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Teens' thievery turns tragic for Honduran cop

Saturday - 12/28/2013, 9:00am  ET

EDS NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT - FILE - This Aug. 7, 2013 file photo obtained by the Associated Press shows Edwin Mejia sitting against a wall with his hands tied behind his back while in police custody in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Mejia and another minor were detained by police after they allegedly shot and killed a traffic policeman. With the highest murder rate in the world, Honduras is a dangerous country. Its capital is a city where people watch murders on YouTube, wake up to photos of the dead in the newspapers and drive by their dumped bodies on the outskirts of town. It is a country where the disparaging concept of the “banana republic” was born, when U.S. fruit companies used the Honduran military to control labor, but it is not a nation that recovered from a legacy that favored the interests of the few over those of the many. (AP Photo, File)

ALBERTO ARCE
Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- Edwin Mejia didn't want to go out and steal that morning.

The $75 he and his buddy had made the day before from the stolen motorcycle felt like a fortune compared to the $5 a day he earned selling his mother's tortillas. The 15-year-old lay in bed inside the wooden one-room house he shared with his 10 brothers and sisters and told his partner, Eduardo Aguilera, that he wasn't in the mood.

"Hey, man, we have to go!" insisted Eduardo, also 15.

From yesterday's take, their first job, Edwin could buy a cellphone. If they did the same today, maybe Edwin could buy himself some sneakers. White Nikes were a favorite with the 18th Street gang members.

Edwin relented.

A few miles away, in downtown Tegucigalpa, Santos Arita was starting his 12-hour shift as a traffic cop. At 42, he'd spent most of his career working in small towns in the north. His new job in the capital made him nervous. He'd already been assaulted once by three gunmen on a bus. He was afraid, but nobody asked him if he felt like going to work that day.

With the highest murder rate in the world, Honduras is a dangerous country. Its capital is a city where people watch murders on YouTube, wake up to photos of the dead in the newspapers and drive by bodies dumped on the outskirts of town. It is a country where the disparaging concept of the "banana republic" was born, when U.S. fruit companies used the Honduran military to control labor, but it is not a nation that recovered from a legacy that favored the interests of the few over those of the many.

Honduras never developed the democratic institutions that would guarantee a rule of law. Instead, it is a largely lawless land where there are few choices for the poor, heroes are scarce, and violence is a given.

___

Edwin and Eduardo downed a breakfast of coffee and left their rough neighborhood, Sinai, one of many controlled by gangs where even the police did not venture without guns drawn or at least a warning that they were headed in.

It was almost lunchtime.

The boys would use the same strategy as the day before. Edwin would drive the motorcycle, Eduardo would ride behind him. When they found a target, Eduardo would hold up the mark, then drive away on the stolen bike. Easy.

The year before, Edwin had dropped out of school to help out his mother. Tortillas had to be sold before lunch, so he didn't have much choice. In a nation where 70 percent of people live in poverty, few could afford the luxury of school beyond sixth grade.

Many Hondurans had discovered that crime does pay, and the best way to commit one was with a motorcycle -- for a fast getaway.

It was illegal, in fact, for two men to ride tandem on a motorcycle, a new law to cut down on drive-by shootings.

The boys ignored that law and made their way downtown. Oddly, amid the traffic chaos in one of the poorest cities on the continent and in a place where the law is rarely obeyed, what would bind the fates of Edwin and Eduardo with that of a humble traffic cop was a red light.

The boys stopped. They did not see Arita, helping a woman cross the street behind them. She carried an umbrella as a sunshade while Arita guided her through the traffic.

___

Arita had been reassigned to Tegucigalpa two months earlier and already had requested a transfer back home. He missed his family, and he talked with his wife every day by phone. His family lived in Ocotepeque, a seven- or eight-hour bus ride from the capital, but with his $400 monthly salary, Arita couldn't afford a ticket. He hitchhiked home every two weeks for just 24 hours -- to see his wife and three children, go to church.

His home in Ocotepeque was not so different from Edwin's. It sat on a muddy street, a one-room with concrete floors, a tin roof that leaked and plywood walls. There was no running water, and the kitchen was just a wood stove. For furniture, they had two beds, a beaten sofa and a couple of tables with a bare bulb hanging from a wire.

It wasn't much, but it was paradise compared to the barracks he shared with dozens of other police officers when he was working in the capital. There was no running water for a shower, just a cup and a barrel. No heat for the chilly evenings, and, of course, no meals.

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