Last year on Twitter, Honduran soccer star Arnold Peralta denounced the violence plaguing his nation.
“Our country is facing difficult times with so many criminals killing so much, as though killing is fashionable!” he wrote. “These sorts of people don’t deserve to be alive.”
On Thursday he was shot and killed in a parking lot outside a mall in his hometown of La Ceiba. The 26-year-old midfielder was visiting the northern coastal city after the end of his professional club’s season.
Among countries not officially at war, Honduras, population 8 million, is one of the most violent places on Earth. The homicide rate in its major cities is about 12 to 21 times the rate in Los Angeles.
The country might as well be at civil war. Much of the violence has been propagated by two gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, which have been engaged in a bloody battle for territory since the early 2000s.
Many of the gang members had been convicted of violent crimes in the U.S. and deported back to Honduras after completing their prison sentences. Some had come to the U.S. as small children and knew of Honduras only from their parents.
Thrust into a land racked by poverty and lack of opportunity, they returned to gang life.
Some started in so-called copycat gangs, but many of those groups were absorbed by more established crime syndicates, according to a report published this week by the foundation InSight Crime and funded by the U.S. government.
“Using .38 revolvers, 12-gauge shotguns and homemade weapons fashioned from old pipes and other scraps, the gangs began a violent bid for territorial control that continues today,” it said.
It described the gangs as “arguably the top security challenge facing this country.”
The gangs rely on revenue from local drug dealing and extorting payments from public bus lines that cross their territory, according to the report.
The Honduran government tried to crack down by passing laws that criminalized “illicit association,” allowing authorities to arrest and imprison gang members even without direct evidence that they had participated in violence.
The prison population grew by nearly 50% between 1999 and 2014. But prison in essence became a safe headquarters from which gang leaders could run their criminal operations on the streets, the InSight report said.
The gangs operate mainly in the three largest cities: Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba.
San Pedro Sula has the highest homicide rate, with 142 killings for every 100,000 people last year, according to the Violence Observatory, based at Honduras’ University Institute for Democracy, Peace and Security.
La Ceiba was next, with 95 killings, followed by Tegucigalpa, the capital, with 81.
By comparison, the homicide rate last year in Los Angeles was less than 7 per 100,000, according to FBI data.
Peralta represented Honduras at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2012 Olympic Games in London. As a youth, he had been captain of the nation’s under-20 squad.
“This is terrible,” his father, Carlos Peralta, said at a news conference. “They killed my exemplary son. I can’t say more because of the pain I feel.”
Nobody was in custody for the killing as of Friday, according to police, who said they had ruled out robbery as a motive.
The U.S. is now feeling a ripple effect of the violence, as tens of thousands of Hondurans have fled north across Central America and Mexico to the United States.
About 68,000 unaccompanied minors — mostly from Honduras and El Salvador — crossed illegally into the U.S. last year, bringing horrific tales of fear, violence and threats from back home.
Under pressure from the United States, Mexico has stepped up efforts to intercept and deport Central Americans before the reach the U.S. border. Mexico is on pace this year to deport 70% more Central Americans than it did in 2014, according to the Washington think tank Migration Policy Institute.
Bonello, a special correspondent, reported from Mexico City. Times staff writer Ben Poston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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