Written by Azam Ahmed
Three sharp cracks rang out, followed by three more in quick succession. The thoroughfare emptied. Two old men ducked behind a fence. A taxi jerked onto a side street. A mother shoved her toddler indoors.
The shooter, an MS-13 gunman, stood calmly on the corner in broad daylight, the only person left on the commercial strip. He stuck the gun in his waistband and watched the neighborhood shake in terror.
Bryan, Reinaldo and Franklin scrambled into a neighbor’s yard. In panicked whispers, they traded notes on the shooting, the third in less than a week. Only days earlier, a child had been hit in a similar attack. Bryan, 19, wondered what response the few young men still living in the neighborhood could muster, if any.
Mara Salvatrucha, the gang known as MS-13, was coming for them almost every day now. It raided homes, deployed spies and taunted them with whistles at dusk, a constant reminder that the enemy was right around the corner. The neighborhood was surrounded.
Only bad options remained for them: stay and fight, abandon their homes and head elsewhere, maybe to the United States, or surrender and hope one of the invading gangs showed them mercy.
All three had been members of the 18th Street gang, but were sickened by the murder, extortion and robbery of their neighbors. Seeking redemption, they kicked the gang out of the neighborhood, vowing never to allow another back in.
Now, they were being hunted — by their former comrades in 18th Street, and by MS-13, which wanted their territory.
So for their own protection, the young men transformed back into the thing they hated most: a gang.
“The borders surround us like a noose,” said Bryan, standing in the yard with the others in their group, the Casa Blanca.
From 2018 through early 2019, The New York Times followed the young men of Casa Blanca in this tiny corner of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, one of the deadliest cities in the world, and witnessed firsthand as they tried to keep the gangs at bay.
Almost no one was trying to stop the coming war — not the police, not the government, not even the young men themselves. The only person working to prevent it was a part-time pastor risking his life to calm the warring factions.
“I’m not in favor of any gang,” the pastor, Daniel Pacheco, said, rushing to the Casa Blanca members after the shooting. “I’m in favor of life.”
The struggle to protect the neighborhood — roughly four blocks of single-story houses, overgrown lots and a few stores selling chips and soda — encapsulates the inescapable violence that entraps and expels millions of people across Latin America.
For the masses fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, the United States is both a cause and solution — the author of countless woes and a chance to escape them.
But the surviving members of Casa Blanca, who once numbered in the dozens, do not want to flee. They have jobs to keep, children to feed, families, neighbors and loved ones to protect.
“There is only one way for this to end,” Reinaldo said. “Either they kill us or we kill them.”
‘The Next Time, They Will Kill Me’
The men entered without a word, pushing through the thin curtain hanging over Fanny’s front door with the barrels of their AK-47s.
She let out a yelp as they spread through the house. After the shooting the day before, the MS-13 gunman had watched Bryan, Reinaldo and Franklin race into Fanny’s backyard, one of the few places they felt safe.
Now it was night, and Fanny was alone. The men did a final sweep for Casa Blanca members, then left as suddenly as they had entered. The message was more terrifying for its silence: They could come and go as they pleased.
A single mother of three, Fanny was a surrogate mother to the Casa Blanca members. She had known them since childhood; they had defended her son from bullies in grade school. As they grew up, her house became a refuge.
And now, for her closeness with the young men, she had fallen into the cross hairs of MS-13. Shaking with fear, she called her cousin, Pastor Pacheco.
“The next time, they will kill me, I know it,” she told him.
An evangelical minister, Pacheco delivered Sunday sermons outdoors in the stifling heat and worked construction to make ends meet.
Then in 2014, a 13-year-old neighborhood girl was kidnapped by gang members. Her parents owned a small store and had failed to pay their extortion demands. So they abducted the girl and took her to a home, where they raped and tortured her for three days before killing her and burying her in the floor.
“People watched as they grabbed her from the street, yelling for help, and no one did anything,” recalled Pacheco, 40, known mostly as Pastor Danny. “They were all scared for their lives.”
Overwhelmed, he visited the house after the police had cleared the scene.
“I made a promise there,” he said. “I was going to do something.”
Now, with Fanny’s life on the line, it was personal.
‘There’s going to be a massacre’
The pastor knew many of the Casa Blanca members and appreciated the quandary they faced. He didn’t want gangs to dominate the neighborhood, either.
But he was a realist — there was no way to keep them out. MS-13 had made its intentions clear. It was advancing across large swaths of San Pedro Sula, using its numbers, tight organization and ruthlessness to overwhelm smaller, less sophisticated groups. The way he saw it, Casa Blanca was next.
Pastor Danny considered it a good sign that MS-13 had not harmed Fanny. But the sudden escalation worried him. There would be more bullets, more casualties. He was sure of it. Bryan, Franklin and the others could not even spend a quiet afternoon in Fanny’s backyard anymore. It was marked now.
So the pastor made a plan: He wanted to broker a meeting between Casa Blanca members and MS-13.
“This is going to be hard,” Anner warned the pastor. “These guys have lost too much to just give up.”
Anner, 26, was a workingman. He had grown up with everyone in Casa Blanca. He was not a member, but two brothers-in-law, including Franklin, were.
The pastor needed Anner to convince Casa Blanca that peace was the only way.
“If something doesn’t change, there’s going to be a massacre before the end of the year,” Pastor Danny snapped.
“End of the year?” Anner snorted. “I think more like end of the week.”
‘I want to see Samuel’
The pastor slowed his car at the knot of unpaved streets separating MS-13 from Casa Blanca. A man with tattoos covering his arms and neck appeared at Pastor Danny’s window. “What do you want,” he asked.
“I want to see Samuel,” the pastor said. “We know each other.”
Just hours after leaving Anner’s house, the pastor had received an alarming call. Armed men on motorcycles were kicking families out of their homes in Casa Blanca’s area, taking the neighborhood by force. He couldn’t wait any longer.
The tattooed man stepped back and pointed to a peach-colored home. “Check there,” he said.
The pastor drove by a well-lit corner, where two women were smoking with a slender man.
It was Samuel, the MS-13 leader in the area. The pastor leapt out of the car, leaving it in the middle of the street with the door still open.
Samuel walked over and embraced the older man. “Pastor Danny, how are you?” he asked.
“I’m not great, brother,” the pastor said. Nervous and somewhat stunned at finding Samuel, Pastor Danny got straight to the point.
“I have to ask you a personal favor,” he said.
Samuel answered like a politician. “If I can do it, I will,” he said.
“I know your guys are looking to move into the territory of Casa Blanca,” Pastor Danny continued. “But I’m asking you, begging you, please don’t do it violently. Please don’t kill anyone.”
Samuel listened impassively, saying nothing.
“I’m not in favor of any gang,” the pastor went on. “I just want to protect life. And I have a cousin who lives there and I’m worried she and others could be hurt.”
Samuel interrupted. “We already own that territory,” he said. “It’s already ours.”
The pastor didn’t know whether he was speaking literally or figuratively. MS-13, while advancing fast, had not yet taken over.
“But there are people there now, kicking a family out of their home,” the pastor insisted. “I have people in the community who are witnessing it.”
“It can’t be us. We don’t have anyone there right now,” Samuel countered. “What did they tell you?”
The pastor tried his best to explain the location to Samuel, based on the vague answers he could squeeze out of Anner over the phone.
Samuel was right: Whatever was happening, it was not in Casa Blanca territory.
It didn’t matter, though, Samuel said. Everyone knew that Casa Blanca was weak. He had already ordered his lieutenant — a man called Monster — to take over the neighborhood. His men weren’t forcing families out of homes tonight, he said, but they would enter soon enough.
Samuel then asked the pastor to draw the exact location of Fanny’s house. “Do not worry about your loved ones, we won’t hurt them,” he promised.
And what about the Casa Blanca members, the pastor asked. Would they also get a pass?
“Like I said, the territory is already ours,” Samuel replied. “If we can avoid violence, we will. But that depends on them.”
‘Paralyzed by Fear’
In the car, Fanny asked half-jokingly whether the pastor was taking her to be killed.
“Don’t be stupid, Fanny,” he said. “I’m trying to save your life.”
They were driving to his brother’s house, outside Casa Blanca territory, so he could explain his meetings with MS-13.
“Fanny, you need to think about you and your family,” the pastor said, sensing her doubts. “They told me they wouldn’t touch you.”
Fanny began to cry. After the events of the last few days — the shooting, the invasion of her home — the pastor thought she would be happy with the news. But his promise that she would be safe merely reminded her of all the others who wouldn’t be.
Two days later, when the pastor decided to tell Casa Blanca about his plan for a truce, Fanny didn’t join. He gathered everyone at Anner’s house, including a few parents, hoping they might force the young men into accepting it.
“They say they will pardon everyone as long as they can enter peacefully,” the pastor said, explaining MS-13’s terms.
The pastor had a way of stretching the facts to their most optimistic lengths. MS-13 had said it did not want to kill. But it never promised to pardon everyone, not explicitly.
By the end of the discussion, Anner agreed to sit down with Monster.
‘We Don’t Want Any Problems’
Beneath a tin portico, Monster sat on a low-slung chair, smoking weed. He smiled slightly as his visitors sat, Anner on a splintered crate, the pastor an overturned bucket.
Anner began to talk, in his nervous way, for nearly the entire meeting — about his kids, his job, his life in the neighborhood. He even named a few MS-13 members he knew personally.
Monster continued smoking.
“We don’t want any problems with MS,” Anner said. “I don’t want to see violence,” he continued. “I work and have a family and I don’t want to lose my house.”
Monster, now very high, shook his head and uttered a soft “No.”
“What about the others?” Anner asked. “Some of these guys have shot at MS before,” he said. “Sometimes out of fear.”
Monster started to speak, but Anner cut him off.
“I just want to ask as a favor that if they don’t resist, if they don’t put up a fight, that you pardon them,” he said.
Monster looked at the pastor, then at Anner.
“Our goal is not to kill anyone,” he said. “If they don’t put up a fight, if they go with the program, we won’t need to.”
‘They Don’t Care’
The bodies appeared one January morning, wrapped in trash bags and deposited on the border dividing Casa Blanca from the 18th Street gang.
The warning spoke for itself: 18th Street had learned of the burgeoning truce with MS-13 — and had no intention of accepting it.
A few weeks later, Reinaldo disappeared. He had been walking inside the boundaries of Casa Blanca territory when someone snatched him.
After a few days, the pastor learned that 18th Street had taken him. They never got the body back.
MS-13 never entered the neighborhood, as Samuel and Monster said it would. Though it stopped attacking Casa Blanca, as promised, 18th Street picked up where its rivals had left off.
The pastor tried to put the Casa Blanca members at ease, but he had nothing new to offer. For all his efforts, he had managed only to swap one enemy for another.
Even that didn’t last. Early this year, Samuel and Monster were promoted. After they moved on, there was no one to guarantee the peace. Monster’s replacement in MS-13, Puyudo, resumed the attacks on Casa Blanca.
Casa Blanca was still outgunned, still outnumbered, still trapped. In March, a young boy in its territory was wounded in a shootout. A few days later, MS-13 took shots at Anner after work.
A week later, a member shot at Fanny while she was walking her son home from school.
Pastor Danny’s mission became much more daunting. Trying to change the neighborhood, much less all of San Pedro Sula, or the rest of Honduras, seemed futile.
“All of the things that end here on the streets, it all starts with government corruption,” he said.
But his cynicism gave way to hope. A few weeks after MS-13 took shots at Fanny, the pastor managed to meet with Puyudo, the new leader.
“I think I can convince him to stop the shooting,” the pastor said. “We are supposed to meet again soon.”