Displaced and Returned to Despair

Text: Fernando Silva

Photo: Martín Cálix

“Esperanza” and her two daughters leave their neighborhood in Tegucigalpa with a small wallet, filled with prescriptions and some Lempiras, to shop at the market. But before that, they must face questioning from members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, who are the ones that give authorization for those wishing to enter and leave that area. They have to answer to the people who threatened them four years ago telling them to abandon their home and flee to the United States. Today, they are returned migrants and think about venturing back to “the American Dream.”

Esperanza speaks slowly as if she’s looking for the exact words that explain her thoughts. Her skin and that of her daughters are marked by poverty; pale and thin.

Esperanza’s daughters are 10 and 15 years old, both face a violent reality in a country, where between 2014 and 2016, approximately 2,300 youth under the age of 23 were victims of violent murders, according to data from the non-governmental organization Casa Alianza.

Due to this and other factors, an estimated 35,000 Hondurans applied for asylum in other countries in 2017, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a number that has increased by 53% during the presidential term of Nationalist Juan Orlando Hernández, which was the same time in which he implemented the Alliance for Prosperity Plan in the Northern Triangle with the hope of reducing the migratory flow to the north.

Different sectors of society say that migration is a state business that is far from over. Esperanza and her daughters do not appear to be aware of this business. They just want to live in a different place, better if at all, far away from the gang violence that threatens to rape the oldest daughter.

Absolute Insecurity

The gang members in Esperanza’s neighborhood ask the residents for a glass of water as a sign of faith and then force them to store drugs in their homes. Esperanza gave them a glass of water, but she refused to comply with their demand and so the gang members threatened to burn down the house where she and her two daughters live. “So far, thank God they haven’t done it,” she said with resignation.

After these threats, Esperanza – about 50 or 55 years old – decided to undertake, with her two youngest daughters, the same path that her seven other children had already taken to leave the country due to gang threats.

“I got my period on the border,” said 15-year old Ana.

They were getting close to Piedras Negra, located just on the border with the US, when she felt her first menstruation. There, Ana was apprehended along with 100 other people. They separated her from her mother and later deported her to the hell that awaited her in Honduras.

The separation of migrant children from their parents has made a large impact around the world over the last several weeks, but it is not a new anguish for those who cross the border and its deserts. The Jesuit Network with Migrants estimates that in 2016 a total of 40,522 minors were detained in Mexico, of which 42% were traveling alone in search of arriving at the other side of the border to reunite with their fathers and mothers.

Between May and June of 2018, under the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, approximately 2,300 minors that were traveling together with their parents were detained and separated at the border.  The children were locked in cages and treated inhumanely, which unleashed a series of international complaints and finally resulted in the cancellation of this order.

After they halted these actions, various officials in Honduras expressed their gratitude to President Juan Orlando Hernández, for his supposed transcendental role that made the situation stop.  In the face of this affirmation, Guadalupe Ruelas, director of Casa Alianza, says that “It is a bad joke to say that Juan Orlando Hernández was decisive in taking back this measure.”

Ruelas has led this organization since 2013, which is dedicated to saving minors at social risk. He has always questioned that the breakup of families is the main factor that the government suggests is the principal cause of child migration, pointing out that the political and economic model in which [Central American] countries continue is a factory for migration.

“I did not see any announcement from the government before Trump took back the order.  Yes, I heard the public relations work of the media that said it was the job of the President,” asserts Ruelas, while he sips his coffee in his office, located near the Comayaguela market where other children walk barefoot knowing that the Casa Alianza is a place they can come to with open doors.  Or do they not know?  Regardless, they hang around with their cans of glue that they inhale under their shirts, trying to hide the obvious.

Ruelas says these minors live in poor communities where there’s normally violence, so they have no choice but to flee. According to the National Commissioner for Human Rights, a total of 1,400 Hondurans leave their homes because of death threats, extortions, and gang recruitment.

“They wanted me to let them borrow my daughter to deliver some packages, but I told them that if they didn’t tell me what it was, I wouldn’t agree to it,” said Esperanza. Prior to venturing to the United States, she received threats from gang members that assured her that ‘whatever the cost,’ her daughter was going to work for them. Fleeing was her only option.

According to Ruelas, there are more minors fleeing violence than committing it. Yet, because the government acts according to its own beliefs, it has decided to militarize rather than solve the problem. The approach to solving the problem wouldn’t be “the cure to Alzheimer’s”, but instead would mean building schools and homes worthy of living in, so a person wouldn’t have to resort to violence.

Esperanza and her two daughters live in the same neighborhood where they were threatened four years ago and only have a house that someone loaned them.  “I would like to be able to build my own house,” she says, rubbing her hands and looking at the ceiling as if imagining a future that might be unattainable.   They recently started selling plantain chips but had to stop due to extortion from the same people that had already threatened them.

Guadalupe Ruelas, director of Casa Alianza. The organization that Ruelas directs serves kids that have gone through situations of violence and abandonment, many of them are displaced from their original homes. In search of better opportunities, they try going to the United States, a situation that in the majority of cases, kids end up being exposed to other kinds of violence. Photo: Martín Cálix

A perverse economy that ends in disgrace

“Lucia” is a 16-year-old girl, full of energy and kindness.  She currently lives in a shelter in Tegucigalpa. At three years old, she had to accompany her mother to Guatemala, where she searched for a better job that would allow her to establish her own business in sporting goods; shoes basically.  In Honduras, they could not find a way to get ahead, so they left.

Her mother left behind all of her family in Honduras and made a new one with a Guatemalan.  This man, according to Lucia, abused her as she was growing up.  “My stepfather touched me, but my mother did not believe me,” she says. Then she shares how she’s now in the ninth grade as if she didn’t just say what she said. She lowers her head, brings it back up, shrugs her shoulders, and continues narrating her life. Her short life.

“She would hit me. It seemed like she was taking her anger out on me,” she continues.  That’s why one day after a beating, I had to go to the hospital alone.  In this health center, they sent her to a group home and she finally arrived at The Safehouse Virgen de la Asunción in Guatemala, where a little over a year ago, 41 girls died in a fire.  Lucia knew all of them.

“I was in the salon next door and heard them screaming. They always made a lot of noise but that was no reason to leave them locked in that basement. Not one of the counsellors came to open the door for them,” she recalls in tears while remembering her friends.

Fifty-six girls were locked in the room marked “Pedagogy Class”, which measured 7 meters by 6 meters. The confinement somehow generated a fire where 41 girls died and 15 survived, some with amputations, others’ faces were burned.

After this happened, Lucia was repatriated through the Honduran embassy in Guatemala and was sent to a children’s home in Choloma, where she escaped during her third month because of the treatment she was receiving.  As if she was rolling a game of roulette, the young girl returned to Guatemala with her mother, but the circle of violence that she was living in repeated itself, and she decided to escape back to Honduras.  “I was very afraid. What I had been hearing is that this is the most violent country in the world”, says the girl with a certain Guatemalan accent that she seems to have been losing in these past few months.

Lucia had just turned 16 and despite her fear, she set out on her journey, thanks to the bus company that charged her the 1,500 Lempiras (some 62 dollars) discount price for minors, which would take her to the border at Corinto. She recounts in a choked voice, “when we arrived at one point, they told me and three other girls that we had to get off the bus. We went with three men who were like coyotes, but later they changed direction and asked us for the money.”

“Later he tells me that I’m going to have to work to cross the border and that if I screamed, he will not help me.” Lucia was raped at the border and is now expecting a baby as a result of being abused. Now she wonders what’s to become of her dreams and aspirations, abandoned by her family in a country she doesn’t recognize.

Ruelas, who has given her refuge in the Casa Alianza, affirms that the official discourse says that violence is generated by the poor children of broken families. But what is ironic is that the employment policy in this country is “to put a clothes factory in the Sula Valley so that single mothers in the surrounding areas go to work in precarious conditions, leaving their children behind.”  The options for work in Honduras are precarious. They have made mothers choose between putting themselves at risk for multiple dangers at the border or finding a job that exploits them, that pays less than minimum wage and barely allows them to survive.

Also, Central America lacks the policies and ability to protect children. The case of the Group Home in Guatemala could be repeated in Honduras or El Salvador.

On the other hand, Ismael Zepeda, from the Social Forum for External Debt in Honduras (FOSDEH), confirms that the government executes a “perverse economic policy” by not implementing actions that can actually stop migration.  “The dark undertone is that the State does not want the Honduran to separate themselves completely from the country because if that happens, remittances will no longer enter the country,” he states.

The causes of migration seem infinite. The cases of Lucia and Esperanza and her daughters seem to suggest a dead-end street; where violence never leaves them no matter where they go, as if they were marked sooner rather than later.

“Lucia” is 4 months pregnant. The pregnancy is the product of a rape she suffered while fleeing domestic violence and attempting to return to Honduras, a country she didn’t know, from Guatemala. She was looking for better opportunities for her future, looking to study. Now she lives in a group home, a refuge for children and adolescents, where she feels she no longer fits because of her pregnancy. Photo: Martín Cálix

Failed Plans

“What they’ve been telling the public is that when someone migrates, they’re raped or they join a gang,” confirms Ruelas. He also explains that these are the scare-tactic campaigns that have fueled the stigmatization of migration.

One of the most recent tweets from Ana García, the First Lady of Honduras, confirms this claim. “Reconsider your decision. Do not expose yourself to so much danger, do not waste all of your money paying for coyotes, they could leave you on the road somewhere and even take your children’s’ lives. Upon arrival to the US, it’s not guaranteed that you can stay. Many families are deported,” says the tweet published by the First Lady, who appears to completely ignore the reality of why families leave Honduras.

According to the director of Casa Alianza, “they blame the parents and coyotes, while the government is the ‘only good guy’ telling people not to migrate because it’ll go badly. They don’t say how the government has failed or that they’re going to look for a solution.” Politicians don’t appear to understand that Hondurans don’t simply leave; they’re forced out.

The response of the Honduras government in light of this situation has been far from effective.  According to the Hernández government’s spending report, they’ve only sent 800 million lempiras to the program Vida Mejor (Better Life) between 2014 and 2017.  In addition, 35% of municipal funds and 4,500 million collected from the sales tax have been reallocated.  Nevertheless, this expenditure does not seem effective, since according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE), poverty in Honduras grew by 3.1% during 2017, adding to a total of 68.8%.

For Ismael Zepeda, economist and analyst from FOSDEH, migrants have assumed the true responsibility of providing education, health and welfare that corresponds to a State that appears inefficient.

This inefficiency has also been demonstrated before the United States, which has seen that Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador alone are incapable of stopping the wave of migrants seeking better opportunities in the North. Due to this situation, the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (A4P) was launched in 2015.  A triangle, that according to Ruelas, is a war hawk category that makes the region invisible.

The Alliance for Prosperity is the result of a joint proposal between El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and which intends to address the structural problems that lead the diaspora of unaccompanied children to the United States.  The proposal was initially developed by the three Central American governments with the collaboration of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

According to Ludmila García, representative of the Social Pastoral Cáritas of Honduras, “these programs don’t get to the root of the problem and always represent Band-Aid solutions. Additionally, they add to the country’s debt.”

The funding that the US Congress appropriated to the A4P in 2017 represented 655 million dollars for the three countries within the plan, of which 46% was designated to the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). This program, which was born out of the Mérida Initiative, according to the human rights organization Council on Hemispheric Affairs, has been widely criticized “for the militarization of security and using multilateral cooperation mechanisms that are not very transparent and give harmful results.”

“There are no verifiable results of the effectiveness of this program. In reality, the increase in migration reflects the opposite,” asserts Ismael Zepeda.

In order to receive these funds, the countries must commit to matching it, which for Honduras in 2017, represented more than 945 million dollars in exchange for 110 million dollars that are administered by the American cooperation in the country.

The principal lines of the strategy of the Alliance for Prosperity emphasize the promotion of infrastructure projects and foreign investment. In Honduras, this translates to militarized policies to offer security.

“Esperanza,” asks what security? Because in her neighborhood she doesn’t see any. “We’re just waiting for them to finish school so we can leave again,” she says with full conviction of a mother that is willing to risk anything; as many times as necessary to save her daughters from violence, or hell, or from a country in which they are invisible.

Note: The names of the survivors have been changed for their safety.

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Fernando Silva is an investigative journalist. His work focuses on covering corruption, power structures, extractivism, forced displacement and migration. He is also an audiovisual producer and has worked for half a decade in this field with organizations that defend human rights and development institutions in the country. In 2019 he graduated from the Investigative Journalism Course at Columbia University and that same year was part of Transnacionales de la Fe, which in 2020 won the Ortega y Gasset prize for best investigative journalism awarded by the Spanish newspaper El País. She is a fellow of the International Women Media Foundation (IWMF).

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