By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (CNS) — Henri Aguilar’s entire body was marked by the tattoos he had acquired while a member of one of Honduras’ notorious street gangs, but inside he was a new man.
He had left the gang that had once claimed his allegiance, come back to the church of his childhood, gotten a steady job, married and had a baby girl whom he named Genesis as a sign of his new beginnings. On May 7, Aguilar was cleaning up after working all day and planned to walk to a nearby chapel, where he was scheduled as a reader for Mass. He was taking a shower when three masked men burst into his church-built home and shot him dead.
Aguilar’s killing illustrates how hard it is for young men to escape the violent gang subculture that has gripped Central America in the last decade. Once in a gang, it’s almost impossible to leave.
“It’s precarious. If they see that you’ve really had a change of heart and become a Christian, you might be OK. I walk a narrow line. I don’t walk around on the street, I don’t smoke or drink, and I don’t visit my old friends,” Aguilar told Catholic News Service less than a week before his death.
Aguilar, 31, had attempted to remove the tattoos he’d acquired during eight years in the Salvatrucha gang, but the repeated acid and laser treatments were not very successful, so he finally gave up. While riding his bicycle to the construction site where he worked, he wore long sleeves and a hat pulled down low over his face to hide his past.
Aguilar had literally become the poster boy for the work of Maryknoll Father Thomas Goekler, who came to the shantytown of Chamelecon in 1999 and helped families build new homes to replace those ravaged by Hurricane Mitch the previous year. One of those new homes became Aguilar’s, and Maryknoll published a poster with him — long sleeves and hat hiding his tattoos — talking with Father Goekler in the middle of a construction site.
Father Goekler had fought to keep Aguilar alive. In 2004, the priest was celebrating Mass when several neighborhood youths came running to announce that the police were trying to arrest Aguilar. Father Goekler left the Mass and ran to confront the police.
“I was already inside the police car when the padre got there, and when he tried to open the door and climb in with me, the police started beating him,” Aguilar said. “They knocked him down and tried to drive away, but he just hung onto the back of the vehicle. They finally shook him loose, but he just came to the police station and wouldn’t leave until they released me.”
Like many church and human right workers in Honduras, Father Goekler said the Honduran police regularly torture and kill suspected gang members.
The priest provided Aguilar and other youths with identification cards from the parish “Walk in Peace” program that taught them construction skills as they rebuilt hurricane-damaged housing. Sometimes the cards helped; sometimes they did not.
“The police said the church program was a front for the gangs,” Aguilar said.
Most importantly, Aguilar said, Father Goekler taught the young men self-respect and confidence.
“The padre taught us how to talk and defend ourselves with words. I’m not afraid of the police any longer,” Aguilar said.
Father Goekler said it may have been the police who killed Aguilar or gang members from a rival gang, or even the gang Aguilar abandoned. No arrests had been made by mid-June.
“Of course not; no one is ever arrested for killing a gang member,” Father Goekler told CNS.
The priest said he has buried scores of young people — some killed by gangs or drugs, some murdered by the police, still others massacred in the country’s overcrowded prisons.
Aguilar’s death is especially hard, said Father Goekler, who baptized Aguilar’s 1-year old daughter May 27.
“We’re really upset. He was well liked, a leader, and he had real patience with the younger kids. And he really was rehabilitated; he wasn’t fooling around,” Father Goekler said.
Asked what impact Aguilar’s death has had on his ministry in Honduras, Father Goekler said: “We just keep going. Is there any other choice?”