In primary and secondary schools of this Central American capital, “hallway” is not just another word for corridor, but slang for a gantlet of gangsters who hit up instructors for money on the way to the classroom.
Teachers who don’t pay, don’t teach.
Gang prevention police distribute US-funded pamphlets on manners and anger management in about two-thirds of Tegucigalpa’s 130 public schools. Gang members circulate catalogues of girls offering sexual services for sale.
Street gangs do not need to recruit in Honduran schools. In a nation of limited opportunities, more schoolchildren want to join the violent Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street and other new gangs than the bands can absorb.
Just as they control most Tegucigalpa neighborhoods, street gangs rule over most public schools in the capital.
Many students are gangsters, along with some of their parents. The gangs lay claim to buildings with graffiti, and monitor the police monitoring them.
“The schools are a base of organization for the gangs, and the point through which all children in the neighborhood pass,” said Lieutenant Colonel Santos Nolasco, spokesman for the joint military and police force charged with security in the nation of 8.2 million people.
Gangs rely on kids for their grunt work because they will not face long jail sentences if they are caught.
More than a third of the estimated 5,000 gang members with criminal charges against them in 2010 were under 15, according to the only study examining age in gangs.
Police say this year they have detained more than 400 minors for gang activity, some as young as 12.
Police say some gangsters intentionally repeat grades just to hold onto their illegal operations in a school, which means kids between the ages of 11 and 17 could be in the same class.
While most gang violence occurs outside school walls, there have been rapes and kidnappings inside, and extortion is rampant.
Along with the occasional gantlet forcing teachers to cough up pocket money, gangs order educators to pay 1,000 lempiras (US$47) a month, more than 10 percent of their salary.
“The extortion takes place through the school director,” said Liliana Ruiz, the Ministry of Education’s director for Tegucigalpa. “They make an appointment with the director at the mall and he has to arrive with the money.”
Ruiz said that in many schools, a teacher has no choice other than to get along with the gangsters. If a gang grabs a child from a classroom, most teachers know to keep quiet, even if the student is never heard from again.
“The fear is indescribable ... because these children are capable of anything,” Ruiz said.
The front of the Jose Ramon Montoya Institute in eastern Tegucigalpa is painted with MS-13 graffiti, tags of the Mara Salvatrucha.
Until recently, dozens of gangsters used the second floor of the elementary and secondary school to sell drugs and organize girls into prostitution.
A 14-year-old can earn US$500 a month in prostitution — more than a police officer’s salary, said police officer Yojana Corrales of the capital’s gang prevention unit.
Last year, three students became pregnant after being raped on Montoya’s second floor, according to a teacher. Officials called for protection at the start of the new school year, but gangsters threw furniture from the second floor when police moved in.
After officers were stationed at every door, the gangsters retreated and authorities regained control.
“We do everything humanly possible, but the problem isn’t in school, it’s in society,” teacher Marcio Pastrana said.
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