“Ladies, with strength and hell-bent on victory: Go panthers,” 30 girls chant in unison during what sounds like a sports game, but is actually Honduras’ answer to keeping thousands of troubled teenagers out of the clutches of the country’s powerful and increasingly brutal gangs.
The girls were chanting at a boot camp, where children as young as 10 are hauled into military barracks for values training in a desperate bid to break the poor Central American nation’s spiral of violence.
Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate at 79 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, based in Tegucigalpa. As that alarmingly high rate keeps creeping, the government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is grappling for answers.
Experts say that even more disturbing than the murders is the role children play in the violence and that those who refuse to join gangs can be killed for it.
Yet Hernandez believes he may have found an answer with his “Guardians of the Homeland,” a nationwide initiative aiming to provide tough values education to 100,000 young people a year.
At a logistical command center outside the capital, 152 boys and girls — some as young as 10, but most aged 14 to 18 — stood ready and primed for instruction, wearing white T-shirts, sweatpants and sneakers. They were grouped in units bearing the names of Honduran or other Central American elite army squads — Warriors, Cobras, Lions, Hawks and Tigers — and chanted the names one at a time.
Bitia Medina, a 21-year-old single mother aged 21, was the oldest of the group.
“I am not planning on joining the military, but I do like to come for the values training,” she said.
Hernandez, his supporters, political allies and church groups backing the voluntary program stress that its aim is not to search for young military recruits. Instead, they are hopeful that the values, structure and discipline kids learn in the program might help them stay on the right path.
Military trucks pick up the participants from their homes in dirt-poor, gang-controlled neighborhoods at the crack of dawn and drop them off again in the evening. The program’s eight-hour days include lunch and its curriculum ranges from spiritual health and sex education, to so-called personal values training — the rights and wrongs — trainer Colonel Elvin Corea said.
“This program, I think, is close to God’s heart; it is a great effort,” Alejandro Rivera of evangelical group Christian Businessmen said as he led some of the boys in prayer.
Rivera’s involvement underlines the role religion plays in the scheme, but there are some observers — at home and at the UN — who have expressed alarm at a government giving parenting duties to a military, especially one that took power in a 2009 coup and was accused of rights abuses in the turbulent aftermath.
Local charity Casa Alianza, which works with street kids, said it was “outraged” by the program.
“We are convinced that militarizing kids’ childhood and teenage years is not the best way to develop and promote values,” it said.
Corea said the program’s participants “are just getting training to help them in their lives. None of them are going to be soldiers.”
However, 16-year-old Genesis Sanchez has other ideas, telling reporters: “I’d like to stay.”