In violent Honduras, soccer offers the young an escape from gangs, drugs and early death

Alberto Arce / The Associated Press
May 25, 2014 04:00 AM

ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY MAY 25 - In this Monday, March 3, 2014 photo, 11-year-old Maynor Ayala holds a soccer ball as he poses for a portrait before practice at his neighborhood's pitch in Progreso, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Maynor allows himself to imagine going all the way to the World Cup one day, just like one of his heroes, Emilio Izaguirre, who will play in Brazil this summer on the Honduran national team. “I want to be a soccer player,” Maynor says. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - From where he sits on a dusty soccer pitch between the fetid Choluteca River and four-lane Armed Forces Boulevard, 11-year-old Maynor Ayala can see only two ways out of the gang-controlled slums of the capital: on a professional soccer team, or in a cheap coffin.

Sweating and gulping water on a hot Saturday afternoon, he is euphoric after making a goal for the first time in weeks. Briefly, he allows himself to imagine going all the way to the World Cup one day, just like one of his heroes, Emilio Izaguirre, who will play in Brazil this summer on the Honduran national team. "I want to be a soccer player," Maynor says.

But as Maynor and his friends settle down on the rock-studded field, his boyish smile fades into hard talk. "My cousin was shot here on the field," Maynor says, miming a pistol with his thumb and index finger.

"Remember the taxi driver they executed here a while ago?" asks his 14-year-old friend, Marvin Cruz.

"We also went to see a body cut in pieces over there by the bridge," Maynor adds.

Their coach listens with despair as they tick off the dead. Luis Lopez, 45, confined to a wheelchair after a bicycle accident more than a decade ago, is working the kids hard every day but Sunday, hoping that the discipline of sport will keep them out of violent street gangs that dominate much of Tegucigalpa. His threadbare soccer program is modest compared to the challenges these children face: the pull of the streets, violence, poverty and drugs. But as for slum children from Brazil to Bangladesh, the game is also a lifeline.

Maynor, Marvin and the others seated on the ground are some of the kids who give the coach hope. Not the pot-smokers on the sidelines, not lost souls like 14-year-old Antony who don't stay in school. Luisito is teaching these boys and girls to play soccer, knowing that the real game for them is to stay alive.

"Why do you have to go look at the bodies?" he asks.

To Maynor, the answer seems perfectly obvious. "What if it's your father or brother or mother? You have to go see."

He may not know the statistic — that a child his age was shot to death ever four days in Honduras last year, or that the odds only get worse as you grow older. But Maynor senses that the corpses in his neighbourhood offer a glimpse of his future if he moves toward the gangs. He goes to see the bodies, he says, "because you think that next time it could be you there."

___

The neighbourhood where Maynor lives is called Progreso, a name that mocks its dirt roads, open sewage canals and overcrowded houses with corrugated metal roofs that make a deafening racket in the rain. It sits downhill from a private golf course, surrounded by rival gang territories. There's a gated iron fence that its 100 families put up and lock at night to keep out criminals. Even so, Maynor and the other children hide inside after dark and sometimes hit the ground at the sound of gunfire.

In the daytime, dogs nose through piles of garbage on the roadsides. Along the banks of the Choluteca, children and adults alike dig through scum for sand they can sell to construction sites for about $2 per 100-pound bag. Vultures circle overhead.

The soccer pitch is built on a graveyard of victims of Hurricane Mitch, neighbours who were buried alive in mud as the hills collapsed around them in 1998 and whose bodies were never recovered. The field owes its stands and fence to the help of Jose de la Paz Herrera, known as "Chelato Ucles," the godfather of Honduran soccer. Chelato, 74, was the manager of the first Honduran national team ever to make it to the World Cup — to Spain in 1982 — and for that he became a national hero as well as a member of parliament for a time.

For years, Chelato has combed the slums of Honduras in search of talent like Izaguirre, 28, now a left defender for the Glasgow Celtic and one of just five Hondurans with a prized spot in a European league. Izaguirre lived in a neighbourhood much like Progreso, one of the many battlefields between the warring Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs. He was recruited onto a team in the national federation, where Chelato spotted him. He went on to become a member of the Honduran national team that made it to the World Cup four years ago in South Africa.

"Emilio Izaguirre was strong because of genetics and because of nutrition. The technique he got by playing every day," Chelato said. He stands larger than life on the sidelines of the Progreso field watching Maynor and his friends, in particular a 14-year-old named Daniel, who is the best player among them. Chelato looks resigned. "What kills talent in Honduras is malnutrition."

Chelato used funds available to him as a member of parliament to pay for grading the soccer pitch, adding bleachers and a fence to keep balls from skipping into the river. In neighbourhoods without parks or plazas, the soccer field is the only public space. Adults wanted to be able to use it after work, so they took it upon themselves to get floodlights — by posing as electric workers in company T-shirts and hard hats, and stealing them from a fancy shopping mall under construction. "We had to stop traffic to do it," says one of the neighbours. "We went to where they have too much, and brought them to where we don't have enough. It's that simple."

Luis, or Luisito as the trainer is affectionately called, an avid soccer player before his accident, continued coaching adults afterward. But his attention kept wandering to the fringes of the pitch where kids gathered to smoke dope and sniff cement. Either they already belonged to one of the street gangs that deportees had brought back with them from the United States, or they soon would be recruited for cannon fodder, he thought.

More than three quarters of Tegucigalpa is made up of slums that are controlled or contested by gangsters who send minors out to collect their extortion money, sell drugs and make good on their death threats. The kids are eager to impress, and less aware of the consequences. If caught, they won't serve as much time in jail as adults and can be put back to work sooner. Luisito felt he had to do something, and so last June he began meeting with parents to propose a youth soccer program.

"We couldn't have an empty field while this was going on," Luisito recalls. He told the parents, "training and practice have to defeat vice, and the violence of the gangs."

Days later, Maynor and about 40 other boys and girls turned out to sign up for soccer, writing their names in the black notebook that Luisito keeps on the table of his wheelchair to take roll at training.

___

Maynor lives on Progreso's only paved street in a two-bedroom house with about a dozen relatives. He shares a bed with his mother and rambunctious younger brother in a tidy room with a low ceiling where they also cook on a gas burner. Maynor likes to cook and his mother makes sure he does his share of the chores.

Compared to some, they are well off. Maynor goes to school, although even the Minister of Education acknowledges that, most years, classes are in session only about a third of the time because there isn't enough money to pay teachers. His mother, Suyapa Ferrera, has a job as a city street sweeper and his father, who left long ago for the United States, occasionally sends $30 that they use for luxuries such as cement for the walls of the house, or a pair of soccer shoes.

Maynor, who looks young for his age, likes to clown around with his friends, and a lively talker who gesticulates with both hands to make a point. Soccer is one of the topics Maynor and his friends usually talk about, along with gangs, violence and God. They are passionate about soccer, although none of them ever has been to a match at the national stadium a few miles away. Luisito tells them that futbol will keep them out of trouble, and they agree that is what they want. Yet Maynor says it is harder to stay out of the gangs than to join.

There is an appeal to the older kids smoking in the shade of Progreso's few trees and making cool gestures with tattooed hands. Everyone knows the drill: First they ask you to be a lookout, to report any unusual activities or strangers hanging around. That makes you feel you belong. Then they send you on errands and, eventually, they give you a gun to use for more serious work, such as stealing a motorcycle or threatening a taxi driver who refuses to pay up.

"A boy who becomes a gangster ends up killing," Maynor says, repeating the refrain he has learned from Luisito. "Violence is the bad road, something that leads to your own death." The soccer kids set their sights on the good road with the support of Luisito, some of their parents and a trust in God honed during Sunday services at Progreso's evangelical church. "God is the one who decides if I can be like Emilio Izaguirre."

A carpenter before his accident, Luisito now lives off of a family store in their living room and spends much of his time on the soccer program, so much so that it is said he "sees all and hears all" that is going on in the community. He knows which families are whole and whose fathers have left for the United States. He keeps track of the parents who drink too much, and knows which children have been beaten by the bruises on their thin bodies. No matter their circumstances at home, he demands that the soccer players stay clean. You smoke, you sniff, Luisito will find out for sure, the kids say. "I've had to kick three boys out of training," Luisito says.

The kids are careful when speaking of gangs. They've learned the rules by osmosis. Their speech is marked by ellipses and euphemisms. Like Harry Potter's Voldemort, the gangs are never mentioned by name. They are "the groups" and gang violence is "the problem" or "the situation." And if accidentally a boy mentions the Maras or 18th Street, he may get a swift slap across the face from one of his friends — for his own good.

Luisito also is cautious. "The neighbourhood over there is controlled by one gang," he says, nodding in one direction but averting his eyes. Then turning the opposite way, he says, "and over there it's the other side." Neither gang has openly taken control of Progreso, a move that likely would result in a bloodbath. Luisito hopes his soccer training helps maintain the equilibrium, denying the gangs new recruits.

Luisito tries to reel in the ones on the margins, such as the boy named Antony. When he arrived some months ago, he signed the roster with only his first name: Antony, 14. The kids told Luisito he seemed like trouble and that he smoked marijuana. Instead of going to school, he spent his days on city buses dressed as a clown and begging for spare change. Luisito wanted to give the boy a chance, but the boys were not as generous. "When he came to the field, we teased him and threw rocks," Maynor says.

Maynor came close to getting kicked out of soccer when he started to veer onto the bad road late last year. He describes his troubles in childish fragments that must be assembled. He was close to someone with a gun who had a problem with a girl and, well, Luisito realized he was not on the right path. Luisito told him he would have to choose between guns and soccer.

Maynor opted to play ball.

___

At about 2 o'clock, after a hurried lunch, the children of Progreso change out of their white school shirts and long pants into shorts and t-shirts. Some put on sport shoes, others go barefoot to prove their mettle. No one tells them it's time for training or calls them to the pitch, they just know.

Maynor meets up with his friends Marvin and Carlos. Daniel is there and so are the girls, who barely figure in Maynor's pre-teen world except for the annoying fact that they raised money selling tamales to buy themselves knockoff Barcelona soccer shirts, and the boys don't have them.

Luisito is waiting at the pitch when the players arrive. He tells them to sign the notebook and watches as they put the nets on the goal posts and line up rocks to mark field zones. His dog and the occasional stray seek shelter from the afternoon heat in Luisito's shadow and beneath his wheelchair.

"Let's go, run, three laps around the field," Luisito yells before blowing his whistle. Three laps if they run fast. "Five laps if you don't," he threatens. They run. Then they practice kick ups juggling the ball on the top of the foot. The kids keep count as their star, Daniel, kicks the ball 249 times before he misses and it falls to the ground.

On a recent afternoon, practice ends not just with the usual feeling of fatigued accomplishment, but with a sense of anticipation. The following night Honduras is going to play a friendly game in San Pedro Sula against Venezuela, and they are looking forward to it. As often when the national team plays, one of the neighbours will haul a television screen out to the street so the children can watch together, even those who don't have a TV. They will see Izaguirre along with their other idols, Jerry Bengston, Andy Najar and Noe Valladares.

Their spirits fall that evening, though, when word begins to spread in Progreso that the body of a boy has been found a couple miles away, beaten and shot in the legs. As with every killing, Maynor remembers his dead cousin Jonathan, and wonders who it is this time.

Before bed, he learns it's Antony. They boy's often-absent father has identified the body.

On the way to school the next morning, Maynor and his friends stop to see the dead boy in an open casket. "He was really purple," Maynor says. For the moment, it is all he or anyone has to say about the murder, although many neighbours take cellphone pictures of Antony's battered face that they will share with those who were unable to attend.

That night, Antony is all but forgotten among the soccer kids who are accustomed to murder. Maynor and his friends gather in front of the television on Progreso's paved street to cheer for Honduras. They yell and jump up and down when Honduras scores in the seventh minute of the match, then grow anxious when Venezuela ties it up in the 21st minute. Some of the kids stretch, as though preparing to rotate onto the team. Others mime as sportscasters. Five minutes into the second half they're on their feet again when Honduras makes another goal, winning the friendly match 2-1.

Izaguirre defended well, sharing in the glory and preparing for the World Cup. Once again, the kids in Progreso allow themselves to dream what it would be like to play on a winning national team.

___

If life offers many lessons, so does death. Luisito is not about to let Antony's tragic end pass without comment, any more than he would miss the opportunity to herald Izaguirre's rise out of the slums. They are two sides of the same coin.

They never learned Antony's last name, but Luisito was able to ferret out a few more details from the kids: The boy slept in the street at times, joining an estimated 1,000 children who are homeless in the capital. He apparently had become involved with the 18th Street gang, possibly selling pot for them, and ran into trouble crossing a border into Mara Salvatrucha territory.

Teguicgalpa's borders, invisible to outsiders, are dangerous even for those who keep their distance from the gangs. Almost the only passport for crossing from the nearby Divana or 21 de Febrero neighbourhoods to Progresso is a bag of soccer equipment, carried to a Saturday or Sunday afternoon match and home again before dark.

Maynor says he feels badly for the way he and the other boys treated Antony as an outsider, yet he seems to take the death in stride one more that seemed inevitable. Antony had told the boys that he received a warning. "He knew they were going to kill him," Maynor says.

Izaguirre also grew up at the intersection of two gangs, he explains in San Pedro Sula after his team's victory over Venezuela. As a boy like Maynor, he lived and breathed the sport and even slept next to his soccer balls. Whenever he wasn't in school, he was at practice. "The team where I started playing was in 18th Street (territory), but I lived in an area controlled by MS," he recalls. "What freed me from the gangs is that I was always playing 'futbol', and I played with people from both gangs. I had a lot of friends and acquaintances from both bands who are dead now."

Izaguirre lived the dream. He made it to a national team, to the World Cup and to Europe. But it would be wrong to say that he is free from the slum violence of Honduras. While other players who come from better circumstances strut fancy clothes and big cars, Izaguirre keeps a low profile. He will not discuss his family or say where they live, for fear gangs will see them as fair game for extortion.

All kids want to play soccer, he says, but only a tiny minority will make it professionally and the rest have to keep struggling to stay alive. "We have a saying in our country that the one who lives badly, ends badly. We don't know if something is going to happen to us in the street, but we know it is dangerous and that we have to live every day as if it were our last."

Luisito does just that. He knows his soccer program is a small effort against a huge problem, yet with little formal education, he ably plays the role of wise man to children on the edge. "No one wants to end like Antony, right?" he asks the kids at training soon after the boy's death.

The players say they don't, and get to work with the soccer ball. They know that Luisito will continue to use Antony as an example of what happens when you choose the wrong road, until there is another corpse with a different name to take his place.

Not two weeks pass before the next one: A young man killed on a corner of the soccer pitch at about 9 p.m. Saturday night. He was not one the players, but this time the kids are too scared even to speak his name because the word is there will be more killing. "There were shots fired and then they ran away through the river," is all Maynor will say. Training is suspended on Monday. On Tuesday they play ball while the usual pot smokers gather on the sidelines, but instead of sticking around for post-game banter, the kids hurry home.

Luisito doesn't promise the boys will make it to the World Cup, though they will watch on television next month when Honduras plays. Nor does he tell them that they will make it out of the slums in a country where nearly half the people live on less than $2.50 a day. He simply tries to show them there is an alternative to professional soccer or death.

Growing up is not a given in Maynor's world, but increasingly it seems to him like an option, especially if he stays in school, plays soccer and keeps away from the gangs. He is asked to think about what he might do when he grows up if he doesn't become the next Izaguirre and for the first time foresees an alternative. "I would like to travel and sell cars around Honduras and even outside of Honduras. That would be a fun job," he says.

That gives Luis hope. "On this field, there are forty boys and girls playing soccer and only three or four smoking. For now, I am winning. I am giving them a choice. Before, they had no choice," he says.


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