Hundreds flee gang warfare in Honduras' murder city

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nearly two hundred people have fled their homes in the last month from one neighborhood alone in Honduras’ second city of San Pedro Sula in fear for their lives as gang violence intensifies, the Norwegian Refugee Council said on Monday.

With one of the world’s highest murder rates, Honduras is struggling to contain drug-fuelled gang violence and organized crime.

The refugee rights group said turf wars between two powerful gangs - Barrio 18 and its rival Mara Salvatrucha - in the Los Bordos neighborhood, a slum area on the outskirts of the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, has worsened in recent weeks.

In the past month, around 54 families - nearly 200 people - including the elderly, single mothers and children, have been forced to leave their homes in Los Bordos to escape gang warfare, NRC told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Our reading of the situation is that one mara (gang) are taking over the area from the other group,” said Christian Visnes, the NRC’s Latin America director.

“This has symptoms of an armed conflict,” he said, adding that residents reported a 30-minute shootout between rival gangs on May 7.

The city has one of the world’s highest murder rates outside a war zone. Gang members force children to join their ranks, often to be watchmen, messengers, and drugs and arms couriers.

“In the neighborhood, a local leader was killed because his daughter resisted becoming part of this mara and that was one of the reasons for the first displacement,” Visnes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

If clashes between gangs continue, a further thousand families living in Los Bordos could be forced to leave their homes, Visnes said.

One resident, 21-year-old Alfonso Garcia, who grew up in the neighborhood said he fled the area last week after being caught in the middle of fighting between gangs.

“They are fighting over territory. One group wants to take over and govern,” said Garcia, who declined to give his real name for security reasons.

“We can’t live there. We’re afraid. It’s too dangerous. There are shootouts night and day. People can’t resist anymore.”

The Honduran government has said gang violence, along with poverty and a lack of jobs, are reasons why Hondurans are leaving their homes to seek refuge in other parts of the Central American nation and abroad, mainly in the United States.

In an attempt to curb the killings, extortion, and drug deals imprisoned gang members often coordinate from behind bars, Honduras has been transferring inmates to higher-security prisons.

Over the weekend, some 22 gang members escaped from a prison ahead of a transfer to a higher-security facility, defying the military guards tasked with bringing order to the prison system.

“The government recognizes the problem, which is a step forward, but the response is next to nothing,” Visnes said.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, gang violence in Honduras, along with El Salvador and Guatemala, is driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes every year - a situation it has described as a “refugee crisis.”

(This version of the story has been corrected to change quote in paragraph 8 after revision from NRC)