Monday, July 22, 2013

Razor wire, guns and crime: Judging risk in the big city

Spent the weekend in Tegucigalpa, which almost always gets me thinking about crime in Honduras.
It’s hard to avoid. The small hotel we use is in a nice residential area. The architecture is quite interesting - kind of mid-20th century modern, except with a lot of stone and traditional Honduran materials.
Of course, it’s hard to get a good look. Houses are walled and driveways are blocked by sliding steel doors. The views of the houses are marred by the circles of razor wire - one, two, sometimes three rows high along the tops of the walls. The truly security conscious add electric fencing. (The best business in the city has to be the razor wire franchise.)
It does not encourage a sense of safety for a wandering pedestrian from Canada. 
But I do wander, though only in the daytime and without any possessions. (The Cuso office is a nice 15-minute walk, but I always take a taxi because it would be foolish to attempt it with a laptop.)
A big problem for any hope of a tourism industry in Honduran cities is that it’s just so hard to judge risk. In our first couple of visits to Tegus, as people call the capital, we were extremely cautious. That reflected our reading and the in-country security briefing, which focused on appropriate responses to all the bad things that could happen. (If approached by a robber, avoid eye contact, move slowly, don’t get too close and hand over everything. Be sure to have some money so you won’t make him mad. I spent the first few days ready to throw my money at any vaguely dangerous-looking stranger.)
Now we walk fairly freely, though some neighbourhoods and streets are clearly no-go zones.
We also look a lot less like potential victims. In the first months, we were anticipating danger in a way that might have invited it. As I walked toward the centre of town Saturday, a young Honduran asked me for directions. I looked liked I knew where I was going and was comfortable. 
But most tourists look less certain. And they tend to stand out - there just aren’t that many visiting foreigners. Fish swim in schools in part because there’s less risk of an individual being chosen by a predator. 
For a North American, Tegus can be unfamiliar in an intimidating way. There’s the razor wire, and the armed guards or security bars at stores. (The photo above is a typical corner store.)
The traffic is chaotic and horns sound constantly. The city was founded in 1578 and streets are narrow and twisting, with small sidewalks. Buildings are often crumbling. That’s most striking in the centro, where many of the office buildings, even the big ones, look half-abandoned, with peeling paint and rust-stained walls. 
The pedestrian mall downtown
There is a pedestrian mall leading away from the main square, but vendors with everything from shoes to toothpaste to antibiotics spread on the ground likely detract from the tone the city planners were seeking.
Yet there is charm. The setting is superb. Tegucigalpa is nestled in the hills, with houses climbing the steep slopes and a Coca Cola sign and 30-metre statue of Jesus looking down on the centre of town. There’s are historic buildings - the national art gallery is good and housed in a 400-year-old convent. (Though it was closed for a while this year because there was no money to pay staff.)  
Of course, the real victims of insecurity are Hondurans, especially the ones who can’t afford razor wire or security companies or taxis or gated communities and guards. (More and more neighbourhoods in San Pedro Sula and Tegus are gating their communities and hiring guards, even if it means blocking public roads.) There is no public transit, and the private bus and rapidito services are sketchy and robbery a risk. 
In fact, the 1.3 million people who live in Tegucigalpa live in two different worlds. The poorest live in shacks and eke out a desperate living. But there are malls more opulent than any I’ve seen in Canada; the newest has an underground garage with sensors in each parking stall and lights overhead - green shows a space is vacant, so shoppers don’t have to drive up and down the rows. By one measure of inequality - the relationship between the average income of the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent - Honduras is the third most unequal country in the world. The richest quintile have an average income 30 times greater than the poorest. Canada’s ratio is 5.5.
Maybe that’s part of the problem. When the people with power can insulate themselves from the problems of crime and insecurity, they don’t feel any urgent need to fix them. 
Footnote: Again I stress most of the country outside the two main cities is as safe as Canada and Hondurans are keen to welcome visitors. Copan Ruinas, Tela, Utila, Lago de Yojoa - there are spectacular places to see. Come on down.