Honduras: Inside ground zero of the Central American migrant crisis

Beyond the Border: In the first part of a new series from Honduras, Andrew Buncombe looks at the push factors driving the current wave of migration to the US 

Andrew Buncombe
San Pedro Sula
Wednesday 17 July 2019 13:47 BST
Honduras: Inside ground zero of the Central American migrant crisis

They step through the airport gate alone, or in small groups. Some are met by family members, others haggle with taxi drivers for a ride home. Some carry a few possessions, but plenty have just a white plastic bag containing flimsy documents. Some appear pleased to be back, others do not.

Nine months after a migrant caravan from Honduras drew attention to the plight of people from Central America desperate to enter the US, tens of thousands are still trying by any means to cross the border, and tens of thousands are being deported. Twice a week, two or three flights containing up to 300 deportees land at San Pedro Sula airport where the human cargo is quickly off-loaded. Many say they intend to rest for a few months, then try again.

For Donald Trump, the fight to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the US has become a vital, viscerally held element of his re-election strategy. The splitting up of families, the detention in grim facilities of unaccompanied minors, decried by the UN as “appalling”, and a rewriting of regulations that makes it harder to apply for asylum – something activists say pushes migrants to risk more dangerous crossings – has all been carried out, apparently often for political reasons.

In 2017, 22,381 Hondurans were deported by US authorities, according to information released by US customs and immigration officials. In 2018, that figure increased by around 30 per cent to 28,894, the equivalent of 80 people a day.

Meanwhile, in Honduras, along with countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, thousands remain undeterred by Trump’s tactics, or by images such as that of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, photographed by a Mexican journalist, face down and dead in the Rio Grande, having been swept away as they tried to cross.

In many ways, Honduras is the ground zero of the surge in asylum seekers and others. Speaking to members of last year’s caravans, it emerged the bulk of them were from this small country with a population of around 10 million, something subsequently confirmed by a UN report.

The Independent visited Honduras to talk to would be migrants, and those who had been deported, to understand what was driving them to risk everything.

“People here don’t have jobs to sustain themselves – for rent, for food – and people did this for the future of their children,” says Bartolo Fuentes, a former politician and activist who urged people considering joining various caravans to “go together” for safety, but who denies organising them. “Insecurity is another reason. If you try to open a business, someone extorts you. Climate change is another factor, as is the politics.”

We also spoke to people working in Honduras to halt the exodus of people, and create more genuine opportunities in a nation battling unemployment, corruption and a sky-high murder rate, largely related to gang violence. This epidemic of violence has its origins a quarter of a century ago, when the US began deporting Central Americans who had formed gangs in jails in places such as California. (They had originally headed north to flee civil wars in which the US often supported murderous military-backed regimes.)

Bellia Murillo is waiting at the scruffy rear exit of the airport to meet her son, Fernando Martinez.

Against his mother’s wishes, the 18-year-old left for the US in December, having decided he needed to earn more money to help her raise his three younger sisters. His father died when he was three, and his mother earns very little running a simple juice shop, or pulperia.

He crossed without the help of a “coyote” (a people smuggler) and reached the California city of Adelanto, when he decided to turn himself into the authorities and ask for asylum. He was held in the city’s detention centre, one of many ICE (the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities with a record of poor conditions and suicide attempts among those being held. Now, he is being deported back to Honduras.

A decade ago, his aunt, Melba Murrillo, spent two years studying in New York on a scholarship provided by the United States Agency for International Sevelopment (USAID). She is also at the airport to meet the teenager. She says life in US was hard, even for those with a legal right to be there, and no one would undertake the journey lightly.

In 2018, the US deported 28,894 Hondurans – the equivalent of around 80 people a day

The young man’s mother sits fanning herself under a tree as the day’s heat gathers force, sobbing quietly and playing a recording of her son singing that he sent to her from the detention centre on Mothers’ Day. The family comes from the small town of Olanchito, a six-hour drive to the east, and they set off before dawn to collect Fernando.

“We don’t want to leave this country but in some cases it is necessary because we don’t have the opportunities here,” explains the aunt, who says she has degrees both from Broome Community College in New York and the National Pedagogical University in Tegucigalpa, and yet has been looking for work for 10 months.

“That is why we have to go another country. It could be the United States, it could be Spain. It could be another … We love our country, that is why we don’t want to go. We don’t want to go to the United States, we know it is very hard.”

Trump is not lying when he says the US is seeing a surge in migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border. The US has always been a target for people to better their lives; a study by the bipartisan Washington DC-based Centre for Immigration Studies suggests the number of immigrants from Central America (legal and illegal) has grown 28-fold since 1970.

What has changed is where they are coming from, and the factors driving them. Since 2015, the number of Mexicans entering the US has been equalled by the number leaving. But there been a leap in people from the so-called northern triangle – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In 2018, citizens of those countries accounted for 87 per cent of Central American immigrants. At the same time, the number of apprehensions at the southern border – while increasing in the last two years – stood at 467,000 in 2018, down from 1 million a year in the mid-1980s. Experts say the biggest source of illegal immigration to the US is people who overstay their visas.

A complex knot of frequently overlapping factors drive people to leave Honduras. But a lack of economic opportunities is among the most significant. Of Honduras’s 10 million people, up to two-thirds live in poverty. Perhaps 20 per cent live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said in 2016, surviving off less than $1.90 per day. More than half the population is under the age of 25, and youth unemployment stands at around 8 per cent.

Gang violence and insecurity is another major factor. While the scale of killings has fallen since 2012, per capita Honduras has the second highest murder rate for a country that is not an official war zone. (El Salvador, which has a rate of 82 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to Honduras’s 56, has the highest.)

More recently, the impact of climate change in the dry corridor in the southwest has made life even tougher for those dependent on agriculture, the largest source of income. Honduran farmers were already struggling with a coffee blight and the globally low price of coffee beans.

“From our perspective, and from some statistics, the most significant issue is the level of violence,” says Christian Visnes, regional director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) which works with people in Honduras amid what it terms a humanitarian crisis.

Donald Trump talks of 'ridiculous' immigration laws ahead of announcing Mexico tariffs

He says there is a multiplicity of factors, which are often hard to separate. “It’s difficult sometimes to see because most of these people live in poverty or extreme poverty,” he says.

Another factor is corruption.

In 2009, the country’s left-leaning president, Manuel Zelaya, an ally of Hugo Chavez, was ousted in a military coup. The US declined to recognise it as such, partly in order not to trigger the automatic cessation of aid. The current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, a conservative ally of the United States, was elected in 2013, and re-elected in 2017 amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

Accusations of corruption have dogged his presidency. In 2016, his sister was forced to stand down amid protests after Hernandez made her a cabinet minister. In recent months, cities such as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa have been rocked by public unrest over government plans to privatise healthcare and education.

Even more damaging to the president are allegations his brother has been a major narco-trafficker, overseeing shipments of cocaine from Colombia to the United States. Antonio Hernandez Alvarado was arrested last November by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in Miami.

In May, the former member of Honduras’s congress appeared in court in New York where he was charged with scheming over several years to bring tonnes of cocaine into the US using planes, boats, and, on one occasion, a submarine.

He admitted to agents he had accepted presents from violent drug traffickers, from groups such as the Los Valle and Los Cachiros cartels. In the indictment unsealed this spring, Hernandez says his brother, the president, warned him about the bad company he was keeping and that he was going to “wind up dead”.

“Tony Hernandez was involved in all stages of the trafficking through Honduras of multi-tonne loads of cocaine that were destined for the US,” said prosecutor Geoffrey Berman.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Tony Hernandez has pleaded not guilty and a trial is due to take place later this year. The president, who has admitted that he too has previously been investigated by the DEA, last year said: “No one is above the law, that’s been my stance and you know it, my stance as president and as a relative”. He added: “I hope that the justice system will give him the chance to defend himself.”

The office of the president did not immediately respond to enquiries from The Independent. Alberto Chedrani, a member of congress from the ruling National Party, says the decision by people to leave shows they are not happy. He also claims opposition parties had a hand in organising the caravans.

Speaking in an office at the restaurant he owns, he says it is difficult to attract the foreign investment required to create jobs while people are damaging the nation’s image. Asked if the president is not damaging its image by his association with his brother, charged with narco-trafficking, he says: “The president said if he found out anything about his brother, he would put him in jail here in Honduras.”

Not everyone is so forgiving. The newly elected president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, declined to invite Hernadez to his swearing in.

The former Honduran president, Zeyala, whose wife, Xiomara Castro, ran against Hernandez, says people are leaving the country “in a massive way”. He blamed the government’s neo-liberal agenda, which he said was enforced by the military.

“The people in our country have a lot of needs and are hungry so they take this decision to go,” he says. “They don’t have jobs, there is corruption. This is the reality for our people, and this is the economic model supported by the US.”

Asked what Hernandez should do to try and stop the migration, he says the government has to “start a process where human beings are the reason, the centre and the objective of the government”.

Outside of government, plenty of people are trying to create more opportunities for young people in the country either through tourism or else in small businesses.

Roger Enrique Valladares is executive vice president of the Technological University of Honduras, a private university network with 11 campuses across the country.

It was established by his father 34 years ago, to target working and middle class students, with a model that allows them to work during the day – sometimes in administrative roles at the college itself – and study at the weekend and evenings. It currently has 18,000 students studying law, marketing, engineering and computer science.

“Honduras is also the Americas,” says Valladares, at his bright and inviting campus in San Pedro Sula. “There is an American dream here too.”

It is late afternoon by the time Fernando Martinez walks out of the airport gate, carrying one of his sisters and accompanied by his mother, who had been permitted inside to meet him. He is wearing a red and white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, and is quickly buried in hugs from his relatives.

As he speaks, his mother rests her head on his shoulder.

“I went to help my mother. The situation here in Honduras is tough. There are no opportunities and there are a lot of people trafficking in drugs,” he says.

Does he plan to stay in Honduras now with his family, or will he try again to enter the US? “I don’t know,” he says. “Right now, I’m not thinking about that.”

Additional reporting: Paulo Cerrato in San Pedro Sula

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in