In Rivera Hernandez, one of the most violent neighborhoods in one of the most violent countries in the Americas, a young Honduran man explains the circumstances of the cold-blooded murder of his little brother by a street gang three years ago.
Sitting in the living room he shares with a banty rooster, he agrees to tell his story if his family is not identified. He said his brother took a short-cut though rival gang territory—perhaps to go to the bus stop or visit his girlfriend—with tragic consequences.
“For them, controlling territory is everything,” he said. “And anyone who trespasses on their turf, the solution is to kill him. I think this is what happened to my brother.”
No one was arrested, as is the case with so many crimes in Rivera Hernandez, where warring gangs enforce invisible boundaries along the muddy streets and terrorize residents with impunity. It is here that a Christian-based nonprofit with the high-sounding name, the Association for a More Just Society — known by its Spanish acronym, ASJ — is helping to solve unsolved murders.
ASJ is one of many non-governmental organizations working in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to address the deep societal ills that are driving migrants north to the U.S. border. The Biden administration has pledged $4 billion to attack the root causes of out-migration from Central America. Some of that aid may go to groups like ASJ, which has been hobbled by a loss of funding when the Trump administration cut off foreign aid to Honduras.
An ASJ program called Peace and Justice sends in teams of three — an investigator, a lawyer and a psychologist — to help the victims of crime, and to solve murders the police cannot or will not solve. The case of the Honduran man’s little brother gave ASJ hope for justice because there was an eyewitness.
“He told me everything that happened,” the big brother continued. “He said at first they bashed my brother in the head with a pistol. He thought it would only be a beating, not a shooting. But when they got to the corner, another guy took the pistol and shot him in the head.”
Typically, eyewitnesses are afraid to report crimes because of gang retaliation and a lack of trust in the police and courts. In this case, ASJ employed a retired police homicide investigator named Jose — he asked to omit his family name for his protection — who convinced the witness to testify under extraordinary protection.
“So that the witness cannot be identified, we disguise their voice,” Jose said. “They wear a black garment, gloves and boots, a hat and ski mask. When we’re done with them you can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman, a girl or a boy.”
The cloaked witness sits inside of a wooden, windowed booth that is rolled into the courtroom so they can identify the killer before a judge.
The partially U.S.-funded witness protection program has been a solid success, according to an independent academic study conducted four years ago. In the violent neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula where the teams were assigned, homicides fell sharply as arrests and convictions of gang assassins increased.
“It’s a pilot program that says this is possible in Honduras even in the poorest, most violent neighborhoods, you can catch these guys and you can prevent them from killing more people,” said Kurt Alan Ver Beek, co-founder and board president of ASJ. He’s a lanky sociologist from Chicago who’s lived in Honduras for three decades.
The question for the Biden administration is whether programs like this can improve conditions enough to convince people to stop fleeing Honduras? Ver Beek believes it can.
“Most of the cases we work, the people don’t leave. A lot of them stay in their same neighborhood because they’re not that afraid,” he said. “We’re trying to show that it is possible, and that it could be scaled up, and that there are good cops and good prosecutors and good judges, and that the system could work.”
The U.S. goal to improve conditions in Central America got a major setback in 2019 when President Trump slashed millions of dollars in foreign aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. He said those countries weren’t doing enough to support his immigration agenda.
ASJ’s witness protection program was forced to pull out of five communities; today, they only work in two.
“And in the end, we’re seeing some of the neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa that we withdrew from are now among the most violent neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa,” said Ver Beek. “When our presence left, things just got out of control.”
His organization must now reapply for grants, and if they are refunded, they hope they can rehire laid-off staff.
The Association for a More Just Society has other programs that try to strengthen good governance in Honduras — purging corrupt police officers, improving public education and blowing the whistle on crooked bureaucrats.
But solving these entrenched structural problems is a gargantuan challenge. Even ASJ has been criticized by civil society organizations for being too closely aligned with the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez. The president, who has been in office since 2014, has been accused of election fraud, theft of public funds and conspiring with his brother Tony, a convicted felon, in a U.S. federal drug-smuggling and money-laundering case.
“I respect ASJ, but they don’t give me confidence because they are very allied with the Honduran government, which is practically a dictatorship,” said Padre Melo, a Jesuit priest and frequent government critic.
To this criticism, Ver Beek responded: “You can’t create your own private police and courts. If you’re going to get justice, you have to have the public system work.”
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified because this person didn’t have permission to talk publicly about U.S.-funded programs, said ASJ’s work focusing on criminal justice and official corruption “is absolutely part of the solution.”
But high-level corruption and street gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 are only some of the push factors driving Hondurans to the United States. Many migrants asking for asylum at the U.S. border say they lost everything in the hurricanes that pummeled the north coast last November, and they left in desperation because there’s not enough to eat.
“Life is hard in Honduras because there’s no work,” said Ersy Josue Oliva, a National Police detective who works with ASJ to bring murderers to justice. “So how can I say this program will reduce migration? I can’t say that.”
Whether Biden’s crusade to somehow rescue Central America will work is anybody’s guess. But what is undeniable is that the witness protection program helped to achieve justice for one family.
“They didn’t all get convicted, but the triggerman is in jail,” says the older brother in Rivera Hernandez. “To a certain degree, that gives me peace.”