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"The Depths": Visual Culture in the Murder Capital of the World

 

By Sidd Joag

It is widely held that Honduras acquired its name from Christopher Columbus, who upon surviving a tropical storm off the Caribbean coast allegedly commented, “Gracia a Dios que hemos salido de estas Honduras,” or “Thank God we survived those treacherous depths.”

Strategically located on the Caribbean between the Mosquito Coast and the city of San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba is an important transfer hub for drug traffickers. From here, small airplanes, buses, and boats move narcotics along one of many pathways to the United States. Drug gangs have taken over La Ceiba, like much of Honduras, leaving desolate cityscapes of abandoned and fenced-off buildings, streets that empty at dusk, and an overwhelming climate of fear.

Walking a few blocks to a corner store at night, there were few signs of life: some stray dogs, the random cab or motorcycle driving by, a man lying in the middle of the street unconscious, and another strolling along, whistling with a shotgun against his shoulder. Having traveled extensively and often to places of ill repute, I am usually hesitant to heed warnings of danger that sound of first-world alarmism. In La Ceiba, however, I felt danger was imminent and upon leaving, Columbus’s words resonated.

During several visits to Honduras in 2014, I sought to understand how this dire situation had evolved and what role arts and culture were playing amidst the unfolding national crisis.

The epidemic violence that has consumed Honduras is rooted in the U.S. War on Drugs and immigration, incarceration, and deportation policies. In the 1990s, in efforts to curb the growing problem of gangs, and to take a hard stand against illegal immigration, the Clinton administration oversaw the mass deportation of convicts back to Central America. Many young men who had come to the U.S. to escape political violence, returned home hardened criminals, having learned their trade inside the U.S. prison system (birthplace of the MS13 and 18th Street gangs). Persistent poverty and lack of opportunity, exacerbated by IMF-imposed structural adjustments, has provided fertile ground for the rapid proliferation of gangs throughout the country.

More recently, the 2009 coup d’etat and resulting constitutional crisis created an abscess in civil society. Politically motivated violence surged while organized crime infiltrated new urban and rural sectors strengthening its grip on the nation. International condemnation of the coup did nothing to alter the downward spiral that continues today. Since 2010, Honduras has held the dubious distinction of being the "murder capital of the world" and boasting violent crime rates that compare to those in active conflict zones.

The 2009 coup d’etat also polarized the body politic of Honduras, and both artists and culture workers found themselves at the forefront of the resistance movement. Many were spied on, threatened, assaulted, arrested, detained, and some forced into exile as a result of their political activities. Meanwhile, criminal, government, and corporate establishments integrated a system of market-driven violence operating with complete impunity.

At present, the average person has little to no recourse when their basic human rights are violated. This has affected artists and culture workers, who often take an ambivalent, apolitical tone as they censor themselves to avoid being targets of backlash from the political establishment as well as organized crime. Further, decades of socio-political instability and a complete lack of funding have engendered distrust between artists and culture workers, unhealthy competition and infighting that precludes the open exchange of information and resources.

The drug wars have also drastically altered the physical and psychological landscapes of communities situated along its corridors. Each community/city’s visual culture bears the impression of historical scars, dangerous realities, and visions for the future. In this reflective space at the convergence of the physical and psychological, the artistic process can play a key role in mediating the effects of social inequality and the distrust it creates between communities.

Amidst this hostile and chaotic environment, there are those who use the arts to affect positive change. One example is Colectivo Hormigas—a consortium of arts organizations in Tegucigalpa that focuses on the reclaiming of public spaces. Their calling cards are clusters of stenciled ants that appear in a given location where an event or action is planned.

Utilizing public performance and street art, Colectivo Hormigas, attempts to alter the visual culture of the city against all odds. Their primary objective is to empower people to wrestle control of their communities from the grip of corrupt political agendas and gang turf wars. In addition to the risks they face working in the streets, they operate with minimal funding and survive thanks to significant volunteer efforts.

As organized crime extends across borders and into every sector of society (as events such as the massacre of 43 students in Guerrero, Mexico reveal), art and culture, which also permeates all levels of society, can play a critical role in exposing its machinations. Yet artists have not established equally sophisticated networks of communication and mobility that organized crime has, and thus remain unable to successfully counteract its devastating impact on civil society.

In Honduras, it is clear artists are best suited to illuminate and confront issues affecting their communities. Facing issues of risk and sustainability has dampened the impact of initiatives like Colectivo Hormigas. It is through the arts that viable alternatives to current policies and their enforcement can be imagined, designed, and implemented, if they are provided the necessary support.

At present, the U.S. must find solutions to a growing refugee problem, with nearly 50,000 unaccompanied Honduran children, fleeing gang violence and quarantined at the border—the direct consequences of its own shortsighted policies. Until the U.S. dismantles its current War on Drugs, replaces these policies with a national program of drug regulation, and rethinks how and where it reallocates its material investment in the region, it is likely that the situation in Honduras and many other affected countries will continue to deteriorate as the death toll rises.

Change can start with an investment in the cultural vitality of America’s neighbors, and especially in artists who can articulate a collective vision of a safer, more stable future where young people can make life-affirming choices rather than risking their lives.  

*****

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Sidd Joag is a New York City based visual artist, ethnographer and cultural activist. Since 2011, Sidd has been working with freeDimensional--designing and implementing programs globally to support artists, culture workers and communicators facing risk. 

[Photos courtesy of Sidd Joag]

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