When Juan Carlos Enamorado was a young teenager, his family moved from the relative calm of the rural state of Colón on the coast of Honduras to the chaos of San Pedro Sula — one of the most violent cities in the world. He was just 14 years old and ripe for recruitment into the notoriously violent Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs.
“I was drawn to the gangs,” remembers Enamorado (whose surname means “in love”).
He saw two paths before him: the gang, or his love of breakdancing and rap. The love affair started with KRS-One, Eminem, Vico C and Cancervero, and then he studied the origins of hip-hop, “how it was formed in the Bronx, that it was born through young men who wanted to create something positive within the chaos,” he says. “We realized that this is what is happening to us! If you left the house at 10 at night, all you would see would be gang members.”
Now — at the ripe old age of 24 — he fronts a group that uses hip-hop culture to try to lure young people in Honduras out of the grip of violence. Workshops, events and competitions run by Warriors Zulu Nation Honduras aim to get kids off the streets, change their mentality and offer them a sense of self-worth and belonging — reaching 2,000 kids so far. The United States Agency for International Development recognized them as “community heroes” in 2014 for their outreach work, and they attend events across Central and South America.
Honduras has earned the ignoble moniker of being, at times, the most violent nation in the world not at war.
To many, Enamorado is a working-class boy done good, his story typical of hundreds of thousands of young Hondurans trying to stay out of trouble. To others, he is a naive dreamer trying to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
When Enamorado — aka JC Rock — arrived in San Pedro Sula, the gangs had established control in many parts of the country, especially its urban centers. His part of the neighborhood of Chamelecón was a stronghold for the Barrio 18 gang, and it was the first time he had lived up close to gang members. “Just living there made you respect and fear the gang,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone from the gang, but at school they respected me just because I was from that barrio, and I liked that.”
His parents separated and, like tens of thousands of Hondurans, his mother spent periods of time working in the United States. His dad worked long hours as a security guard. The absence of parental supervision left him and his brothers exposed to recruitment, but his older brother Kelvin got into break-dance and hip-hop culture and started to try to get Enamorado to do the same.
But he was torn.
Enamorado and his friends “started robbing and smoking weed and doing other bad stuff.” He was approached by a gang that wanted to recruit him, and though he didn’t officially join, he remembers giving information about a rival gang member that led to a kidnapping.
It’s difficult to overstate the violence in Honduras. The small Central American nation has earned the ignoble moniker of being, at times, the most violent nation in the world not at war. The conflict generated by transnational drug trafficking and local street gangs is fanned by criminal impunity and corruption that starts with street cops and runs all the way to the top of political and judicial power. Even current President Juan Orlando Hernández has faced allegations of taking bribes from drug traffickers — which he denies.
With that said, the country has succeeded in halving its homicide rate over the last few years, mainly by tackling gang-related violence. But with a murder rate of 40 to 50 people per 100,000, Honduras is still one of the most murderous countries in one of the most homicidal regions in the world.
Keysel Rolando, who oversees rural projects in San Pedro Sula for the local government, says Enamorado’s project has been having an important impact, and that violence and gang recruitment in Chamelecón have dropped. The presence of the Warriors is “fundamental” because they’re so respected. “These youngsters are seen as agents of change in their community,” said Rolando. But he recognizes this sort of outreach work is a long process.
The idea around the Warriors isn’t rocket science — if you’re working out or creating art or dancing and making friends, it means you’re not hanging around on the streets, getting into drugs and looking for trouble. But how big an impact can a project like Enamorado’s have in a country like Honduras, which has so far failed to create widespread public policies that address the issue? The authorities tend to attack the gangs directly instead of seeing them as a symptom of larger problems and addressing the reasons why they exist and have so much power.
“The main problem is that the impact and results that these sorts of programs achieve are very short-term,” says David Ramírez, head of the security program at the Mexico Evalúa, a public policy think tank focused on Mexico and Latin America. “They don’t cater to the complex situations in which these youngsters live — a lot of inequality and marginalization. They’re usually in excluded zones with very little job and educational opportunities. On top of that is the family context … there is intra-family violence and alcoholism.” It is also unlikely that those committed to arts such as breakdance and rap can make a living from those activities down the line, which is why it is easy for poor youngsters to slide backward.
Most of the Warriors’ funding comes from participants and volunteers, and they work closely with some local authorities to bring in young people via the use of dance and hip-hop. Once the kids are hooked, the Warriors also help give leadership and team-player training. Enamorado himself is an accomplished and admired break-dancer. The organization’s social media pages are full of videos of him leading dance sessions and workshops.
The youngsters who Enamorado says he’s reached so far are a drop in the ocean, as he well knows, but with regular trips around the region and partners in the United States, the group hopes to grow its ranks and resources to make a broader impact. For now, the project is changing some lives, which in the case of Honduras is perhaps as much as one can hope for.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.