How a Honduran pastor is using soccer to heal his community

He forged a surprising alliance to transform a site of violence into a place for sport

In the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, decades of violence and economic dispossession have torn communities apart. Empty houses, stripped for valuable materials, lie in ruin after families fled from the threat of gang recruitment, economic insecurity and, often, the threat of death.

Dany Pacheco, an evangelical pastor in the Planeta district of San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city, decided to do something. He didn’t want the youth in his neighborhood to suffer the way previous generations had.

Pacheco met with the neighborhood’s gang leaders and negotiated a compromise so they could transform a site of violence into a park.

Dany Pacheco, head pastor of the Casa Esperanza congregation, stands in a swampy lot in the Rivera Hernandez district on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula that was once used to dispose of bodies. Pacheco came up with the idea that by getting rid of a space used for violence, traumatized families could break free from the self-perpetuating cycle. Pacheco gained the permission of the local gangs and began to convert the lot into an open space for the community.

Moises Cubas and his friends head to the inaugural match in the park. Even though he and his friends aren’t in a gang, the zero-tolerance policing strategy has led to acts of police brutality against the boys for being residents of a gang-controlled neighborhood.

Pacheco leads a prayer for peace before the game between police and local gang members. Pacheco is betting that by having the boys play the police on a regular basis, the hatred that plagues the margins of the city can be healed.

The neighborhood came out en masse to watch the inaugural match last summer. The district’s reputation for brutal gang violence had cut them off from the rest of the city, and residents were thrilled for an event like this taking place in their part of town.

The sun sets over the Rivera Hernandez district on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The mosaic of gang-controlled neighborhoods in this part of the city makes the streets difficult to navigate, as each is controlled by a different gang.

Left: A 32-ounce Caguama beer is poured out for a friend lost to a rival gang incursion. Honduran gangs originated in Southern California when refugees who arrived in the 1980s banded together into self-defense groups to protect themselves against established Los Angeles gangs. When some were deported, they brought with them the criminal expertise learned in L.A.’s racially charged gang wars of the early 1990s. Right: Dario, a gang enforcer, wears a cross bearing the Lord’s Prayer. Gang leaders are pushing to recruit younger boys into their ranks. They go after kids from broken homes, offering wealth and respect. Dario raised himself in the streets after his mother was disappeared by the police when he was a boy.

Selvin Ferrufino digs a trench to help drain the marshy grounds in the Rivera Hernandez district on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. Pastor Dany Pacheco’s vision for peace has brought together grandmothers, children, gang members and preachers in a collective effort to heal their neighborhood.

A police officer paints the sideline decoration at the football pitch in the Rivera Hernandez district on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. The police were hesitant to participate at first, but because of Pacheco’s rapport with the local precinct, he persuaded them to join the effort.

Two neighborhood youths smoke cigarettes among abandoned row houses in the Rivera Hernandez district. Boys there face stark decisions on whether to join a gang, refuse their recruitment or flee. The calculus behind their choices is different for every individual, but the driving question remains constant: “How do I survive in San Pedro Sula?”

An abandoned house, stripped of its valuable metals, in the Rivera Hernandez district on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It’s in these physical reminders of violence and collapse that Pacheco found his purpose: Bring back life to these derelict spaces so that the next generation of Honduran youth might have a chance to live in peace.

Danielle A. Scruggs is a photo editor for The Undefeated. She is a Chicago native and firmly believes no sports team will ever be as great as the Chicago Bulls during their three-peat eras.