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A Camera, Microphone, and Gun: At Night With a Crime Reporter in San Pedro Sula

The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs kill with near total impunity in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the world's leading city for homicides. VICE News spent several nights with reporter Orlin Castro as he covered a seemingly endless stream of killings.
January 9, 2015, 3:15pm
Photo d'Edu Ponces

"Two Romeo Bravo at the Lima, East Boulevard, freeway exit," the voice on the walkie-talkie said. "Two Romeo Bravo."

Orlin Castro checked his Blackberry and began making calls as he drove full-speed through the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, toward the first crime scene of the evening. It was 4:20 in the afternoon, and his shift as a reporter in the world's deadliest city was just beginning.

"A couple has been gunned down leaving a clothing store, and we're going to go see," said, Orlin, a reporter for Channel 6, while stepping on the gas pedal.


"On the walkie-talkie, a death is a Romeo Bravo, or a pingüino," or penguin, Orlin explained. "Now is when most of the deaths occur — from four in the afternoon until ten in the morning."

We parked in front of a Pizza Hut, on one of the city's largest avenues, as police officers inspected a silver Toyota pickup in the middle of the street. The truck looked like a colander, riddled with dozens of bullet holes. Police found an underage girl and a man inside.

San Pedro Sula is for the third consecutive year considered the most violent in the world, excluding war zones.

Orlin quickly gathered information indicating that the man who was murdered had a criminal background, and that the young girl was his lover. The victims had been ambushed by two hitmen with assault rifles, one from each side. It had clearly been an execution.

"Because of drugs, and hit men," Orlin said. "That's why they kill."

Forensics investigators found 84 shells at the scene once the bodies were removed from the vehicle. The driver's body was in pieces. At least 300 onlookers surrounded the crime scene. Children and teenagers used their phones to take pictures, as police moved their vehicles to try to obstruct the spectators' view.

I asked if it is typical for this sort of crime to occur on such a busy street, in the middle of the day. "Yes," Orlin said, as he took out his microphone to begin his report. "It's normal."


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Forensics investigators work at a crime scene in San Pedro Sula, where a person was shot more than 30 times. (Photo by Edu Ponces)

Orlin Castro has been a crime reporter since he was 18. He got his work permit at the age of 13. He is now 26. "I would work half the day, and then work part-time as a cameraman," he said.

He now works in front of the camera, covering the night shift from 4 pm to 8 am, along with his cameraman Javier — who is even younger than Orlin — to cover news that is broadcast throughout the day on the channel's different news stations.

San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, is for the third consecutive year considered the most violent in the world, excluding war zones. According to Mexico's Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, in 2013 Honduras reached a homicide index of 187 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants.

In 2013, there were 1,411 homicides, in a city of just 800,000 inhabitants. In second place is Caracas, Venezuela, and in third is Acapulco, Mexico, with homicide rates of 134 and 113 respectively. Journalism has become one of the most dangerous professions in Honduras. Since 2003, 47 journalists or news executives have been killed in the country.

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(Photo by Edu Ponces)

"One death an hour in San Pedro Sula is what we expect," Orlin said. "That's what always happens. The minimum that I get during a shift is four to five [murders]."

"It gets the worse on weekends," he said.


Violence in San Pedro Sula and throughout the country is primarily a consequence of the same type of problems that affect most of Latin America: poverty, impunity, and government and police corruption. In Honduras, 67.8 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while a small minority accumulates the nation's wealth.

This cycle of migration, incarceration, and deportation continues to this day.

It is estimated that less than 20 percent of the crimes that are committed in the country are investigated, which means that criminals can murder without worrying they will end up in prison. To exacerbate matters, violence intensified in 2009 when the upper class and the army joined up to orchestrate a military coup against then-president Manuel Zelaya. Months of protests followed, and homicides increased until reaching a historic peak in 2011.

Many of the murders that affect the country are perpetrated by the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and their longtime rivals, Barrio 18. The Maras were first formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, by Salvadorans who had migrated to the US during the civil war that was affecting the country.

Hondurans and Guatemalans joined these gangs, forming cliques and semi-autonomous sub groups that were all linked. Many of the members were captured and jailed, and then later deported to their countries of origin, essentially exporting the gangs to Central America. This cycle of migration, incarceration, and deportation continues to this day.


In Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, gangs are very powerful, and the majority of their leaders operate from inside the country's jails.

"Most of the violent deaths are due to the conflict between the [Barrio] 18 and the MS-13, and people who work as drug dealers," Orlin said. "Next would be the attacks on bus units. There are a lot of those. They kill the driver, and the attendant, for the impuesto de guerra" — the war tax.

In October 2012, the Mara Salvatrucha was the first gang to be declared a transnational criminal organization by the US Department of the Treasury, for their involvement in drug trafficking, prostitution, and human trafficking. On the ground, however, the thing that most affects the average population in Honduras is extortion, or charging the "war tax."

"If you have a business, if you are a businessman, you pay a percentage to the Maras so they don't hurt you," Orlin said. "If you don't pay, they kill one of your workers, or go to your business to kill you."

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Orlin Castro, who has been a reporter since the age of 18, prepares to begin his report. (Photo by Edu Ponces)

We stopped to have dinner at a Denny's. As we sat down, Orlin lowered the volume on his walkie-talkie, which intermittently transmitted messages intended for the police. I asked if it was legal to have a walkie-talkie like this.

"Ah, this radio is on the police frequency. All of the journalists who use it have a special permit. I got mine nine years ago," Orlin said. "We use it to work. There are people who infiltrate the police and use it to commit crimes."


"The officials' ranks for example — a police chief is a Sierra Azteca, next in rank is the commissioner, a Bravo Primero, and a Whiskey Yankee is a normal police officer who does not have a rank," he went on.

"An Eighth is an 18 Street gang member, and a Metro Sierra is an MS-13," Orlin said. "Sometimes the gangs also use walkie-talkies, and they also use codes. For example, the military they call ranitas [little frogs], and the police that are in trucks, they call Pokemons."

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As we finished eating our hamburgers, just after 10 pm, we heard another crime reported over the police radio. This time it was taking place in a neighborhood called Rivera Hernández, one of the most dangerous in the city. We paid the bill and left immediately.

Orlin explained that the neighborhood is dangerous because not only do the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 gang operate there, but so do six other gangs — all of which fight among each other. It had just rained, the streets were poorly lit, and the majority of the dirt roads had turned into puddles.

We turned off the car's headlights, and Orlin pulled out a gun from under the seat and loaded it with a clip. I asked if he's ever had to use it.

"Yes. But I don't have the courage to kill anyone. Nor would I want to," Orlin said. "It's just a precaution, but I keep it hidden because I'm a reporter. When I get out [of the car], I don't take it with me."


"Once they [gang members] were chasing me, and started to shoot at me. I crashed the car. I had to run," Orlin said. "They wanted to kill me, because I did a report on a gang. I wasn't armed, but if I would have had a gun, I could have at least fired a shot to keep them away from me a bit."

Orlin noticed that I was wearing Nike Cortez shoes, and he suggested that I take them off. He explained to me that those shoes were only worn by members of the Barrio 18 gang.

We parked the car and began to walk through a dirt alley until we found two police officers standing in the dark, and no one else. According to the police, the neighbors were afraid to come out, because the gangs could take revenge out on them. No one goes near so that no one will ask them anything.

Unlike the other crime scenes we visited, there were no other reporters here.

"Here, there are many areas the press won't go," Orlin said. "Several news outlets have stopped sending reporters out at night and in the early morning, due to the risks they face."

Orlin's cameraman Javier turned on his flashlight, and we saw a young man's body lying face down in the mud, bound at his hands and feet. According to the police, the Tercereños, one of the eight gangs that operate in the area, were responsible.

(Photo by Edu Ponces)

The following day, we visited a doctor named Héctor Hernández, the director of the San Pedro Sula morgue.

"We often find people in plastic bags, usually with a cord around their necks, their hands and feet tied behind their backs. It is the famous garrobo," Hernandez said, referring to the scene we saw the night before in the Rivera Hernández barrio.


The doctor explained that just like the body we saw, corpses often spend hours lying out at a crime scene. Among three vans police have for picking up the dead, only one works.

"There are bodies that have to wait more than six hours to be picked up," Hernandez said. "The van is not refrigerated, and San Pedro Sula is a very hot city. If we spend too much time with the bodies in the van, they start to decompose."

I asked what the average victim looks like. "Generally, when it's what we call a dedicated homicide, or one in which there are hitmen involved, or when the person was involved in some sort of crime, we typically see more than five shots — five entrance wounds, five exit wounds. But we have counted up to 74 bullet wounds in just one body."

'Imagine. At every crime scene there are usually children watching. By the time they are 13 years old, it no longer affects them.'

The challenges faced by forensics investigators in San Pedro Sula seem to be enormous, not just in terms of equipment, but also due to available personnel. The doctor explained that the international norm is typically two autopsies in 24 hours. In San Pedro Sula, one doctor may perform up to four autopsies in six hours.

A similar phenomenon is seen with the bodies. The Mario Catarino Rivas Hospital is the only public hospital in the city, and each night the doctors and young interns are overwhelmed by the influx of dozens of injured people, some due to accidents, and others a result of the night's crimes. The patients or their family members have to buy their own anaesthetic, and sometimes their own surgical thread to stitch up their wounds.


In spite of the enormous effort of the doctors and interns, many of the wounded do not leave the hospital alive.

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(Photo by Edu Ponces)

The next day, we met with Orlin again at San Pedro's main square. Before getting in the car, Orlin noticed that I was wearing Nike Cortez shoes, and he suggested that I take them off. He explained to me that those shoes were only worn by members of the Barrio 18 gang.

After changing my shoes, we began to drive. It was not long before we heard over the walkie-talkie that there had been another murder. Around 9 pm we reached a middle-class neighborhood, Colonia Universidad, where a grey Toyota FJ Cruiser had crashed into a pole on the street corner.

The driver had been gunned down, and hit by at least 20 bullets from an assault rifle as he was driving. He was intercepted by a luxury Mazda, police said.

A van from Channel 6 arrived at the scene to broadcast Orlin's report live. He took the microphone, and began to talk into the camera.

"Most of the conflicts are between rival gangs, but now the gangs are also involved in the drug trade," he said, after his broadcast. "So there is now a fight over territory, but even more so with [Mara Salvatrucha] 13, against drug traffickers from Sinaloa and Michoacan [states in Mexico] here in San Pedro Sula."

The crime that had just taken place was not a typical execution between gang members, which occur commonly in the city's most crime-ridden barrios, which we had seen several of in the previous days.


The characteristics of this murder all seemed to point to organized crime, a settling of scores between drug traffickers, possibly Hondurans working for one of the Mexican drug cartels. According to Orlin, this kind of crime has increased in recent months, and he was particularly intrigued by the character known as "La Tuta", Servando Gómez, the leader of the Knights Templar cartel in Michoacan, Mexico. He asked about him more than once.

Honduras is strategically situated between Colombia and Mexico, along the trafficking route cocaine takes toward the US. It seems that Mexican cartels are beginning to dispute the "plaza," as trafficking hubs are known in the underworld, with consequences that are similar to what we have seen in cities like Ciudad Juarez, in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.

"Some people have gotten used to it, but there are also many who live in trauma," Orlin said. "Imagine. At every crime scene there are usually children watching. … By the time they are 13 years old, it no longer affects them. So it seems easier for them to do it as well."

"But, why are these kids running around in the streets? Because someone killed their parents, or [their parents] migrated to the United States," Orlin said. "The kids can't go to school because they have no way to get there, in the most vulnerable areas."

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(Photo by Edu Ponces)

This is exactly the situation that last year caused an increase in minors looking to migrate to the US. The illegal migration of Hondurans increased 500 percent since 2010, and San Pedro Sula, and its surrounding areas, is the region that sends the most migrants from Honduras.

In order to explain the situation that these children face, Orlin told me a chilling case he covered in May, when in just one neighborhood eight children were killed over the course of six days.

"Some children emigrated from a sector that was controlled by MS-13, to [Barrio] 18 territory. They became paisitas [little homies]," Orlin said. "A nine-year-old boy got involved in a Mara [clique]. Once this kid saw how serious things were, he decided to get out. One day, the paisita was caught with two other kids, and put into a truck, and then thrown into a sewer."

"That's three dead children," Orlin said, continuing his story. "The next day, the dead boy's little brother went to look for him with another kid. They killed him, wrapped him in a sheet, and dumped him in almost the same spot."

"That's five kids," Orlin said. "Another two kids who saw what happened were murdered three days later. That's seven children."

"Because Barrio 18 wanted to claim that they hadn't killed kids, they got another kid, killed him, and put a sign on him that said this boy had killed the other seven," Orlin said.

"That is what the government of Honduras wants to hide," Orlin said, as daylight begins to creep. We return to our hotel in San Pedro Sula's central plaza. Before saying goodbye, I ask Orlin if he thinks the country's violence has a solution.

"God is the only one who can put an end to all this," he said. "First God, and then the work and effort of those in charge of security."

Watch the full length VICE News documentary San Pedro Sula Nights.