The boys from the Honduran port city of La Ceiba would sprint into the waves, splashing each other in the south Caribbean, doing things young coastal boys do. Playing at the beach. Picking mangos. Teasing each other about girls. Oh, and boasting of their favorite futbol players while flicking each other the ball with their bare feet.
One of the boys shadowed his idol, a national team player named Rene “Pupa” Martinez, everywhere he went. He followed him so closely that one of Pupa’s teammates finally gave the child a nickname of his own — Muma.
It was the beginning of a sticky-hot summer by the sea, the beginning of hope for Muma and all his friends . . .
More than 20 years later, it’s the beginning of another sticky-hot summer in Washington, and an air conditioner whirs in a hotel conference room near Dulles International Airport. Victor “Muma” Bernardez lowers his voice when asked what happened to his childhood buddies.
“Esos hijos, mis amigos, tomaron el camino equivocado.”
“Those children, my friends, they took the wrong path.”
The boys Bernardez played with on that beach are almost all dead, he said, victims of one of the most dangerous nations in the world.
The chances of being murdered in Honduras were nearly 91 in 100,000 in 2012, by far the highest rate in the world, according to a U.N. report released last month. That is, unless you live in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city, which a Mexican think tank recently said has the highest murder rate in the world outside of a war zone — 187 per every 100,000 people.
“Satan himself lives here in San Pedro,” a Honduran mortician told the Guardian newspaper last year. “People here kill people like they’re nothing more than chickens.”
Maybe you’ve heard this story before, a Central or South American country seized by gangland violence. Add the growing influence of drug cartels — the fact that 90 percent of cocaine shipped from Colombia to the United States is now estimated by human rights groups to go through Honduras — and the best thing you can think of is to tell anyone living there to find a safer home elsewhere. Just get out.
But it’s not that easy. This is Bernardez’s country. Though they left when they were young, it is also Roger Espinosa’s country and the birthplace of Andy Najar, a former standout in high school in Northern Virginia and with D.C. United. The three were in Washington this week with the Honduran national team to play a friendly against Turkey Thursday night at RFK Stadium, a tuneup match before the World Cup in Brazil next month.
A day before the game, Bernardez, a 32-year-old defender who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS, his two teammates and their Colombian coach, Luis Fernando Suarez, walked into that hotel conference room in their blue national team uniforms to ask for help, to find ways to stop the killing of boys with whom they grew up.
Sitting across from members of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Partners of the Americas and other development organizations in a room with a sign outside that read “The Power of Soccer to Combat Youth Violence in Honduras,” the players kept thanking everyone for coming, for adopting their cause even though none were from Honduras.
As they kept looking every aid worker, government employee and journalist in the eye, nodding, all you could feel was incredible humility : You’re thanking us? You overcame hell — unimaginable poverty, the worst homicide rates on earth, daily criminal temptations and somehow survived to tell us about it. What did we do? Really, what do we need to do?
“I had many friends who were gang members and who were killed,” Bernardez said. “I had so many friends who were jailed. About 15 of them died in the fire.”
“There was a jail fire,” Bernardez’s interpreter explained.
You find out the El Porvenir prison outside La Ceiba burst into flames during a riot in 2003 — that 68 men were burned to death, suffered smoke inhalation or were killed by inmates with weapons or police, that it’s one of three prison fires the past 10 years in Honduras.
“The bad guys, they pressure little kids,” said Espinosa, who lost an older brother to the violence. “They say, ‘You do this or you’re dead.’ Kids are scared. Families are scared. We need, as a country, kids should be able to make a choice and not be pressured into one choice.”
Even for someone who speaks un poquito Spanish, it was easy to understand two words that kept repeating in all their personal testimonies Wednesday afternoon:
Camino equivocado — wrong path.
So tempting, so immediately gratifying, even the boy they called Muma had to think about it.
“When I was earning 3,000 lempiras,” he began, referring to his weekly stipend from the national team’s youth program, “my friend make 10,000 lempiras stealing. In one day. They were asking me, ‘Choose.’ ”
Think about that. You’re 17, making a little more than $140 per week to play soccer and suddenly your friends are pulling in almost $500 a day , some for simply being a lookout or a scout for a gang — in a nation where money and good jobs are so scarce for the young.
Muma chose himself. His fork-in-the-road moment came at 17 when he went to the capital of Tegucigalpa, about 120 miles south of his life in La Ceiba, to try to make it as a professional player.
“It was because of my dreams I was able to choose the right path,” he said. “It was my mom, my grandma, my family and my soccer – all mixed together.”
“Do you feel like the lucky one, the fortunate one to escape and have a good life?” he was asked.
“Yes,” Bernardez said. “But I think it is more than luck. I think it is a blessing from God.
“If I go back, looking through my life, going back and back . . . all I can be is grateful. I feel it is a dream to give back, to show the values I learned to go on the right path. Because I identify with those children. Those are the children I once was.”
Victor Bernardez walked back through the door, back into his life, a game the next day, a World Cup in about three weeks.
The most dangerous country in the world braces for his success in Brazil, knowing how many young boys on a La Ceiba beach a great soccer player can inspire.
And if just one follows him around like Bernardez once followed around a player nicknamed Pupa, there is hope for Honduras.
Because lost in the tragedy of so many lives senselessly taken so young, we sometimes forget to salute the one who made the right choices, who became so much more than just the defensive anchor of a national team’s back line.
Against odds no other boy on that beach was able to overcome, Muma made it.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.