New Three-part (Short) Video Documentary Series


Part I: The Gangs

Part II: The Researcher

Part III: The Pastor

Bill Gentile, former Newsweek correspondent and current professor of communications at American University, accompanied me for a couple of weeks in January of 2013. He worked together with Esther Gentile to edit and produce a short documentary series called “God and Gangs: Criminal Violence and Religion in Guatemala.” Here is his description of the videos:

In Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, a wave of criminal violence has replaced the politically-motivated violence of the 1980s and early 90s. With thousands of members, transnational youth gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang now pose a significant threat to citizen security and the country’s weak and corrupt institutions. For many of Guatemala’s youth, there seems to be no way out of this vicious cycle of violence. Recent research, however, shows that Evangelical churches, particularly Pentecostals, are engaging in ministries aimed at rescuing and rehabilitating gang members and providing them with a community of support as they reintegrate into Guatemalan society.
This series of three short videos (1. “The Gangs”; 2. “The Researcher”; and 3. “The Pastor”) sketches the context of gang violence in Guatemala and highlights the role of religion as a potential source for both individual and social transformation. The series profiles the work of sociologist Robert Brenneman as he interviews former gang members who have exited the criminal world by converting to Pentecostalism. These videos were produced and directed by American University School of Communication Professor Bill Gentile as part of a project on religious responses to violence carried out by the AU Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS). For ongoing project developments, see:

The Truth about San Pedro Sula: Part II


This cartoon, published in the July 31st issue of el Tiempo, refers to the current wave of liquidación in the Honduran government’s mad dash to sell off land, highways, and drilling rights. It reads:

Bargains! Get them before their gone!

Last week I wrote a post arguing that PBS had unnecessarily sensationalized and miscaracterized the violence in San Pedro Sula in its article “Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’ in City Called the Most Dangerous.” I have yet to receive a response to my message sent to the producers of The News Hour.

Although I am frustrated with the sensationalism that often surrounds cities like San Pedro, I want to make it clear that all is not well in Honduras—and certainly not in the northern industrial city of San Pedro Sula. Although the province of Cortes, where SPS is located, is surpassed in its homicide rate by the coastal region of Atlántida, SPS still is a rough and chaotic city where violence is all too common. This was made clear to me by a street scene I witnessed on Saturday morning, just a few hours before I left the country. After going out in search of breakfast—my favorite, a breakfast baleada and a fresh fruit smoothie—I was returning to the room where I had been staying at a church compound near the city center when two young men nearly ran me over as they crossed Avenida Junior. The light had just changed and one young man was nearly run over by a car that had started to advance. He made it across, but just barely. Two or three seconds later I was nearly toppled a second time by a young woman who was shouting and gesturing at the running boys. In a moment, I realized what was happening, the woman was screaming for help and shouting “¡Ladrones!” I watched as one of the boys turned a corner at the far end of the block but the young man who had crossed to the other side was not as lucky. A few men had managed to corner him and within seconds a group of pedestrians had managed to grab the boy of perhaps 17 years and hold him while the woman searched his pockets and retrieved what I would learn shortly thereafter was the cell phone that the teen had snatched from her ear as she conversed.

My first response was to breathe a sigh of relief for the woman, who, due to the quick work of those who had heard her, had been able to get back what belonged to her. But my relief quickly turned to concern and then anxiety as the woman began, encouraged by the bystanders, to deliver multiple blows to her assailant. Within moments the boy’s hands were bound behind his back and the blows continued but now some of the bystanders were taking turns. Soon he was on his knees and the woman who’d been robbed took turns with others, kicking him in the face and the torso. By now I was beginning to feel light-headed. I was feeling that strange embodied sensation of realizing that one ought to be doing something—anything but pacing in a small circle on the corner. And yet I felt paralyzed and self-conscious, afraid for my own pellejo should the crowd turn on me. I meekly suggested to another onlooker who stood next to me, “Look, this isn’t the way to handle things. Why doesn’t someone just call the police?”

The young bystander replied in a congenial tone, “Oh, don’t worry, the police are on their way but in the meantime. . .” and if he finished the sentence, I didn’t catch it and it didn’t matter because his point was clear: the kid needs to get what’s coming to him.

Someone else, someone with more courage and someone less skittishly self-aware, might have acted, intervening on behalf of the young boy. Although it is true that he was a “thief” caught in the act, this public beating was both cruel and unjust—a penalty far beyond the proportions of the crime itself, and dangerous to everyone involved. But there I stood, the  dithering gringo sociologist. Fortunately, the intensity of the beating began to subside and some of the bystanders began to go about their way. When I saw the boy stand up—still bound and now bloodied but conscious and walking—I decided that I could continue on may way as well. My room and the safety of the church compound were just steps away and I had been warned by multiple Hondurans that going out was risky. But several moments later, from the window of my upstairs room, I heard shouts again, this time from a auto-body shop across the street. “Let him have it! Attaway lady! Let’er rip!” The “police” had indeed arrived, only it was not actual police officers who had shown up but very young army soldiers dressed in fatigue. They held the boy, standing still so that the woman could get in a few more punches. A new crowd was forming and for the second time traffic was slowing to a stop while the scene unfolded. And then, a few moments later, the woman was on her way and the military pick-up had taken the boy. The shouts settled down and traffic resumed. “Justice” had apparently been served.

I tell this story here in part as a confession. I wish I had more courage in moments like these. But there is another facet of this experience I want to point out. This scene of street theater/justice is indicative of the frustration that exists in Honduran society today. Many Hondurans are so fed up with a corrupt and ineffective justice system that they believe it important to get justice whenever, and wherever one can. And participating in an event like this feels good. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine that there was a belief among the encouragers—who probably saw this as an opportunity for entertainment—that the victim had a “right” to take out her anger in physical aggression on the victim. That visiting blow after blow on her assailant would somehow make her “whole” again. Indeed, even the soldiers saw it as part of their duty or opportunity to begin the process of “justice” immediately. Theirs was not a duty to participate in a formal, circumscribed role within the legal process of delivering justice, but rather to help “teach the thief a lesson” right here, right now.  Doubtless, the military heightened its reputation in the whole event. The army has been growing in popularity as  one of the major presidential candidates has recently announced his plans to create a new military patrolling police of six thousand strong should he become president. Never mind that soldiers have zero training in gathering and processing intelligence—or for that matter in following legal procedures during an arrest. Never mind that the military spokesman himself brags to the press that soldiers are trained “to act, not to ask questions.” It is this very reticence to follow strict legal procedures that can increase their popularity within an exasperated Honduran populace. It would be easy to condemn this public justice event as the expression of an “uncivilized” and “uneducated” citizenry but we must bear in mind that exasperation can quickly boil over into outrage, and outrage into violence.

Ultimately, if Honduras is to bring down its astronomical homicide rate (already at 84/100,000 in 2011), it must invest in the justice system, not just police officers and certainly not a new corps of military police. A legal system costs money—especially when it has been neglected for so many years. And right now, Honduras is undergoing one of the most serious economic and political crises of its crisis-ridden history. Will the elections be a time of soul-searching and straight talk about economic inequality and underfunded and pilfered state agencies, or simply more of the same macho bandwagoneering? So far, the pre-candidacy race gives very little cause for hope. And the cartoon at the top of this post reveals what’s at stake. Honduras, the banana republic, is once again up for sale to the highest–or maybe just the most well-connected bidder.

The Truth about San Pedro Sula: Part I

On Monday, PBS ran a story on San Pedro Sula, Honduras called “Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’ in Honduran City Known as Most Dangerous Place.” Besides being very low-quality documentary film, the piece has huge, and dangerous errors in it. I am currently conducting research on the gangs in San Pedro, taking the bus, taxis, and my own two feet to get around town. It’s certainly not Oslo here but neither is all hell breaking loose as the documentary tries to claim, and the gangs are surely (and quite demonstrably) NOT behind most of the violence in this country. Thus, I just wrote this paragraph of protest to the executive editor:
Dear Executive Producer,
A friend recently sent me the PBS piece called “Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’  in City Known as Most Dangerous Place” and I must confess that I was terribly disappointed with the quality of the piece and , frankly, angered by the dangerous inaccuracies it promoted. I am a sociologist who has researched and published on the gangs of Central America (see my book “Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America” published by Oxford University Press in 2011), including the gangs of San Pedro Sula, where I am currently conducting new research. While it is true that violence is a serious problem in San Pedro, it is an egregious mistake to report that the youth/street gangs are behind most of this violence. It is absolutely essential that you make a distinction between “drug cartels” and youth gangs. By confusing these two and referring indiscriminately to “drug gangs” and “gangs” the filmmaker created the dangerous misperception that young gang members from marginalized communities “control” the city. This assertion is absolutely false and, while the gang leaders are of course perfectly pleased to be portrayed as such, it puts young boys in the gang or sympathizing with the gang, in grave danger. Nor does it help resolve a complex situation in which drug cartels operate with impunity within vast rural areas of the country. (Another error in the title of the report is the assertion that San Pedro is the most dangerous area of the country. It is not. By simply accessing the publicly available Honduran Violence Observer (compiled by the Honduran National University and funded by the U.N.) one can observe that Atlantida, not Cortes (the area where San Pedro is located) is the province with the highest homicide rate in Honduras. Atlantida, a coastal region with no major city, does not have a major gang presence in it. More evidence that the piece you aired on Tuesday is false and misleading by stating that the gangs are behind most or all of the violence.
I expect MUCH better, more informed journalism from PBS. Please contact me with any responses or questions.