In cartel fight, Honduras tries to hold the playgrounds

Noe Leiva

Tegucigalpa (AFP) - In a small park just outside of the Honduran capital, hundreds of children are playing on swings and slides. It's a scene similar to one occurring around the world, except here the playground is encircled by soldiers.

The recreational park built by the government in the San Jose de la Vega suburb, southwest of the capital, is in the heart of territory controlled by Mara 18, one of the most feared gangs in the country.

Surrounded by concrete and iron bars, the playground is constantly monitored by soldiers with rifles.

Mara 18, La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and numerous other gangs terrorize and forcibly recruit children throughout the region, including in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The government in Honduras -- considered one of the most violent countries in the world -- is taking a step to address the problem by offering children a safe space from the gangs.

In September, the US NGO Casa Alianza reported that since 1998, 9,641 murders have been recorded among young people under the age of 23.

Mariel Rivas, the head of the government organization charged with the parks project, said 20 such parks will be built around Honduras.

Rivas said another park will open this month near the northern city of San Pedro Sula. That park will also be in an area known to be under gang control.

- 'You cannot talk' -

In the San Jose de la Vega park, the bicycle paths, basketball courts and soccer fields in a space lined with palm and mango trees seems like an oasis compared to the violent world outside.

Inside and out, the military tries to protect the children from the gangs and make sure no outsiders get into the enclosure.

More than 500 children aged from three to five play in the park, and a long line often forms outside of families looking to get in.

"The park is well done, here the children cannot go out and play with the thugs," an 80-year-old resident said while taking his three grandchildren to the park.

Here "you cannot talk," said a woman next to him.

"A woman at a grocery store called the police, but when they arrived she was already shot," she said.

The district lives in fear of the "maras" gangs and their "casa locas" -- criminal safe houses where violence is commonplace.

The parks are built with funds from a new security tax, created to fight crime and reduce the huge levels of violence.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez has put an emphasis on air, sea and land deployments, often associated with US anti-drug operations, to push back against the gangs. Police have also attempted to patrol neighborhoods.

According to the president, the drug trade is responsible for seven out of 10 deaths in Honduras.

He says his new initiatives reduced the murder rate in 2014 to 66 deaths per 100,000 people. The World Health Organization published less optimistic numbers in December, calculating 103.9 homicides per 100,000 people, 15 times the world average.