Saturday, September 01, 2012

Like the auto club, but with shotguns

I've spent a lot of time telling people that Honduras isn't really as dangerous as the news reports make it sound.
Yes, it has the highest murder rate in the world. But a lot of the killings involve disputes between gangs and people in the drug business. They're just as dead, of course, but if you aren't in those worlds, you aren't at risk. (In El Salvador, the two main gangs have reached a truce, and the murder rate has fallen by two-thirds.)
That's not to downplay the impact of crime in the major cities. The gangs are into extortion, and murder is part of the business model. And robbers are casual about killings.
Still, the crime reports are overblown, I've maintained. Copan Ruinas at 1 a.m. is safer than Victoria when the bar crowd hits the street on a Saturday.
But this week I was stopped by a half-page ad in La Prensa. It was for a BCAA-type service, I thought, based on the woman peering beneath the hood of her car, stopped at the roadside.
The company didn't offer roadside repairs.
Instead, it would dispatch two guys on motorcycles, with body armour and shotguns, to guard you. The pictures above tell the story. (Sorry about the poor quality.)
It's a good deal - $2.50 a month, and you can call them 10 times a year. It would certainly help in settling questions of responsibility after a fender bender. (Unless, of course, the other driver also had the service.)
But really, a country is in trouble when people feel it's worth paying for armed response when they run out of gas, rather than a service that would send a tow truck.
There are lots of signs that people have lost confidence in the state. In the big cities, razor wire and electrical fencing tops high walls around houses and armed guards open the doors for you at many restaurants. Go to buy a bag of chips at the corner stores, and you shop through a barred window.
There have been lots of efforts to fix things since we've been here. The government called in the Chilean police for advice on reducing corruption and improving efficiency. There's a new, controversial head of the national police force, who has re-assigned total departments. And there's a plan to investigate all police officers, with lie detector tests and financial audits, to identify problem officers. (Though that will take a long time, and so far 24 of the first 169 officers called for the tests just haven't showed up.)
It is safe in Copan. But when roadside armed response becomes a viable business, things are spinning out of control.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Minting a coin worth the equivalent of one-quarter of one cent

The Hondurans central bank has put out a tender call for 140 million coins, in four denominations.
Which I find puzzling. Coins are little used here. Prices are almost all rounded to the nearest lempira, with each one worth about five cents Canadian. In the big city, supermarkets sometimes give coins and on rare occasions I've received them here.
More puzzling are the denominations.
The bank wants 60 million coins in denominations of 50 and 20 centavos - roughly 2.5 cents and a penny in Canadian currency. Maybe those would be useful (though not based on my experience).
But it also wants 80 million coins of 10 and five centavos - about one-half and one-quarter cent Canadian.
All in, the coin production will likely cost something like $1.5 million.
And unless I'm missing something - which is not uncommon in my new home - it seems an odd way to spend money, especially for the low-value coins.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

When a home is worth the risk of disaster

La Prensa

Tough choices. Let squatters build wood shanties on the banks of flood-prone rivers, even though they might die in the rainy season. Or push them on to Lord knows where.
In El Progreso about 100 families have settled on the banks of the Pelo River, cobbling together wood houses and planting gardens, La Prensa reported. It’s a common practice across Honduras, as people without money look for a free place to live., often on the banks of rivers and streams that could flow their banks.
The El Progreso families are building on deadly land. In 1989, Hurricane Mitch caused floods that swept 200 homes on the same site - and several people - into the muddy, raging river.
Mitch and the 2009 coup seem to be defining moments for Honduras. The country is usually touched by several hurricanes a year, mostly in the coastal regions. But Hurricane Mitch was ferocious and, critically, its progress stalled over Honduras, bringing days of rain - 18 inches in one day in one city - and damaging winds. Some 6,500 people were killed, about 20 per cent of the population was left homeless and 70 to 80 per cent of the transportation infrastructure destroyed. The president of the day estimated it knocked out 50 years worth of progress in a week. And it seems burned in many Hondurans’ minds as both a turning point for the country and a reminder of the its vulnerability to disaster.
CODEM, the municipal disaster planning agency, wants the squatters gone. Officials say even in normal rains they’re in danger, from flooding and collapsing river banks that will bring their houses down. Even prevention efforts, liked deepening the river channel, could destroy the houses.
Fine, say the families. Where will we go?
Maria Angela Guerrero told La Prensa she and her family settled on the river back because they ha nowhere to live and no money for rent.
"All of us here are aware of the danger we run in winter,” she said. “If the mayor wants to evicts us he will have to relocate us in a safe place," she said.
The World Bank says 18 per cent of Hondurans live on less $1.40 a day. Rent is impossible, so throwing up a shack - of wood, or corrugated tin or, with luck, adobe - is the only option. Some landowners don’t seem to mind. Other people, like the river community, choose public land. (There is a whole separate post to be done on land occupations across the country by organized campesino protests.)
The houses are often grim looking, without electricity or water. Life inside would be dark and dismal, with little real shelter in bad weather and no protection from insects.
But any house - even one that might get swept away when the river rises - is better than none.