COPAN, Honduras — Copan is a sleepy town in western Honduras full of rolling hills and lush fields of coffee. Its main attraction is its Mayan ruins, which, according to the Copan Chamber of Commerce, are “the Paris of the Maya world.” I rented a room there from a Honduran family who spoke no English; it had peach walls, one plastic table, two beds and a dresser, which was painted in pastels.
During the day, I had little to do, so I walked the cobblestone streets at the leisurely pace of someone who had no objective and was overjoyed because of it. I paused on a corner to chat up a 5-year-old girl with an ice cream cone, exchanging small talk in Spanish, then stared through the slats of the window of the pool hall at the tough-looking men, the machismos, playing eight-ball and cursing when they missed a shot. I watched a pick-up truck sweep by as a fat-faced niño poked out his head to feel the breeze. I drank a beer in an empty bar, where no one paid me any attention at all.
I sauntered for hours, watching the dogs, who were skinny and starving; the children, who were dirty and bathed themselves in the street with a hose; and the Mayans, who wandered the town selling corn-husk dolls and oranges, who were brutally poor, but carried themselves like royalty.
I climbed the hills, which sloped at angles so steep that it was worthy of paying admission to watch a car ascend them, frequented the town square at dusk, where everyone chatted in the shadows, making all conversations appear conspiratorial, and passed the same sculptor every evening painting masks shirtless with a beer in hand.
At night, I would stare at the walls in my room and listen to the children kicking inflatable plastic balls against the houses, shrieking with laughter and pretending to be Ronaldo or Beckham or whoever their favorite soccer player was. I could hear roosters crowing so frenetically that I wondered if they were being mauled, and dogs baying so viciously that I thought they were mauling the roosters, and fireworks, which I first believed to be pistols, crackling with a boom trailed by the giggle of children: a chorus as predictable as lightning following thunder.
Then, one bright, sunny Saturday, the president of Honduras was scheduled to speak at the plaza, so the whole village congregated waiting for him to arrive; I sat there eating an ice cream cone and then wandered down the street to check my email.
As I sat in the cafe, the foot traffic heading away from the plaza began to escalate. Suddenly, there was a buzz, a giant hum of voices, not yelling, but murmuring in unison. I walked toward the plaza, but the crowd had become fragmented and was departing in various directions.
I asked a man with a cowboy hat if the president was speaking and he told me, No, he isn’t speaking, because someone has been shot.
When I arrived at the junction, the lifeless body of Juan de Jesus Madrid, a senator from Copan and member of the ruling nationalist party, had already been whisked into the ambulance. Adolescent-looking soldiers with titanic machine guns circled the perimeter, and the crowd gathered ten deep, with onlookers standing on cars and fences to get a glimpse of the maroon, bullet-riddled SUV in the middle of the street.
Someone said that the man’s daughters had been killed, as well; then another person said that no, the daughters had not been shot, but that the man had stumbled from the car in an effort to deflect the gunfire toward himself. Everyone I asked told me that the man had been shot because he was a narcotrafficker.
No one seemed sad, except for the widow, who cried under the merciless glare of the news T.V. cameras that caught every tear. Three hours later, when I walked by in the dark, the crowd had barely dissipated, though nothing was happening except for the occasional detective muttering and pointing at the ground.
Later, the bartender warned me that they would close early because of the shooting. “It’s out of respect,” he said. “But, I am not sad. No one is. He was a bad man.”