Postcard from San Pedro Sula

February 5, 2013
The descent into the Sula Valley late Monday afternoon. (By Steven Goff -- The Washington Post)
The descent into the Sula Valley late Monday afternoon. (By Steven Goff — The Washington Post)

San Pedro Sula is a city of about 1 million settled almost 600 years ago in a fertile valley in the shadows of the majestic Sierra del Merendon. It’s tucked in the northwest region of Honduras, an hour from the Caribbean, near the border with Guatemala. With industry and agriculture, it is the nation’s economic muscle. There are historic cathedrals and museums, even two water parks.

On the road from the modern airport into the city, vendors sell baleadas (a burrito hybrid), jugo de cana (sugar cane juice) and cowboy hats.

It is a scene not unlike those I’ve witnessed in countless other developing countries.

Except San Pedro Sula has another distinction: It is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I say “one of” because, frankly, I am more comfortable here than on assignment in some warring hot spots around the globe.

According to the U.S. State Department, however, this is not “one of.” This “is.”

In 2011, for every 100,000 residents in San Pedro Sula, 159 were murdered.

“These threats have increased substantially over the past several years,” said a November travel warning from the State Dept., “and incidents can occur anywhere.”

On Monday night, two-dozen American reporters in town for Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier between the United States and Honduras gathered in a hotel conference room for a security briefing from an embassy representative.

The message echoed common sense in many big cities: Take precautions or you will be targeted. Don’t walk alone. Don’t show a cell phone on the street.

The U.S. players and support staff received a similar briefing at their hotel across town. Most players tend not to venture out anyway — this is business. As with every away qualifier, the U.S. Soccer Federation works with the State Department, embassy and local police to provide a buffer of security. The team bus receives armed escort and the hotel is tightly monitored. An embassy special agent works with the USSF’s security personnel.

U.S. officials are not anticipating trouble at the stadium.

The violence is attributed to poverty, gangs and drug trafficking. And then there’s this: “Members of the national police have been known to engage in criminal activity, such as murder and car theft,” the State Department said. “The government lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and to deter violent crime.”

It’s always something here, it seems. When the Americans visited four years ago, Honduras was suffering from a constitutional crisis.

Despite their troubles, Hondurans are warm, friendly people. They care deeply about their country and will, undoubtedly, color 40,000-seat Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in a sea of blue hours before kickoff. To further bolster home-field advantage, the Honduran federation scheduled the start time for 3 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET), when the temperature will hit the mid-to-upper eighties and the humidity the upper seventies. The government has declared a national holiday, freeing fans to attend the match or watch on TV during an otherwise typical work day.

Upon arrival Monday afternoon, I was driven to the hotel by perhaps the only Honduran who doesn’t like soccer. On the plus side, he knew the words to Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” and said “Ooh la la” a lot. He once worked in the cruise industry.

There is an Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Denny’s here. But there’s also Don Udo’s, founded by a Dutchman who fell in love with the mountains.

This is my third visit to San Pedro Sula. A dozen years ago, a bunch of us unkempt scribes arrived in a private box to begin working. There was nothing luxurious about it; in fact, it was barely functional. The information age had just begun and dial-up computer tones were the means to file on deadline. The telephone jack was damaged, however, and as kickoff approached, we took turns furiously whittling flakes of plastic. Success! The outside world would read about Clint Mathis’s tiebreaking free kick in the waning moments.

After the game, packed into a van stuck in traffic in a dirt parking lot, I watched two boys, maybe 10 years old, wearing ratty soccer jerseys, with their arms around one another’s shoulders, heads lowered in disappointment, walking between trees, silhouetted by sparse light and blurred by dust and exhaust. Regrettably, I didn’t have a camera. The mental photograph has stayed with me, vivid and striking as ever.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff | February 4, 2013