SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — A real estate broker might describe the state penitentiary here as centrally located. From the prison, it's a quick ride to the barrios, where many of the inmates and guards live when they're not inside its crumbling concrete walls -- and also to the fortified residential compounds at the foot of the lush green hills that surround this city, the second largest in Honduras. When there's a riot at the prison, the sirens can be heard in the mansions and the slums alike.
There are often riots at the prison. The most recent one, in May, started when a dispute broke out, allegedly over a woman who'd been smuggled into one of the cell blocks. That ended relatively peacefully, after the bishop of San Pedro Sula negotiated with the inmates to put away their weapons (which are as easy to smuggle into the prison as cell phones, pets, and women). Only one prisoner was killed. A riot in late March was bloodier. Thirteen people died, including a man who was decapitated before his head was tossed in front of the prison gates. According to local news reports, he was a former leader of a faction of prisoners who had become so unpopular they rose up against him. They also killed his dog. "The prisoners rule," assistant prison director Carlos Polanco told the Associated Press in May. "We only handle external security."
Honduras is plagued by such stories. According to a United Nations report last year, Honduras is now the deadliest place in the world. Per capita, more people are murdered here than in any other country, including Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's getting worse. In January, the Peace Corps, whose largest mission used to be in Honduras, pulled all its people out of the country, citing "comprehensive safety and security concerns." Honduras, which has a population of just under 8 million and used to be best known for its bananas and pristine beaches, is now gangland's ground zero, its endless body bags the toll of an endlessly vicious feud between the transnational rivals Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang.
Their hatred for each other knows no limits, and it defines life in San Pedro Sula, including in the prison, as I learned two weeks before the March riot, when I spent a brutally hot morning inside speaking with inmates. The prison was designed to hold 800 people, but when I visited more than 2,000 were incarcerated there, divided into three cell blocks: one for Mara Salvatrucha, one for 18th Street, and one for the unaffiliated, most of whom were pesetas, deserters who've left one or the other gang. The populations cannot be mixed, or there would be a bloodbath every day, instead of just every few months.
At the 18th Street cell block, a man calling himself El Termite stuck his head out of a small window in a rusted steel door, marijuana smoke and the fumes of cornstarch moonshine wafting out with it. An "18" was tattooed on his forehead, and below his left eye an "LA" in the Los Angeles Dodgers typeface; like most older gang members in Honduras, El Termite had spent much of his life in the United States. Now 31, he's serving a life sentence for two murders, though he admits he has carried out many more. He joined the gang in his teens, drawn in by a sense of belonging and opportunity. Now he is animated mostly by revenge: His 7-year-old son was recently gunned down. "Life here isn't easy," he said. Around the corner, in the courtyard of the Mara Salvatrucha dorm, the stories were much the same.
In the peseta block, they were even worse. When I arrived, a group of shirtless young men massed in front of a gate to speak with me. They were covered in gang tattoos too, but some had begun trying to remove them, as was clear from the razor and knife scars on their bodies. Deserting one's gang is tantamount to being in the opposing gang, and all the men have prices on their heads. On a bar in the gate they'd hitched a couple of mirrors to keep an eye on the Mara Salvatrucha dorm next door and the passageway that led to the 18 dorm.
A man in his late 20s named Jairo told me he left his gang because the new generation is too ruthless. "They kill everybody," he said. He fled to North Carolina but, like El Termite, was deported back. "I feel freer here in jail," he said. "Everybody outside wants to kill us." Like most deserters, Jairo is worth more dead than alive. His corpse will fetch about 5,000 lempiras, or about $260.