Spanish-born journalist Alberto Arce has worked as a foreign reporter in ten countries, from Libya to Mexico, but Honduras was by far the bloodiest outside of a war zone.
In 2017, there were an average of 338 homicides per month in the country, and between 2012 and 2015 – when the number was even higher – it was Arce’s job to turn up at these crime scenes and extract information from reluctant police officers and terrified witnesses, a job known locally as "red journalism" (after all the blood).
In his new book, Blood Barrios: Dispatches from the World’s Deadliest Streets, Arce walks the reader through some of the crimes he investigated in the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa, under his beats of police brutality, assassinations, prison overcrowding, youth crime, cocaine smuggling and extortion. Once you inhale the stories in the book, consider how his quest for the truth ruffled the feathers of corrupt police and politicians, and learn that Honduras has the highest rate of murdered journalists per capita (31 were killed between 2010 and 2013, according to Journalists Without Borders), you wonder why Arce went there to begin with, and how he got out alive.
We talked to the reporter turned professor about the epidemic of violence in Honduras, and why it’s directly related to those of us who live in the West.
VICE: Hi Alberto. So you took a job as a reporter for the Associated Press in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2012. Why did you take the job and did you know what the risks were at the time?
Alberto Arce: There was no reason, apart from it being the only job I could get at that moment. I was living in Guatemala with my wife and kid, I couldn't make it with the money I was earning. I wasn't aware of the situation at all in Tegaculpia. When I did some research and realised it was a completely troubled place to go with a family, I had a sense that it was going to be a very difficult task, but the point is, if you're a worker and you need a job, you just take what you can. So I took my wife and kid with me. There’s no way to ensure the safety of anybody living in Tegucigalpa – you just look for other people like you and live in a place where you feel safe, which doesn't mean that you are safe. I stayed for three years, until the company decided that my family was an easy target and it wasn't worth the risk.
"I said to the police: 'Why is this guy crying?' and the police told me: 'He's crying because he knows we usually kill them, and we won’t kill this one because you are here.'"
For someone who hasn't heard the term "red journalism" before, can you explain it?
If you are a foreign correspondent in Tegucigalpa or in San Pedro Sula and you want to know what's going on, you have to be on the street and follow the crime, by which I mean jumping into a police car, or travelling behind ambulances that go to crime scenes. At crime scenes you have the beginning of the story, and by asking questions you can go up the ladder to uncover the various lies and explanations about what is going on in the country.
When was the first moment you realised the gravity of what you had got yourself into?
At 1AM one night I was doing a patrol and saw a gang member of MS13 get arrested by the police, on his knees, handcuffed, and he was crying. That was a shock for me, so I said to the police: "Why is this guy crying?" and the police told me: "He's crying because he knows we usually kill them, and we won’t kill this one because you are here." I'd been in the country two weeks and a policeman told me openly that they kill criminals. In that moment I realised what I was into, but it took me a year-and-a-half to write a proper story about police brutality.
What was that story?
I opened the newspaper one day and saw a picture of a gang member being tortured by the police, so the next day I started looking for this guy. I assumed he was alive because he had been arrested, then I realised that he'd disappeared. I learnt that the police were taking pictures of these sessions, sharing them with local photographers, and a journalist from the biggest local newspaper had mistakenly published this picture. I went to talk to him, and he said he had been threatened not to speak about it. There is a vicious relationship between local reporters and the police, where they share information and use gang members as trophies. They are sick: policemen, reporters, cameramen – they all play a game of sharing pictures of bodies.
Why do they do it?
Let’s say there's a general social belief that gang members ought to be exterminated, and most people agree with that: policemen who do it, politicians who condone it and society at large. And inside society you have journalists, who decide not to ask any questions because they're bought by politicians and policeman, but also just because they agree with social cleansing policies. No one is interested in stopping it.
You talk about how corrupt journalism is there and how dangerous it can be. Were there times when you were threatened or someone tried to bribe you?
Nobody ever tried to bribe me, actually. I don't know why. I had no direct threats, either. But a lot of people around you repeat once and again, "If you keep on doing this you're going to get into trouble." You hear it so many times it hurts. Some people tell you 'cause they love you and they worry, and others tell you to scare you. After two or three years there are a lot of people left who don't want to talk to you at all. You feel isolated. But in terms of danger, the fact is there’s an uncomfortable reality in the streets that many people get killed just because somebody wants to steal their money, their phone or their backpack. Anything can happen to anybody for any stupid reason.
Working with informants, were you worried someone else would get in trouble?
I did a long interview with a lawyer of a peasant campesino movement who was killed two days after talking to me, but I don't think it had anything to do with me. I'm quite sure. But you get used to a situation where people who talk to you are later killed – you have to live with that. One of the problems in Honduras is, because of impunity, nobody knows why people get killed.
Along with El Salvador, the homicide rate in Honduras is the highest in the world. Who is getting killed?
When you have a homicide rate like you do in Honduras, with 7,000 people killed every year, you cannot assume that all of them are criminals – some of them are just passers-by, people in the street. But if you're a criminal it doesn't mean you deserve to be killed, either. There is no way we in the US or England or Spain can judge the decisions made by those teenagers who live in abject poverty, with no choice in life, when they get into organised crime. If by transporting a brick of cocaine 10km you make the same amount of money in a day as a whole year's work of 14-hour shifts in a factory, you will do it. That’s just the nature of capitalism, to make the biggest amount of money with the smallest effort in the smallest amount of time.
In the book you say that every line of cocaine in the global north is a death in Honduras, can you explain that further?
I want to be very clear that I'm not a moralist and I'm not judging any consumer of drugs – I'm a consumer myself – but our consumption has a consequence. Honduras is geographically in between Colombia and Venezuela, and the US in the north, so it’s a logistical place in drug transportation. Cocaine arrives by boat or plane to the Mosquito Coast – the Caribbean coast of Honduras – and takes the land route through Mexico to the US. Drug gangs fight for control of the routes, but they also buy, sell, control and bribe policemen, soldiers, MPs, ministers and presidents in order to protect profit. They leave these territories as failed states where everyone tries to benefit from extorting, stealing and kidnapping. So there’s a direct link between consumption of cocaine in an American city to the violence that is in Honduras. But it’s the same connection as buying cheap clothes in Zara and H&M, and workers in [horrible] conditions. We need to be aware of that.
With a system full of corruption, sprawling organised crime networks and this murder rate, can you ever see it getting better?
I'm a very pessimistic person by nature, so I don’t see things getting better. What is going on right now is that Honduras is moving into an authoritarian regime controlled by the army and politicians. It’s a formal democracy but it's getting closer and closer to a real dictatorship. This is a move that has been slowly happening. It’s just getting worse in terms of corruption and military control and this national party, together with the army and together with the United States. The official number of murders is going down, but I don't believe that. What we need is the rule of law, otherwise we are getting closer to an anomic situation.
You say "we work so the world will know" is a lie told among journalists – do you really believe that?
I’m not going to compare myself to local journalists, but you have a choice about who you are in life. I don't think it makes a difference, but I'm here to bear witness. When you read my book about Honduras and are in the US, I want you to realise that this person working in a restaurant without proper documentation is a citizen with the same rights you have – that they left Honduras because they cannot live there, and that often, when politicians say they want to send immigrants back to these countries, they are sending them back to death. That, to me, is fascism.