DESPITE SO MANY unsolved crimes, everyone I talked to here seems to have a relative or friend who has been on the inside of San Pedro Sula's teeming tin-roofed hovel of a prison. One young man who had recently been there reluctantly agreed to talk to me one afternoon. Andreas (not his real name), who had recently left the Mara Salvatrucha gang, met me in the lobby of my small hotel. When we sat down to talk, he kept eyeing the security guard nervously, and we retreated to a back courtyard. Then, he worried we were being overheard, so we moved to an alcove inside. He walked with a slight limp from a bullet still lodged in his hip.
Andreas's father died when he was an infant, and he was raised for much of his childhood by his grandmother, while his mother was working in the United States. He was recruited to Mara Salvatrucha by a cousin. "You got a gun, women, drugs," he told me. "They brainwash you." When his cousin was killed, he believed it was his duty to seek revenge. But to join, he had to carry out "missions" -- kill people, in other words, including deserters, police, and suspected snitches. By the time he was 12 years old, he had killed some 15 people by his reckoning. His first, he said, was a local drug dealer who refused to pay taxes to the gang. "It didn't affect me," he said. His friends threw a party for him afterward.
In his early teens he moved to South Los Angeles to live with his mother, a hotel housekeeper, and work as a drug distributor for the gang. At 23, he was deported back to Honduras, he told me. He returned to San Pedro Sula to find that gang life had become almost unbearably intense. There was constant pressure to provide revenue to the leaders, and after never pulling a trigger in California, he had to kill more people to re-prove his loyalty. Young recruits were murderous in a way that repelled even him. "Homies were crazier," he recalled. He took part in a series of public massacres that left dozens of innocent bystanders dead.
When I asked Andreas whether he felt guilty about any of the killings, he said that one did bother him. She was a middle-aged woman, a low-level drug dealer whom the gang supplied. They found out she was "stepping on" the supply, mixing it with talcum powder to increase her profit. So Andreas was sent to kill her. "She was always very nice to me," he said. He said he shot her eight times in the back, as her six children looked on.
Eventually, Andreas came to the realization that for all the talk of loyalty, protection, family -- all that the gangs say they provide -- "it's all bullshit." They're so greedy for revenue that even their rules have a price now, and for about $9,000, Andreas was able to buy himself a way out. How long that will last, he has no idea. It doesn't provide protection from his enemies or the police, only from his onetime friends: Mara Salvatrucha.
"I'm in the hands of God now," he told me. "I killed a lot of people. So I wouldn't be surprised if I was killed."