something common in gangs. They have their people for everything, including professionals who work behind the scenes to keep criminal enterprises running smoothly.

That offer tempted me, especially because the girlfriend I had at the time had become pregnant and I had no way of supporting my future child. Joining the gang seemed like a logical decision.

When I was getting ready to leave my fate in the hands of the gang, a meeting saved my life. It was a school talk that I attended out of curiosity. For the first time, I saw the option of doing something different for myself.

At the lecture, they told us about Jóvenes Contra la Violencia Honduras (JCVH, Youth Against Violence in Honduras) — an organization of volunteers. They did activities with people my age and talked about what most worried us. It was the first space where I felt like I could belong to something beyond the noise of gangs or my dysfunctional family, alongside other kids like me. A refuge from us and for us.

I threw myself into my work as a volunteer and refused the offer of my area’s gang leader.

After all, I had told him that I was going to think about it… and, thanks to his appreciation for me, he had no problem if I stepped aside. I got small temporary jobs to help support my son and, before I knew it, I went from being a potential gang member to trying to make sure that this path wasn’t an option for anyone else.

One of the murals painted by the 'Decorating My Neighborhood' initiative.
One of the murals painted by the 'Decorating My Neighborhood' initiative.Nelson Guevara (ACNUR)

I joined all JCVH activities. We painted murals with positive messages in the same places where someone had been murdered. We talked with families in the neighborhoods and we kept our minds busy with dreams.

Within a couple of years, I was already coordinating a good number of volunteers. My ability to talk to them, influence them and share what we did made me passionate about communication. For more than three years, I’ve been the communications director for JCVH, although I’m still in the process of completing my degree. I never imagined that I would go to university, but I found a family that trusted me. With them, I could glimpse a purpose.

Throughout 10 years of work, I feel that hope for young people grows out of small changes. We already have 600 volunteers in 32 communities across Honduras. These are young people who oppose violence, but who also dialogue with it to transform things. We talk to the gang leaders so that they let us enter the neighborhoods they control. There, we watch movies in the middle of the street with the teenagers. We paint murals where the bullets once flew.

We know that many gang leaders allow us to enter their territory with the silent hope that other young people — or even their children — won’t be part of those structures. The problem isn’t just with them: the young people of Honduras are victims of an entire system that forgets them and leaves them without options. In the end, gangs are an option, because they offer spaces of protection that the family or the state don’t provide.

At JCVH, we put pressure on decision-makers to do something. Last year, we collaborated with several organizations to push and promote legislation on internal displacement in Honduras, together with the UNHCR. The standard has already been approved by the government — it came into force this year. It will be a mechanism to help those fleeing their homes due to the violence that consumes the country. The same violence that took away two inseparable friends from me. It has left many of my loved ones in coffins.

Suazo points out on a map all the territories in which JCVH already has a presence and those they want to reach.
Suazo points out on a map all the territories in which JCVH already has a presence and those they want to reach.Nelson Guevara (ACNUR)

JCVH has helped me heal these wounds. By working with the kids, I understand that what I experienced was merely a response to an endless spiral of violence that no one knew how to handle, neither in the neighborhood, nor in my house. For my mother, beatings and insults were a way to distract us from what we lacked. The abuse was a consequence of being ignorant of other ways to solve problems. This new understanding healed our relationship. From now on, I want to share all of my achievements with my mother.

Maybe I won’t become the most respected person in my neighborhood, but I have already become someone I respect. I try to be a better father than the one I didn’t have and, little by little, heal what I experienced as a child. I know that there are wounds that may not heal, but I’m comforted by the support of the family that I chose. It feels good to know that, in Honduras, I’m part of the solution and not the problem.

Every day, I remember that my first hug was from a gang member. I fight so that other young people don’t have to tell the same story.

Edras Suazo.
Edras Suazo.Nelson Guevara (ACNUR)

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