There is a line that divides the territory controlled by the 18th Street gang and MS-13 inside of the Chamelecon neighborhood of San Pedro Sula in Honduras.
The military stands guard at the entrance of the neighborhood, an area they refer to as a "conflict zone." They stop and search vehicles for contraband and fugitives.
At just 23, Inspector Josue Aroca of the National Police oversees officers inside what many consider the most dangerous neighborhood in Honduras. In January and February alone, there were 529 homicides in Honduras, a country with a population just over 9 million, about the same size as New York City.
We rode along with police in the middle of the day inside of what used to be a residential area. It remains desolate with abandoned homes lining the streets.
Many of the families who were forced out are part of the estimated 100 thousand migrants who have reached the U.S. Southern Boarder in the past year. Most of these immigrants come from Guatemala and Honduras.
Threatened with execution, residents were given 24 hours to pack their belongings so gang members could take over, Aroca said. Often the houses get turned into casas locas, or crazy houses.
Gangs have owned this neighborhood ever since they executed more than two dozen people, including seven children, on the night before Christmas Eve in 2004, targeting families coming home from last minute holiday shopping. Today, a mural is there to remember the victims.
The area is still in a kind of lockdown, with gates, concrete walls and barbed wire. In the middle of it all, there's an outreach center for at risk youth who often have only two choices: join a gang or get killed.
Glasswing International is a non-profit organization that uses some of the approximately $67 million in aid provided to the country by the U.S. in 2018.
The Trump Administration, however, recently slashed humanitarian aid, which experts say will exacerbate an already difficult situation for Hondurans seeking refuge in their own country.
Right now, the youth outreach center is a safe haven for a 19-year-old teen who used to live in New York as well as Florida. He was recently deported back to Honduras and asked us not to use his name.
“Hell yeah,” he said when asked if gangs would kill him if he dressed in a different way. “It is like that. That's how they work. That's the real life here in Central America.”
We visited the center along with a New York delegation on a fact-finding mission to Central America. Monsignor Kevin Sullivan of Catholic Charities, New York, State Comptroller Thomas Dinapoli and Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union were all in Honduras to find out why people are fleeing to the U.S.
They hope community centers will help stem the tide by providing alternatives to joining violent gangs.
“We saw 90 kids that now have a future because they are being trained for jobs,” Monsignor Sullivan said. “They were being trained in self-esteem. They were learning values. Yes 90 is not a million, but with perseverance you begin to see hope, you begin to see that there are opportunities here.”
Less than a mile away sits another option for freedom: The San Pedro Sula bus terminal. This point marks the start of the start of the migrant caravans to the U.S., and for so many, their only way out of Chamelecon in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
PIX11's Grace Cueva and Savannah Neal contributed to this report.AlertMe