I was killing time downtown, slowly making my way to the restaurant where I was going to meet some friends. As I walked I overheard a man say to another man "acaban de matar a un hombre por ahí" [a man was just killed over there], nodding his head in the direction I was walking. It didn't affect me much; I took it in like any other piece of information about my surroundings—weather, road conditions, etc. I resumed my internal dialogue where I'd left off.
But a block or so later I saw the crowd. I asked the group of women on the corner of the main street and an alley what had happened. "Mataron a ese señor en el parqueo. Sólo venía a sacar su carro y le dispararon en la frente" [They killed that man in the parking lot. He had just come to get his car out and they shot him in the forehead]. I looked across the alley, and there he was. A middle-aged, portly man lay on his side, face toward the large crowd that had gathered across the street. His high-belted shorts accentuated his large belly and thighs, and I felt sorry for him. The indignity of his appearance in death in particular seemed so cruel. A friend laughed at me later when I described (in detail) the dead man's appearance, saying that I'd better make sure to dress for murder if that mattered to me. He also added that "los ejecutados de Honduras carecen de dignidad," comparing Honduran victims of extrajudicial assassinations to Salvadoran revolutionaries, who die for something. "Aquí en Honduras, como dice mi abuela, la vida es prestada."
I asked the woman in the group on the street corner who had answered my first question "¿Y fue robo?" [was it a robbery?]
"No, sólo lo ejecutaron y se fueron." [no, they just shot him and left]
The woman added that he'd been in Hospital Viera around the corner, retrieving some test results. He still has them in his hands, she said. And indeed, a piece of paper had fallen from his hands and was partially covering his face.
I was at a loss. And so, replicating the kind of symbolic violence I criticize, I took out my camera. And no one seemed to mind that I took pictures of the body; that's normal here. It was only when I crossed the street and took a couple pictures of the crowd (which of course was more interesting to me—why do we gawk? What do we ask of death?) that I realized what a stupid mistake I was making. A man gave me a hostile look.
I was putting them in danger. I was putting myself in danger. I felt a rare feeling (for me) of acute and specific fear. I put my camera away and stayed put, feeling that it would make me look even more suspicious to take pictures and run off. I stared with the rest of the crowd at the man, lying there. The tiny stream of blood that snaked down the hill from his forehead was already drying up. A police officer paced back and forth in the parking lot.
A couple young men with a sort of rock n roll look to them were walking down the main street. They looked at the crowd as I was leaving. I heard them wondering aloud to each other what was going on. The paused at the far corner, and as I walked by I told them a man had been killed. "Oh!" one of them exclaimed, "let's keep walking." The other said "The situation of violence here in this country..."
Inside the restaurant I told a friend what had happened. She was grading exams. "Oh that's what it was," she said. They must have just killed him a half hour ago when I walked by." A debate ensued with a colleague of hers about the motivation of gawkers. Is it just morbid fascination? Is it a sense of one's own mortality? A search for information in the belief that somehow knowing death can protect us from it?
Another friend came in announcing excitedly "Hay un muerto ahí, hay un muerto ahí." I thought of Mark Pedelty's description of the cry "¡Un muerto! ¡Un muerto!" among the foreign press corps during El Salvador's civil war. And this death was noteworthy because death still is here, statistics and all. But I looked all over the news this morning and couldn't find a mention of it, even though it happened in broad daylight in the middle of the city. That's part of the difference with the statistics. Before, when I was writing my book, and the insanely high murder rate was half what it is now, there was still room for strategic exaggeration for the purposes of fearmongering to legitimate extreme measures of neoliberal control. Now, there isn't room in the newspapers for all the killings, and their continued increase is an embarrassment to the JOH government, whose only real campaign promise was to bring crime rates down by cracking down on criminals. I have heard many, many friends, colleagues and students speculate in the past few months that there's actually a campaign to hide the violence—or at least pick and choose which of all the murders should be represented. Some maintain the theory that the climate of total impunity has allowed serial killers to prosper, citing certain signatures.
A third friend came in late. He said he'd been parking in the parking lot. I gasped. "But they just killed a man there." "Oh," he said, "So that's what happened. Yes, they were cleaning up the blood when I left."
One of my friends at the restaurant last night said he thought the current wave of killings, especially killings of small children, had to do with EL Negro Lobo, the drug trafficker recently arrested and being processed for extradition to the U.S. By killing all the children (one email I received a couple hours ago cites a figure of 15 kids murdered in the past 24 hours around the country in similarly brutal attacks- there was also the massacre in the El Carmen juvenile detention center in the north a couple days ago)—the theory goes—El Negro Lobo sends a message to the Juan Orlando that he will make the country ungovernable if he extradites him. It's not that far-fetched, given the control narcos have in this country. Whether or not that theory is true, El Negro Lobo has been campaigning on other fronts as well. These professionally-produced 40-page booklets arguing against extradition, signed by El Negro Lobo's lawyer Raul Rolando Suazo Barillas, were being passed around at the Mayday march:
"Legal kidnapping," the title reads. The comparison to Matta Ballesteros is ever-present, but the fervor that existed in favor of Honduran sovereignty in '88, which inspired students to protest against Matta's extradition and attack the U.S. embassy, seems lacking.
So what is one left to do, having embodied a state of such impunity? Today, all I can come up with, thinking of the indignity suffered by a man who was too dead to care about his unfashionable high-waisted shorts, is to dress to be killed.