On the bus

The handsome clean-cut young man sat next to me in the first row of seats on the bus, in the only seat left. He smiled and said hello.

His little bit of beer belly was sticking out. He said, oh dear, I can't button my pants. Just two months ago they fit perfectly. I laughed, looking down at my loose pants, and said unconvincingly "It happens to all of us."

These buses are always empty, he noted, of the Mirna SPS-Tegucigalpa route we were on. This is the first time I've seen one full.

I agreed. It's the end of the vacation, I said, and he nodded. I'd noticed the same thing before, I said. I'd wondered if it was just a big money-laundering operation.

He smiled. It could be, he said. There are lots and lots of them.

He took out his Blackberry and showed me a picture. That's me at work, he said. He wore a police officer's uniform, with various ranking patches on it. That one is like a sheriff's badge, isn't it? he asked, with evident pride.

It is, I said, smiling back.

He spoke about the extent of drug trafficking. The narcos are everywhere, he told me. But they're all in suits and ties. All the way from the president himself on down. They have to find lots of ways to process their money.

They're bad people, I said, but they make good music. Who doesn't like a good narcocorrido?

He became excited. I have thousands of narcocorridos! he said. I love them! He started playing them on his Blackberry, which had pretty impressive sound. We danced along in our seats.

I ask about the narcos. You all know who they are, right?

Yes, of course we do, he tells me. But we can't touch them. Our superiors would kill us. There's too much corruption. But when you see a police officer with a hundred thousand dollar car, he didn't get that from a minimum salary.

He tells me he studied in ANAPO (the National Academy of Police). Where they train the elites, the Cobras.

[See, e.g., the "gurkas" featured in this clip, most likely from the group that entered after my friend:

...from August 2009. Wow.]

He studied there from 2007 to 2010, for four years. Four years of my life, I lost in the academy, he tells me. Only the cadets with the highest scores had the privilege of studying there, and yes, they got lots of training from the estadounidenses. The gringos and the Israelis, especially the Israelis. The gringos gave them a course that was super-advanced. Wow, the technology they had was impressive. It was for border protection. It was called "Borders" [in English- took a few times pronouncing it for me to understand].

ANAPO, he said. It's like Annapolis, that you have in the U.S., right?

Yes, I said, like Annapolis.

I would like to go to the States, he said. But I want to go legally, with a visa. I want to learn English. I'm good at learning. I was always the best in my class.

That must be easy with your job though, right? I asked. To get a visa? He smiled and said yes.

Only a few of us graduate from ANAPO, he told me. Out of 3,000 who entered, only [under 40-he gave an exact number but I don't remember it] graduated. Because the brilliant ones couldn't handle the physical strain and the physical ones were dumb.

But once you graduate, you're set for life, I noted.

Yes, and we're up for promotion every five years. We have to keep studying, and taking courses.

Do they send you to courses in the U.S.? I asked. Because then you could learn English too.

Oh yes, they send us to the U.S., Japan, Israel, Spain, Colombia, and El Salvador. They send us to countries all over the world for training.

He is stationed in one of the sectors near San Pedro well-known for gang violence, and supervises the rank-and-file police there. Morale was of special importance to him. He showed me pictures of his men, and one woman (according to the law, we can't body search the women we arrest, he explains), eating watermelon together. I bought that for them with my own money, he says. I earn a little bit more than they do. He shows me videos of them on an outing to watch a soccer match, of them driving up a hill in the region to enjoy nature and get a break from the stresses of the neighborhood.

He shakes his head. The things I see on the job. It's—his voice halters, and he continued in a hushed tone—you can't imagine. He puts his hand on my knee, comforting me from the things I can't imagine. Yes, I imagine, I tell him. Have you heard about the maras? he asks. I tell him I have. After a pause he takes out his blackberry, to show me the things I can't imagine.

A picture of a headless body, with the head in the foreground of the shot, some 10 feet away from its neck.

The head was in a bag, he tells me. I saw the bag and I opened it, and there was the head. Did you use gloves? I ask. No, he tells me, I didn't have gloves. Forensics uses gloves, we're not allowed to touch things like that, especially without gloves. If they found out I'd be in BIG trouble, he told me. Big, big trouble. I nodded somberly.

A man's body, head toward the camera, face down, darkened blood pooled all around, ankles bound, hands tied behind back. This man was shot execution-style, he tells me, and shows me another picture, of a hand-made rifle leaned upright against a wall, at least a couple feet long. The mareros make their own rifles, he tells me. They're called chimbas. This man was shot with a chimba in the bag of his head. The entry hole was thiiis big.

A man's body, head toward the camera, face down, hands above head, red shirt pulled over head. This man, he tells me, lowering his voice, was killed by a group of boys between 8 and ten years old. They bashed his head in with rocks until he died. And there's nothing you can do about them, he sighed, because we're not allowed to try minors as adults.

How did you know who did it? I asked. A witness saw them. But he didn't name the kids.

In almost all the crimes, he told me, there's never a witness. In fact, nobody ever speaks to the police, because the gangs will say they're a snitch. So the police operate alone [this was also the case for the military in Guadalupe Carney, where I had been earlier in the week--not because people within the community will kill each other for talking to the military, but the hatred is such that it's like they are different species occupying the same space but almost never intersecting].

His pictures still out, he says to me that they'll do that to the other maras. They'll do that to police if they catch us. It's an environment of terror. I ask him if any of his colleagues have ever been caught. He tells me of one friend who was caught by the gangs and got his tongue cut out (complete with hand gesture of the act). His body was dumped in another sector.

So no one denounces anything? I ask. No, he says. We have to go on forensics. But what about denuncias for domestic violence? Oh yes, he says, we get a lot of those.

In the United States you listen to puro rock, verdad? He asks. Naw, I say, all kinds of music. I explain it generally depends where you are, who you are, what age you are, etc.

My favorite, he tells me, is Madonna. He pulls up a song on his Blackberry. It's called "Sorry." Our heads close together focusing on the blackberry, I translate it to him. After a couple verses I sum it up. Basically, she's sick of him saying sorry and doesn't believe his paja anymore. He nods, apparently satisfied.

At one point he starts taking photos of himself, one after another after another. I like taking photos of myself, he explains to me. And I wonder if he's doing that trick, where you pretend to be taking pictures of yourself in order to take pictures of the person next to you. And I get a little paranoid. But either way, it was certainly true that he liked taking pictures of himself. He had already shown me quite a few.

So you go after the gangs, but you can't go after the narcos, I reiterate. Yes, he says. And gangs are the little guys, right? I ask. Do they have links with the narcos? No he says, laughing it off. Nada que ver.

I tell him something that I heard recently in an unnammed pueblo on the North Coast. My hosts told me that one of the workers from the ranch had come to them in a panic, with a serious dilemma. His son had been working on the Cayos Cochinos, and one day a duffel bag of product washed in. He did the obvious thing (for his own protection) and turned it over to the local capo, who in thanks gave him another duffel bag, with $50,000 in 20 dollar bills. So now here they were, sitting on this 50 grand in 20s, and didn't know what to do with it. They couldn't take it to a bank. My hosts traveled a lot. Would they buy it from him? They had told him they didn't have the money to buy that from him, but joked with me: Adriana, if you need to change money, we could call him over, I'm sure you'd get a good rate.

So I change some details and narrate the basic story to my friend as an urban legend (albeit in this case one I believe because of my source) and ask him, is that plausible? He's nodding yes before I get there, and explains that drug money used to move in hundreds, but here in Honduras, nobody can use that kind of money- it's way too much. Imagine, it's like 1800 lempiras. But anyone can go into any store with a 20 and they'll take it. So they all use 20s now.

He shows me some more pictures. These are torture houses, he tells me. The gangs will tell a family, you have one day to leave, and if they don't leave the house, they'll kill the whole family. In this house, he says, showing me a picture of a well-kept one-story home, they killed five family members.

He shows me pictures of his daughter. She's lovely, I tell him truthfully, absolutely lovely. And then his wife, who is breathtakingly beautiful. The picture is of him and her, and is very tender and sweet. He tells me she is studying at the university. He wants to support her because she deserves to have a career just like he does, he says.

I ask how they met, and he tells me that on a field trip from ANAPO (apparently they didn't get out often) they went to a reinado and she was the reina.

[Just got this explained to me: The first criteria is beauty of course, but the mechanism by which a candidate becomes queen is more complex. Each candidate has her team behind her- she might represent a barrio, a school or other institution, or a family (in many cases the local narco). Once nominated, the team has to sell as many tickets as it can, whether out of its members' own pockets (in the narco case) or selling them far and wide. The candidate who raises the most money wins. Reinados bring in huge amounts of money for the organizers, who often are the local municipal government, and are correspondingly prestigious for the winner and her team]

So he talked with her after she was crowned, and they started writing letters. Their phone calls and electronic communications were very restricted in ANAPO, so that's what it had to be. And he would visit her on his vacation days. And then later they became girlfriend and boyfriend, and they got married after he graduated. Doing the math in my head, I realized they got pregnant as soon as he got out.

I asked if they wanted more kids. He didn't stop to think. No, he said firmly, I can't think about having another kid at least until I have a better salary and until my wife finishes her studies. I still rent, he said. I need security, my own house. A kid is a big responsibility.

He played more songs for me to translate. We must have spent at least a half an hour crouched by the blackberry. He thought it was particularly funny when I didn't understand the words either. Cranberries, UB40, a variety of reggae, Bon Jovi, some country, etc., etc.

He complimented my Spanish, saying I sounded Honduran. I told him that was good to hear, because for many years people here said I sounded Mexican, and meant it as an insult. It took a long time for me to learn how to vosear, I explained. He said to me that he preferred to only use the formal usted—young people, old people, people his age, it didn't matter. It was more respectful.

His phone rang. "Ajá vo?"

He showed me more pictures, this time of a big town fiesta during holy week. You know about the Rey Feo? he asks. It's when they compete for the best costume and-

And the winner gives a speech, right? I ask

Yes, exactly. They make fun of the police, of rich people, of all sorts of people. Everyone has fun. I always take videos of events we go to to help ensure public security to send to my bosses, he explains. So they know I'm doing a good job.

I ask him about being a Cobra...wasn't there a movie (I fake trying to remember the name of Unos Pocos Con Valor) a couple years ago, about the Cobras? Was that any good?

That's an excellent movie! He tells me. I can watch it online. Which is exciting, because I'm actually curious.

I go back to the topic of police corruption. So, I ask, I guess that whole shake-up after police killed the Rectora's son didn't change this all that much.

I'll tell you something, he says, lowering his voice again. Lastimosamente...lastimosamente, it was a compañero of mine who killed the Rectora's son. Es un tipo tan pero tan humilde, bien callado.

My friend, who never offered his name or asked mine, asked me if he was translating correctly a series of phrases in English, which he mostly was. He had had a Canadian friend, a businesswoman who had lived near him, and recently moved back to Canada, who had helped him with English before.

He reiterated his desire to go to the U.S. and then told me a story. When he was 15, he had tried to go to the United States without papers. He only got as far as Guatemala, but was caught and treated so humiliatingly, that upon returning, he vowed that he would work hard and make an honest life in his country, and that when he went to the United Stated it would be with a visa, so he would be treated with respect. And that's why he became a Cobra.

His Blackberry rang and he had a conversation that upset him. Hanging up, he told me that he had problems with his mother, who doesn't accept his wife and treats her very badly. He wants them to get along, because he loves them both, but his mother is very cruel to her. His wife is a good woman, and the mother of his child. It made things so difficult for him. Why did his mother have to act this way? I empathized about how difficult the suegra-nuera relationship tends to be, and he nodded. But for the rest of the trip he was quietly sad, and we sat in silence.