Book Description followed by Excerpt of Greg R. Taylor’s new book, Lay Down Your Guns: One Doctor’s Battle for Hope and Healing in Honduras.
In Honduras’ “wild west” mountain jungles, Amanda Madrid found her calling as a medical doctor to poor farmers.
When Amanda’s father rejects her dream to be a doctor, eighteen- year-old Amanda strikes out alone and enters medical school in Tegucigalpa.
Her work as a medical officer, public health consultant, and director of an international holistic Christian ministry called Predisan could have resulted in prestigious luxury for her. Instead these experiences led Dr. Madrid to the mountains on horseback and prepared her for the biggest challenge of her life.
When illegal drug trafficking and murders lead to closing medical clinics, Dr. Madrid goes toe to toe with cartel mercenaries, the unarmed doctor in her signature red high heels against men in combat boots armed with AK-47s.
This is the story about the life of a Honduran doctor heartbroken about the many killings and bad medicine of cartels. Can the same kind of love and prayer she gives her patients also cause these violent men to lay down their guns?
Dr. Amanda Madrid’s driver guided us in a Landcruiser on a narrow horse path in the Cuyamel River Valley of Central Honduras, where Dr. Madrid had just spoken to frightened medical personnel. More drug-cartel connected mur- ders had been committed in the region, panic led to five clinics closing temporarily, and medical workers needed a plan from the doctor to care for pregnant women and sick children.
My purpose for traveling with the doctor was to see her in action as background for this book, but when two armed Honduran men stepped from behind a thick stand of eucalyptus trees into the path of our vehicle, what she did next became vital to understanding Dr. Amanda Madrid.
Both men were camo’d up, armed with Glocks and AK-47s. One man guarded the bend in the road ahead, while the other stepped directly in front of the vehicle. In Honduras, police stop cars at roadblocks everyday, but these men were neither police patrols nor military, so adrenaline surged and worst-case scenarios flashed to mind.
Driver Don Gil—a fifty-eight-year-old Honduran who bowed with his head against the steering wheel before we left, praying for our safety and success—applied the brakes and stopped the vehicle, but he kept the diesel engine percolating, ready to make necessary moves to escape, even if furiously in reverse.
“Get down in the floorboard,” I told my sixteen-year-old daughter, who had come with me to Honduras as my assistant. She did not hunch down but focused on the armed men, wanting to know what was going on. I didn’t know. All I could tell her was we were in a village called Agua Caliente. Hot Water.
To my surprise, the door of the Landcruiser opened, and Dr. Madrid reached for her calendar book and pen.
What was she doing? Why were these armed men stopping us and why was Dr. Madrid getting out? Why couldn’t Don Gil simply wave, point to the Predisan logo on the vehicle—the equivalent in this region of a Red Cross symbol—and drive on?
“I know these guys,” Dr. Madrid said.
Really? Dr. Madrid knows heavily armed men on remote roads in the mountains? Granted, for twenty-five years Dr. Madrid had treated nearly every person in this Cuyamel River Valley region and indeed seemed to know everyone, but armed thugs?
Dr. Madrid stuck the pen through the bun of her hair, stepped out of the vehicle onto the dirt road, and strode toward the first man in the road not cautiously but boldly. She smiled—the only time wrinkles appeared on her face; you would expect more visible wear from a fifty-six-year-old female doctor, traveled as she is—and held out her right hand toward the man.
With her left hand Dr. Madrid brushed back a wisp of auburn hair, pushed up her glasses that had slipped down because of sweat, and her long earrings gently rocked beneath her strong jaws as she came to a stop in front of the man about twenty feet in front of us.
The armed man stuffed his Glock in the backside waistband of his pants, then shook hands with the doctor.
Dr. Madrid was the only one of the five in the vehicle cou- rageous enough to go toe to toe with these men, they in their combat boots, and she in her blazing red high heels. Honduran men seem to respect the doctor because she doesn’t speak like most Honduran women, in deference to men, but looks with her brown eyes directly into theirs. She doesn’t dress like a typical Honduran woman in a skirt, but she wears jeans and high heels.
Dr. Madrid is no ordinary Honduran woman. The people who work with her say, “Tiene los pantalones bien puestos. She wears the pants well.” There’s slang in Spanish that they also say about her, and it means figuratively that “she is a tough leader,” but the literal words wouldn’t pass for good taste in genteel company. They say about her “Tiene huevos. She has eggs.” And in Latin America, they’re not referring to the female kind of eggs.
Over the past few years, Dr. Madrid has had to wear the pants because this wasn’t the first time she’d gone toe to toe with armed men pointing their Kalashnikovs at her—men, who with their small-scale war of land grabbing, revenge, jealousy, and drugs, were swiftly destabilizing the medical clinics that had for twenty-five years served the people of Olancho, a state known as the “Wild West of Honduras.” The violence between two warring gangs destabilized the clinics and threatened the health of resi- dents in the mountain jungles. After decades of having no access to health care, mountain residents enjoyed a network of small clinics for prenatal care, safe delivery of babies, and treatment of infectious diseases, but now all that was in jeopardy.
Dr. Madrid told the man on the road the problem she had explained to me: “People are afraid to transport the sick at night because cars are being stopped; thugs are beating people, stealing from them, threatening them. A pregnant woman died in child- birth recently because her family waited till the next morning to transport her to the hospital. A young girl bitten by a snake also died because her family was afraid to go anywhere at night in this region,” Dr. Madrid said.
“My staff is developing an evacuation plan in the five mountain clinics to take sick children, adults, and pregnant women out to hospitals in case of emergencies,” Dr. Madrid told the man. I could see veins bulging in the doctor’s neck as she spoke. I learned the man’s name but will use a pseudonym, Diego Salazar.
Diego listened then told the doctor he’s defending his village against a drug cartel buying up land and cattle to launder money and to clear a path for transporting drugs through this region.
She did not argue with his point but made clear she doesn’t want Diego or anyone stopping Predisan vehicles when medical workers transport the sick for care. Dr. Madrid gestured with her finger nearly touching his chest. Diego wore a dark button-down shirt, camouflage cargo pants, combat boots, and next to the Glock, clipped to his belt, he had a high-powered two-way radio.
Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Madrid rode a horse into these mountains to heal the sick, pray for them, show them the love of Jesus she had come to know and serve. When she rode in with a team of Hondurans and North Americans, they dreamed of establishing medical clinics in the rugged mountain jungles of Olancho, and over time that dream would come true through an organization named Predisan, a word meant to describe the group’s activities, an invented Spanish two-word splice meaning “to preach and to heal.”
Dr. Madrid started coming to these mountains when thirty- year-old Diego was a young boy. She saw Diego playing soccer on a little field with cut tree limbs lashed together for goals, and she thought he was a fast and skilled player. When she met Diego and his brothers in the clinics, taught them in the Bible study meetings she also conducted, she saw a friendly, handsome boy who seemed to like guns and often strapped one on his back when he went with his uncle to prospect for gold.
She knew Diego’s family to be good and regular folks who were not killers, not thugs who got mixed up with narco gangs or even battled against them. Never did the doctor imagine, however, that this little boy named Diego whom she treated in clinics would grow up to be like this: defending his life and village from a drug cartel that has made this region its newest bridge for drug traffic from South to North America. Diego had spent time in the army and looked the part, but fighting the cartel mercenaries wore on him, so he drank and took drugs to take the edge off the stress.
At one point, a gang of thugs occupied the command center of the clinic network, and Dr. Madrid refused to allow this tres- passing and desecration of the mission. She accompanied the police on a raid, and the thugs fled from the clinic headquar- ters. With the violent men still at large in the region, however, fear gripped the staff members of the clinics, because their own family members were involved, endangered. Some refused to work, and those from cities returned, where—ironically—they felt more safe. The health and well-being of people depended on these rural mountain clinics, but now fear bled into worsening health for pregnant women giving birth to more sickly babies with fathers who were more preoccupied with their feud than raising crops, or children for that matter.
Out the side window of the Landcruiser, I saw Diego’s family ranch. Coconut palms grew next to the house, leaning over and shading it. A mountain peak not far behind the house towered like a giant backdrop in a beautiful painting. A horse tromped along a slack wire fence lining the overgrown path. On the property a pond stagnated where a once thriving fish farm was overgrown with weeds, the fish belly up and decaying in rancid water. A grenade blast left a car-sized hole in the roof and shattered red roofing tiles covered the grass in front of the house. The front porch support poles looked like a beaver had chewed them. When they ran out of ammo, the attackers tried to hack down the poles to make the house fall, and they did so with a dull axe. Many of the family members who once lived here peacefully were dead or had left the village, or remained on the run, like Diego. Diego’s wife and children had long ago left for the north coast of Honduras.
“I’m innocent. They killed my brother,” Diego told Dr. Madrid. As Diego spoke, Dr. Madrid leaned in to listen, pulling the pen from her hair to take notes in her journal.
“They’re hunting me for protecting Agua Caliente from these bad guys who are trying to take our land. I did not do anything.”
He repeated again and again his innocence.
“I want to get some evidence for the police so they will know who did this to your houses,” Dr. Madrid said.
She asked about the radio he was holding, and Diego told the doctor that the two-way radio was his now, that he’d found it after the mercenaries had come to destroy the homes of Diego’s family. They’d dropped the radio when they torched and blew up the houses.
Dr. Madrid thought if she got the radio from Diego, prose- cutors could use it for evidence in court. She’d seen it work with other murder cases. One thug who had murdered many people in the mountain jungles went to jail because families of the victims amassed evidence against him and submitted it to the police and courts. Dr. Madrid urged Diego to do the same, to give up evidence so they could convict these guys.
But Diego was reluctant. With the radio he could hear his enemy’s movements, whether or not they are coming for him. The radio transmits for miles on a low-wave frequency. He admitted, however, that the battery was now depleted and he did not have a charger. Why not give up the radio now for evidence? He gripped the radio, rolled it in his hands, placed it back in the waistband of his trousers.
“I’ve been shot ten times,” Diego said, and he took off his shirt to reveal scars covering his back. He lifted his pant leg to show scars on this leg. One bullet was still lodged under his skin. The scars were fresh but healed over. Diego had a moustache and days of beard growth on his neck and chin only, and his cheeks and sideburns looked shaved clean. Though he’d been in hiding in other houses or in the forest, it was obvious that someone had been feeding him. He wasn’t fat but thick and strong, of medium height and brown wavy hair pushed back in a style you would expect if he were a stage singer named Diego.
Dr. Madrid examined the scars and a bullet still lodged in his arm. Then she turned toward the Landcruiser and motioned for me to come with my camera. I fumbled to put on the correct lens, got out and walked to them.
Diego held out his hand and I held out mine, and we shook and greeted one another in Spanish. When he learned I am from the United States, he said he had lived in New Jersey eight years, working on a tree service crew, going out on limbs. He didn’t say what I expected someone to say in that situation, that he liked my country and would return to visit friends someday. He was not going back to the United States. He said whatever happens he would stay in the mountain jungles of Honduras to fight for his land and village.
The doctor looked at me and pointed to my camera. “Why don’t you take some pictures of his wounds?”
I aimed the camera at Diego, he muttered something I didn’t understand, then Dr. Madrid turned to me and said, “Don’t get his face in the photo.”
I clicked off two dozen photos. Then he held his arm up by his face to reveal what looked like a marble under his skin, as if to invite me to photograph his face, regardless of what he’d said. I took a photo of his arm, and because I was rattled, uncertain if I’d see Diego again, and wanted to tell you what he looks like, I clicked the shutter to capture his face.
To keep Diego’s wish and protect his life, I would not publish the photograph. I looked at the photo on the back of my camera and smiled back at him. The photo showed Diego with something between a smile and a smirk, holding up his arm with the bullet lodged under his skin. The lines around his soft brown eyes are either smiling or yawning crevices from lack of sleep, I couldn’t tell which.
“Those guys coming after me are buying up land for safe passage for their goods, and they’re buying cattle—they have big houses,” Diego said.
“The police can’t arrest you for having a big house; you need to give up the radio as evidence and talk to the police yourself to give them information that could lead to their arrest,” Dr. Madrid told Diego.
Diego persisted in his claim of innocence, said he’s living like a fox on the run and burrowing in at night like an armadillo. “I’ve been up the Patuca River, and I know that area you are talking about, where they run drugs and land planes on airstrips they’ve built there. Even if I go up there with the police they need evidence to make arrests,” Dr. Madrid said.
Diego laughed. “You’re thinking of going up there! You’ll never get out of there alive!”
“No, no, I’m not planning to go up there now,” Dr. Madrid said, and she laughed, a hearty, nasally cackle. Diego breathed a sigh and laughed again.
“Diego, you’ve been shot many times and you are still alive, so God may have a purpose for you in this community—for peace not war! But how can God use you for peace if you don’t submit to him? We taught you the word of God when you were a child, when you and your brother, Emilio, came to our church,” Dr. Madrid said.
Diego listened to what the doctor said, but I wondered if he truly believed that peace was an option. He seemed bent not only on defending his village but also on avenging the blood of his murdered brother.
Dr. Madrid ended their conversation exactly the way she did every time she pleaded with armed men like Diego. She looked at Diego with glistening brown eyes and said, “Lay down your guns.”
I went back to the Landcruiser, but the doctor and Diego talked a few more minutes. As I turned and watched what she did next, I found the extraordinary scene hard to fathom. So, from a distance, I took what turned out to be a blurry photo of Dr. Madrid and Diego standing in the road. In the photo, Diego’s head is bowed and Dr. Madrid has her hand on Diego’s shoul- der—she is praying with him.
I’d witnessed uncommon bravery and spirituality in one person, but I was also perplexed. I wanted to know: Who is Dr. Amanda Madrid? And how did she, against all odds, become such a creative, spiritual, and courageous doctor?