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Gangs ‘Do Whatever They Want’ in Honduras City Known as Most Dangerous Place

July 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Next, Outside of a war zone, this is the most dangerous place on earth, San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, at the crossroads of drug shipments from South America to the United States.

More than 1,200 people were killed in the city last year, more than 7,000 in the country. Thanks to those ongoing drug wars, it has the highest per capita murder rate in the world.

Our story comes from filmmaker Guillermo Galdos, who spent a week in Honduras on assignment for Britain’s Channel 4 News.

A warning: The images and the details in this report are disturbing.

GUILLERMO GALDOS, filmmaker: Friday night at the main hospital in San Pedro Sula, the casualties would in, this man barely alive shot twice in the head. The hospital is so busy that even a dying man has to wait 24 hours for an operation.

WOMAN (through translator): I never thought it would happen to me. I used to see it on the news all the time. I never thought it would happen to me because my kids are clean.

MAN (through translator): In the last two years, violence in this country has increased tremendously.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: The gang violence even reaches in here. Armed guards are needed to protect patients.

WOMAN (through translator): I have faith in God that everything will be fine. But he has two bullets in his head. I have to be realistic.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: Her son David died later that night.

I wanted to see what it was like out on the streets. Everyone is terrified of the gangs, but this man agreed to tell me how it works if we hid his identity.

MAN (through translator): All businesses, from the smallest to the biggest, are paying the famous rent to the gangs.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: He runs a transport company. He says he has to pay $1,000 a month to the gangs.

MAN (through translator): In my business, since the extortion started, the gangs have killed around 80 of my colleagues. If you want to survive, you need to pay. If you don’t pay, you die.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: Eduardo Vega (ph) was a bus driver. Most likely, it was his boss who refused to pay protection money to the gangs.

MAN (through translator): Are you the mother?

WOMAN (through translator): Yes, I’m the mother.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: He was executed here, at 9:00 in the morning, in front of dozens of witnesses. And even his mother is careful what she says about his killers.

WOMAN (through translator): God should be the judge of those people who took his life. I will forgive them for what they did to my son.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: These guys are members of one of the deadliest gangs in the world. They have killed hundreds of people, and here in this barrio, they control everything from the shops to the police. In the ’90s, thousands of Honduran gang members were deported from L.A. They found fertile territory back home.

GUILLERMO GALDOS (through translator): If I come here alone tonight and go inside the barrio alone, what would happen?

MAN (through translator): I’m more than 100 percent sure they would shoot you. They would kill you. There are so many tombs. They can even bury you alive.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: Douglas is a veteran gang member. The stars on his arm mean he has killed two police officers.

GUILLERMO GALDOS (through translator): I have seen many dead people in the streets, but many have also disappeared?

MAN (through translator): Those that disappear are the ones we bury alive.

GUILLERMO GALDOS (through translator): You bury them alive?

MAN (through translator): Yes. You only shoot them once, then bury them. Then they will drown in their own blood in the ground.

GUILLERMO GALDOS (through translator):Why do you do that? 

MAN (through translator): Because we need to respect the territories.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: The gangs are run from here. It’s a jail, but not as we know it, pizza deliveries to the prisoners, inmates in charge of security. It looks easy to get out. In fact, it’s like a fortified headquarters for the gang bosses.

Marcus is head of the Salvatrucha gang.

MAN (through translator): This is where we sleep.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: He’s been in jail for 13 years for murder.

MAN (through translator): My organization is my family. The people who live in our barrios know how it is. They know what we do. They know we take care of people at night. That’s normal. It’s as if you put private security in your neighborhood.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: The gangs are trying to rehabilitate their image, and the authorities seem keen to help them. They allow Marcus out of jail for the day. He’s come to an old people’s home to deliver a gift of 50 beds.

MAN (through translator): In the past, they have hurt society. Now they know they need to change.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: The media treats the convicted murderer like a politician.

MAN (through translator): We have the will. We have changed, and we have taken the first step. That’s what we want to show to society.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: They may be talking about peace, but there is no sign of it out on the streets. They arrest a man on suspicion of being a gang member.

MAN (through translator): We are fighting an asymmetric war. They know who we are, but we don’t know who they are.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: And this means that accidents happen. This video was taken immediately after the military shot almost an entire family by mistake.

Even the president doesn’t hold out much hope that the violence will stop.

PRESIDENT PORFIRIO LOBO SOSA, Honduras (through translator): We know that 70 percent of the violence is related to drugs. If there was less consumption, there would be less demand, because what we can’t change is our geographic location. We could never change that.

GUILLERMO GALDOS: At the city morgue in San Pedro Sula, families wait for the bodies of their loved ones. People here are trapped in a society where the gangs do whatever they want, and no one believes things will change. It felt like the most dangerous city on earth was resigned to its fate.

GWEN IFILL: And one more detail: According to the U.S. State Department, Honduras is the first stop for 79 percent of all cocaine arriving here from South America.