Life improves for Honduras soccer kids on the field, but outside threats remain



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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The project that Luis Lopez created a year ago on a dusty soccer field in a rough neighborhood of Tegucigalpa is doing well.

It's been six months since any of the 50 children who train with Lopez two hours a day, five days a week, has been murdered in a country where nearly 1,000 children were killed this year. None has left the team to migrate to the United States, where in 2014 border authorities arrested more than 8,000 Honduran children as they tried to reunite with parents working there.

Nor have they joined the street gangs that control their neighborhoods, using children to collect extortions, store and sell drugs and even commit murder.

This is progress in a neighborhood called Progreso, albeit one so fragile Lopez is hesitant to celebrate.

Lopez started the program to keep younger kids from joining adolescents who gathered around the dirt patch to smoke marijuana, sniff glue and recruit youngsters to run errands for the gangs.

When the small California-based Kahl foundation learned about Lopez's program using soccer to help children out of the violence, it sent money to upgrade the field, buy equipment and rent buses so the children could travel around Tegucigalpa to play other teams.

"My purpose was to focus on youth development where there is an individual passionate about a specific cause, whether it is life skills or positive change, specifically through sports," said Doug Kahl, the foundation's president.

Now the children talk about their soccer team at school and to friends in other neighborhoods, who flock to the island of peace in the capital of a country with the highest murder rate in the world.

"The field has created a group, comfort, friendship. It gives them a place to belong, something to care about, something they don't want to lose," said Lopez, known affectionately as "Luisito."

The tough guys have retreated since a new fence and bleachers were built. But Lopez knows they are not far away and that his own influence may not hold beyond the fencing.

One November afternoon, neighborhood kids were returning from a game aboard a bus, enthusiastically clapping and singing to a video of a popular reggaeton song, "Cute Girls."

"Most cute girls would die to have a bad boy," the song says, talking about pulling the girl's hair and denigrating her. "I know you like those things ... I have to shoot, insult you, lose my senses, hit you to be able to love you."

When Lopez heard about the video, he was furious.

"What do you see on that screen?" he yelled at team members who looked at the floor, tying and untying their shoes and playing with stones to avoid his gaze.

"A man with a shotgun, women, drugs and money," answered one of the fearless ones, 11-year-old Maynor Ayala.

Lopez believes that if they were enjoying a video that depicts violence, discrimination, and fast, illegal money, his efforts have been in vain. He knows that every lost kid becomes gang fodder, and while he may be able to save them at age 11, by age 14 it's too late.

"I never thought that after a year you would disappoint me like this," he said angrily. "You all leave a lot to be desired."

He ordered one kid stretching lazily on the floor to do pushups, another to run laps around the field as punishment.

"Here there is no room for insults or violence. We're here to free ourselves from the environment we live in. Do you understand?" Lopez said. "The soccer field is to learn there are rules that have to be followed, that there is discipline."

Violence permeates Tegucigalpa like a virus, and Lopez knows that not even a soccer coach who uses a wheel chair because of a bicycle accident is immune. While welcome, the improvements for the field and team make him nervous. Any appearance of having resources in Honduras can draw threats and extortion.

"The day that one of these guys decides that something about this project goes against them, he'll come and tell us that it's all over," Lopez said.

That's something Maynor knows about. There's a kid from his neighborhood who bought marijuana on credit and didn't pay his debt, so the other boys expect he'll be killed at any moment.

Lopez fears the child will join the others playing soccer and the gangs looking for him won't discriminate, and spray the field with gunfire. It has happened at least twice this year on other soccer pitches in the city, leaving dozens of dead.

Maynor's father wants him to avoid such violence by leaving Honduras to join him in the United States. But Maynor has decided to stay with his mother, who is scared for him to make the dangerous trip north.

"I won't leave," Maynor tells her. "You take care of me and I'll take care of you."

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