By Beifoh Osewele
The Honduras city of San Pedro Sula is a pleasure to behold. It is a model city replete with beautiful sites, array of natural endowment, architectural masterpieces and parks among others. No doubt it would readily catch many people’s attention. San Pedro Sula, which was officially recognized as a city by the Congress of Honduras on October 8,1902 and located in the northwest corner of the country, about 60 km south of Puerto Cortés on the Caribbean Sea no doubt boasts of exotic sites and places that could easily make it a tourism hotspot, but it is in the news for the wrong reason.
It has just brushed aside stiff competition to clinch the most dangerous city on earth trophy. Like in the Hobbesian state of nature, the city is reeling under the burden of every form of crime including gang violence, drug cartel killings and rampant extortion. And these cocktail of vices have conspired to make life in the otherwise beautiful city solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Savagery and survival of the fittest have become the norm rather than the exception.
According to recent report, faced by a surge in drug smuggling networks and overall environment of lawlessness, Honduras ranks among the most dangerous places on earth as it has the highest per-capita homicide rate. According to a United Nations report, no other country matches its rate of 86 killings per 100,000 residents a year. This figure is roughly 20 times higher than that of the US. And a large chunk of the cases happen in San Pedro Sula.
A study conducted by Joseph A. Sandgrouse, chairman of the Citizens for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, identifies San Pedro Sula, as the most violent city in the world in 2011, with a rate of 159 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, relegating Ciudad Juarez, the border city of Mexico Ciudad Juarez which had topped the grim list the previous three years to the second position. Even though the list states that Juarez, Mexico had 1,974 homicides, and San Pedro Sula 1,143, the rate of murders is in the latter is said to higher – thus earning it in the unenviable pole position. Both San Pedro Sula and Ciudad Juarez are major operational and strategic distribution points along the billion-dollar drug pipeline that funnels narcotics to consumers in the United States
San Pedro Sula’s rise to infamy was a story foretold. As far back as two years ago, Washington Post, the US-based publication had beamed it searchlight on the city, which had become a conduit for drug czars, describing it as the most murderous part of the most murderous country in the world. But more worrisome to residents is the fact that with each passing day, the situation gets grimmer, with no concerted effort by the authorities to arrest the slide.
“We are living in constant fear,” said Blanca Alvarez, wearing a pin bearing a portrait of her dead son, Jason, shot in a carjacking in 2006. “We have had marches for peace, wearing white, releasing white balloons into the air. Nothing is going to change here. Nothing.”
The city located in the northwest corner of the country, about 60 km south of Puerto Cortés on the Caribbean Sea San Pedro Sula with an estimated population of 873,824 people in the main municipality, and 1,245,598 in its metro area as at 2010 is the second largest city, in Honduras after the capital Tegucigalpa. Considered the industrial centre of Honduras, the city is the capital of the Cortés Department and serves as a major transportation hub for the rest of the country, while economically maintaining its base in light industry and the commercial production of coffee, bananas, beef, sugar cane, tobacco, and forestry and generates two-thirds of the country’s Gross domestic Product (GDP).
San Pedro Sula was founded on June 27, 536, by Pedro de Alvarado under the name Villa de San Pedro de Puerto Caballos, close to the town of Choloma. There were around 18 towns populated by indigenous people in the Sula valley at the time. Early descriptions of the landscape indicate abundant swampland and dense tropical forests, with little land good for agriculture or cattle breeding. The city’s name became San Pedro Sula in the 18th century, after several changes. The “Sula” part of its name is believe to have come from the Minas de Sula, gold mines located to the west of the village of Naco.
For the first few years of its history, San Pedro was the colonial mint, where gold, found to the west in the Naco, Sula, and Quimistan valleys, had to be brought to smelt, and where the Spanish Crown collected a fifth of the value of the gold. The mint was moved to Gracias, and ultimately to Comayagua in the 1550s. the abundance of gold did not fail to attract the attention of the French, English, and Dutch pirates as they raided and sacked the city. The avert this recurrent invasion, the Spaniards had to move the city to its current location along the Chamelecón River. San Pedro languished to a neglected backwater, with few Spanish settlers. New settlers were not attracted to the city, preferring the higher, drier valleys inland with more farmland and gold mines. At the same time, lax Spanish control spurred illicit trade in alcohol from the Caribbean islands, such as Cuba.
The city grew slowly from about 800 residents in 1590, to almost 10,000 by the 1890s, but most of this population growth took place in the 19th century. It benefited initially from the growth of bananas for export in the 1870s and 1880s and formed a close relationship with U.S. based shipper and railroad entrepreneur Samuel Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Company, and the construction of the Interoceanic Railroad between 1869 and 1874 which connected the city to the coast at Puerto Cortés. Zemurray worked closely with local elites who invested in subsidiary enterprises and thus shaped the way politically for Cuyamel to establish itself and, along the way to pay very few taxes.
In the mid 1920s, the city grew from 10,000 to 100,000 people, following a boom in banana plantations in the region. Today, the city’s metropolitan area has almost one million inhabitants and continues to expand. The building of a rail line between San Pedro and the coast, connecting the banana plantations to the ports of Tela and Puerto Cortes, as well as heavy investment from the local Palestinian businessmen, spurred development of San Pedro as an industrial city.
But this development is under serious threat by the string of violence that has gripped the city.