Australia are to face Honduras for a World Cup playoff in a Central American stadium on Friday located on the edge of a cane field notorious for being where gangs dumped corpses and dismembered victims with chainsaws.
But the Socceroos “have nothing to fear,” assured the police of San Pedro Sula, the host city in Honduras, pointing to greatly improved security in recent years.
“We will have the Australians eat ‘shots’ and chuco chicken,” a local specialty, rather than dodge any violence, said police spokesman Jorge Rodriguez, referring to a dish of black-bean tortillas and a local style of chicken.
The match in the city’s 40,000-place Olimpico Metropolitano Stadium is the first part of a playoff that will then see both Australia and Honduras fly to Sydney for the return tie on November 15. The winner gets a berth in the World Cup tournament next year in Russia.
San Pedro Sula built up an unenviable reputation in the past as the most murderous city in Honduras — itself part of Central America’s notorious Northern Triangle, along with Guatemala and El Salvador, where gang violence, drug trafficking, poverty and corruption are rife.
Five years ago, a Mexican NGO called the place the second most violent city in all of Latin America, after Juarez in Mexico.
– Police battalions –
But now, after four years of stepped-up military and police patrols and aggressive street crackdowns, things have improved, authorities insist.
Four battalions of militarized police — each one comprised of 500 armed police — have been installed in the area, setting up base.
They are part of a get-tough policy that President Juan Orlando Hernandez has deployed against the vicious gangs.
When Australia face up to Honduras in the stadium, surrounded by barbed wire, there will be 1,200 police and soldiers deployed inside and outside the venue, in consecutive security rings, Rodriguez said, adding that drones would also be used.
“All of them will have radios, backed by video cameras and connected to a central command,” he explained. “That already worked well when the United States, Costa Rica and Mexico came” to play.
Santos Leonel Reyes, one of the guards at the government morgue that conducts autopsies on victims of violent deaths, said, “It’s calm now because there are patrols 24 hours a day in all the city — there are no more turf wars between the gangs.”
That has made a big difference from four years ago, when “there were an average of 24 bodies a day coming in here,” he said. “Now there are three a week.”
But a captain at the gate of the police camp warned that San Pedro Sula is still a “time bomb.”
“Here, the gangs never go away… the problem is latent,” he said. The gangs “operate like guerrillas.”
– ‘Footballers are protected’ –
Manuel Martínez, a 67-year-old taxi driver, acknowledged “there are still risky areas” in the city. He added that, when his cab is hailed by someone with tattoos — a common adornment for gang members — “I don’t take them.”
But he reckoned “nothing will happen to the Australians, because here footballers are protected. Here there is only football and politics… there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
San Pedro Sula, population one million, sits at the foot of a wooded mountain known as El Merendon.
A small zone of walled mansions for the wealthy perches above the city’s outer band, a lively area of boulevards with funparks and shopping centers. More central is the city park in front of a colonial-era cathedral and a few high-rise buildings, below which sit middle-class houses with their markets. Beyond them are the slums, plagued by crime.
As the captain of the Honduras team, Maynor Figueroa, said: “The only war they (the Australians) will see is on the field.”