ARRANGING A MEETING with a family affected by violence can be a painstaking affair itself.
On a fall afternoon in Tegucigalpa, I headed out to meet two families that AJS staff members are helping through grueling trials: Both families have lost loved ones to murder.
Finding the families involved rendezvousing in an unmarked office in a nondescript building away from AJS headquarters.
The secrecy comes from fear. When family members lose a loved one to violence, they’re sometimes afraid to call the police: What if an officer is corrupt and tells a perpetrator about the report? For someone who witnesses a crime, it’s often even more frightening: What if a witness loses his own life for testifying against a gang member or other criminals?
The deep fears have led to a high rate of unsolved crime: Some 90 percent of homicides in Honduras are never prosecuted.
One couple I met described the murder of their adult daughter in front of her two young children a year ago. The woman was standing at a corner store when three gang members forced her into a car.
Her father called police, but says officers told him they had to wait 24 hours before investigating. He searched the streets all night, and the next day he heard a news report about a woman found dead in an alley in Tegucigalpa. He went to the morgue and asked to see the body. It was his daughter. He could see the marks of strangulation on her neck.
In this case, the murdered woman’s children recognized one of the perpetrators. Police caught the offender, but the other two men remain uncaptured. The grieving grandparents moved to another community for safety and are now raising their five grandchildren.
Another woman I met witnessed the murder of her brother on a street corner four years ago. The accused is still awaiting trial, and the woman may have to serve as a witness. That frightens her, but she says she’s convinced it’s important to move forward: “I have to ask the Lord for strength—and for His will to be done.”
AJS intervenes in cases like these by dispatching a three-person team to help families and witnesses work through their anxieties over reporting crimes: An investigator tracks down evidence to help police, a lawyer helps families and witnesses navigate hearings and trial dates, and a psychologist helps deal with trauma and loss.
In the neighborhoods where AJS has focused its efforts, the organization has seen prosecution rates go up and murder rates go down, as police arrest more criminals and as courts prosecute more perpetrators. In one community, the group reports the average number of homicides per year dropped from 54 to 8.
The group applies the same case-by-case approach to confronting corruption in civil sectors as well. For example, a few years ago, AJS launched a project to find out how many of some 60,000 teachers on government payrolls were actually in classrooms. The results: They found 26 percent were not at their posts.
The findings led to the resignation of the minister of education and an overhaul of the government slate of teachers.
That monitoring project continues, and it’s dependent on an army of volunteers willing to help. Hundreds of volunteers from local churches and communities show up at schools and report whether they find teachers on-site and in classrooms each day.
Sonia Diaz volunteers as a monitor for local schools and government-run health clinics. Trek down a steep road, cross a footbridge, and descend a flight of stairs, and you’ll find Diaz in a small concrete home with a couple of rooms and a single light.
She has four sons in school and says raising boys is challenging in Honduras. Making sure they go to school wouldn’t matter if teachers didn’t show up and teach. She regularly walks to the school and keeps tabs: “I want to be responsible, and I want to make sure they’re responsible too.”
Diaz takes the duties seriously, and when I ask if anyone has ever tapped her to do this kind of work before, she quickly shakes her head: “No, no—but it depends on us.”
AJS plans to continue its efforts to monitor civic and criminal sectors and to work with the Honduran government on reforms. But in January, the group might have to do it with half the staff: The Trump administration’s recent cuts in aid to Honduran organizations will slash AJS’ $4 million budget in half.
When I interviewed Ver Beek in his office in October, he was working on a plan to give 60 of the 150 staffers a two-month notice. “We’ve had success, and not in tiny things,” he said. “This ought to be the time to double down.”