CENTRAL AMERICA () — Young people in Honduras, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, are being coaxed away from criminal gangs and taught how to become self-sufficient coffee farmers.
Under the ground-breaking Coffee vs Gangs initiative from the coffee corporation Kenco, 20 “at risk” young people have been enrolled in a programme that will give them to skills to become entrepreneurs, including business planning, computer skills, maths and English.
It is a chance for the students, aged 16 to 27, to escape gang culture, explained the programme coordinator, Blanca Mejia (her name has been changed for her own protection). “Most young people are forced to commit crimes or join the Maras. Job opportunities are few.”
The Maras are the Mara Salvatrucha gangs that originated in Los Angeles but are now widespread across Central America. They control the major Honduran cities. “They are involved in drug trafficking, extortion, common crimes, and if you have a business, they will come and demand $100 (pounds 63) a month to leave you alone,” said Ms Mejia.
Guns are common on the streets of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. About 20 murders are committed each day and in 2013 the national murder rate for Honduras stood at 90.4 per 100,000 people, the highest in the world, according to the United Nations. “If they like a girl in the street, they rape her,” said Ms Mejia. “If you look at them the wrong way, they could kill you.”
Juan (not his real name), an 18-year-old from Progresso who is part of the new programme, spoke to The Daily Telegraph via Skype. “My friends in the neighbourhood are all getting into gangs,” he said. “They tried to convince me to join, but I never wanted to.”
Like the other students, Juan was chosen for the programme because he was classed as “at risk”. He has six brothers and was taken out of school when he was 12 to help support his family. He got a job in a local market selling vegetables, but it was very dangerous. “The gangs used to rob me,” he said. “I only managed to give a little money to my mother.”
The campaign was launched this July. If this pilot is successful, Kenco is hoping to run successive 11-month programmes over the coming years. The aim is to raise enough money from donors to give the young people a plot of land at the end of their studies, so that they can help support their families and have a worthwhile – and legal – career.
The 20 young people come from all over Honduras to reach the remote outpost where the Coffee vs Gangs programme takes place. Juan has to travel four hours to get there. He lies about where he is going: “I tell people that I am working so they don’t think weird things,” he said.
For their own protection, the students do not know about the Coffee vs Gangs scheme. They know they have been enrolled in a special course to teach them how to become coffee farmers, but have no idea about the wider social implications of the campaign.
Even so, the gangs have started targeting them. “They constantly ask the students what they’ve been doing,” said Ms Mejia. “They steal the money that we give them as part of their educational subsidy.”
Ms Mejia’s involvement in the initiative has put her in danger, too. “I am taking a big risk,” she admitted. “There was a guy in El Salvador making a documentary about the Maras. He was called Christian Poveda. He was killed in the middle of the project. That’s why we can’t be completely open about the programme.”
The socio-political unrest has significantly affected the country’s economy. Honduras is one of Latin America’s poorest countries; more than two thirds of the population live in poverty. Tourism is on the rise, but only tops around 900,000 visitors a year.
Compare this to Costa Rica, further south, which is half the size yet attracts more than 2 million tourists each year.
Alongside the growing gang violence, corruption is rife in the police and public sector.
“The corruption in the government doesn’t allow for an ethical police force,” said Ms Mejia. The new government may change some things but it’s too early to tell, because it’s only been eight months.”
The country’s main economic activities are in agriculture; coffee accounts for 22pc of Honduran exports. If this programme is successful, Juan and his classmates will become the country’s next generation of coffee farmers.
“I pray to God for some land,” said Juan. “Even if it is just a small patch. Here, we are learning how to maintain the land, give it life. I like it and I am learning all I can. I would love to run my own business.”