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Why People Are Fleeing Honduras For The U.S.: 'All That's Left Here Is Misery'

A smuggler (in background, behind truck with red cab) bypasses the border crossing in the town of Corinto and leads a pair of migrants on a footpath through a farm that leads from Honduras to Guatemala.
A smuggler (in background, behind truck with red cab) bypasses the border crossing in the town of Corinto and leads a pair of migrants on a footpath through a farm that leads from Honduras to Guatemala.

Joining the exodus of Hondurans fleeing their benighted homeland, Luis Alberto Enrique and his family search for the unmarked footpath into Guatemala to begin their dangerous, 1,500-mile journey to the Texas border.

As they walk through the border town of Corinto on a humid morning last month, his two young daughters tote pink Disney backpacks and their favorite stuffed animals. Enrique says he heard the United States is no longer turning migrants back.

"I heard on the news there is chaos on the U.S.-Mexico border, but I understand they're not deporting families," Enrique said. "We're putting ourselves in the hands of U.S. law. Here, life is very hard."

Hondurans represent the largest nationality crossing the southern U.S. border asking for asylum — more than 200 families a day, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Many are still expelled under the pandemic public health order, but increasingly, families are being allowed in to begin the asylum process.

"I'm a farmer — corn, coffee, beans. But I can't make enough to feed my family," Enrique said. "We have droughts and then we have floods. And there's the lawlessness. Maras [gangs] extort the smallest businesses. We're headed to Houston, asking God to guide us and protect us."

The surge of migrants has created a crisis for the Biden administration and has prompted a scramble for solutions to cure deep social ills in Central America. President Biden has named Vice President Harris as the point person to address the waves of Central Americans showing up at the U.S. border.

Last week, Harris told the Washington Conference on the Americas that the administration intends to focus on addressing catastrophes in the region — hurricane damage, the coronavirus pandemic, drought and food insecurity — as well as the "root causes" of migration, such as corruption, violence, poverty, joblessness and the lack of climate adaptation. The White House plans to spend $4 billion over four years in the region.

Forest fires surround Tegucigalpa, covering the Honduran capital under heavy smog, as seen from the ruralized urban periphery of the Guzmán neighborhood.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Forest fires surround Tegucigalpa, covering the Honduran capital under heavy smog, as seen from the ruralized urban periphery of the Guzmán neighborhood.

"That's why they leave home and come to the United States," Harris said. "They are suffering. They are in pain. Many are experiencing unimaginable anguish."

The lives of many Hondurans had already been stretched to the breaking point. For many, it was hurricanes Eta and Iota that finally made life unlivable. The back-to-back major storms struck the same regions of Central America last November.

As further evidence of climate change, these were the largest, strongest late-season storms in recorded history. And it was the first time anyone in the region could remember all five rivers overflowing and turning the Sula Valley, on Honduras' Atlantic lowlands, into one vast lake.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recently reported 247,000 internally displaced persons in Honduras, with up to 2.5 million people in need of emergency food assistance.

Blanca Marisa Balegas, a 41-year-old mother and tortilla-maker, still can't return to her colonia of Santa Isabel, on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. Five months after the hurricanes, locals don't call the disaster by the storm names — like they do in the U.S. Gulf states — they call it by what it was: la llena, the fill.

Blanca Marisa Balegas makes tortillas at the Ramos family's new wood-fired stove after the floods disintegrated the old one. Ten family members sleep in the two-room home now. Hurricanes Eta and Iota displaced the family for over five months.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Blanca Marisa Balegas makes tortillas at the Ramos family's new wood-fired stove after the floods disintegrated the old one. Ten family members sleep in the two-room home now. Hurricanes Eta and Iota displaced the family for over five months.

"Everything is buried in mud. We lost everything," Balegas said, mashing a ball of masa into tortillas. "We thought it was a flood like something out of the Bible. It was terrible. Dead chickens, dogs, pigs floating in the water."

She motions to the nearly deserted streets of the neighborhood where she and her three children are living with her mother-in-law.

Still water pools outside a public school in the Ciudad Planeta neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, where remains of the 2020 flood have yet to be cleared.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Still water pools outside a public school in the Ciudad Planeta neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, where remains of the 2020 flood have yet to be cleared.
Entire crops in the Sula Valley, on Honduras' Atlantic lowlands, were wiped out in the flooding. Along the roadways that encircle San Pedro Sula, utility poles and billboards remain partially or totally destroyed by the hurricanes' high winds.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Entire crops in the Sula Valley, on Honduras' Atlantic lowlands, were wiped out in the flooding. Along the roadways that encircle San Pedro Sula, utility poles and billboards remain partially or totally destroyed by the hurricanes' high winds.

"After la llena, they went away to the U.S. to earn more money. They say it's easy to cross now," Balegas said. "All that's left here is misery."

She said she's thinking about taking her children to Mexico or the U.S., perhaps to join her sister in Alabama. She earns only $7 to $8 a day from tortilla sales, and there's not near enough to pay a coyote, or human smuggler.

A bulldozer clears the way to the El Rosario neighborhood of La Lima, Honduras, after the neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the city for nearly six months. The 2020 hurricanes left tons of dirt and debris in the homes, alleys and roads of the neighborhood.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
A bulldozer clears the way to the El Rosario neighborhood of La Lima, Honduras, after the neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the city for nearly six months. The 2020 hurricanes left tons of dirt and debris in the homes, alleys and roads of the neighborhood.

Nearby, a bulldozer scoops up dried, rank mud from streets and yards. Residents say that it is the only thing their government has done to help them and that all the food aid that's keeping them alive is coming from international donors.

"Our president is a scoundrel. Where is our help!?" asks María Jiménez, a 50-year-old shop owner in the Ciudad Planeta neighborhood of San Pedro Sula whose home and livelihood were ruined by the storm.

The government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been accused of theft of public funds. U.S. federal prosecutors have also implicated Hernández as a "co-conspirator" in the crimes of his brother, Tony, who was sentenced to life in prison this year for cocaine trafficking. The president denies any wrongdoing or that Honduras has descended into a "narcostate."

María Jiménez stands in front of one of the many piles of dried mud that bulldozers have moved to restore access to her neighborhood in La Lima, five months after the hurricanes.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
María Jiménez stands in front of one of the many piles of dried mud that bulldozers have moved to restore access to her neighborhood in La Lima, five months after the hurricanes.

"Our institutions are at the service of corruption, impunity and the violation of human rights," says Ismael Moreno Coto, a Jesuit priest and longtime government critic. "Every day, hundreds of people are leaving, and this is one of the reasons."

Ismael Moreno Coto, better known as Padre Melo, a firebrand human rights advocate and Jesuit priest, points to a photograph in his office showing the labor movements that the city of Progreso has been known for.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Ismael Moreno Coto, better known as Padre Melo, a firebrand human rights advocate and Jesuit priest, points to a photograph in his office showing the labor movements that the city of Progreso has been known for.

Kurt Alan Ver Beek, whose nonprofit, Association for a More Just Society, has been working in Honduras for 20 years, says: "It does feel like, how much more can people take?"

"Maybe it was the two hurricanes. I know people who lost their jobs because the restaurant where they worked was underwater. I know people who lost jobs because the owner of the restaurant died of COVID," he continued. "Your kids aren't in school — you don't have money to pay internet to have your kids in school. The gangs are threatening your kids. All of those things combined."

Kurt Alan Ver Beek, co-founder of the Association for a More Just Society, as well as president of the board, at his home in Tegucigalpa. Ver Beek and his wife, Jo Ann Van Engen, have worked on development projects in Honduras since they moved there in 1986.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Kurt Alan Ver Beek, co-founder of the Association for a More Just Society, as well as president of the board, at his home in Tegucigalpa. Ver Beek and his wife, Jo Ann Van Engen, have worked on development projects in Honduras since they moved there in 1986.

Central Americans asking for protection at the U.S. border often say they're fleeing ruthless criminal gangs back home. In many places, every type of business — from the ubiquitous corner shops called pulperías, to Super Chicken takeout joints, to the three-wheel tuk-tuk taxis — are expected to pay weekly extortion to gangs as "protection" from rival thugs.

One of the gangsters who collects weekly shakedowns is a slight 25-year-old with hoop earrings, a bright red T-shirt and a child's bunny-ear backpack. She works for MS-13, one of the largest and deadliest mafias in the Americas. Her nickname is La China; she won't give her real name or have her picture taken.

"My job is to collect extortion," she said. "I've done this for four years. They have a fixed time to pay. If they delay too long, we kill the person. There are people who refuse to pay the extortion — they say, 'Oh, we haven't sold enough!' — but it's obligatory. They have to pay, or else.

In a flat, impassive voice, she describes her work in a gritty section of San Pedro Sula called Sector Satélite. She sits in the back seat of a vehicle during the interview, constantly looking out the window for police in the darkened streets of her neighborhood.

A Honduran National Police homicide investigator said in an interview that it would be unusual for a public-facing extorsionista to also be una sicaria, an assassin, who's usually a more shadowy figure. But in NPR's follow-up query to her boss in MS-13, he texted back, "She is a devil. She shoots very well."

La China said: "I'm accustomed to my work. Anyway, if I didn't kill, my jefe will kill me, so we have to do it."

She understands well that extortion and murder are driving migration to the United States.

An alleged gang member lowers his head while flanked by two officers of the special anti-gang unit of the Honduran National Police at a news conference in San Pedro Sula after his arrest.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
An alleged gang member lowers his head while flanked by two officers of the special anti-gang unit of the Honduran National Police at a news conference in San Pedro Sula after his arrest.

"We've had lots of people who, after we gave them 24 hours to pay up, we found their houses empty. They had to leave because they say they don't have enough money to pay the extortion."

She says if fleeing Hondurans are turned away by U.S. authorities and deported, and they return to their neighborhood, they do so under a death sentence from MS-13.

But going north may be an escape for her own family. She says she plans to send her 8-year-old son with her mother to the U.S. later this year. "I want him to study. I don't want him to get mixed up in the mara."

When someone is ready to run for whatever reason — they can't pay the weekly cuota to the gang, they can't find work, they're tired of eating nothing but rice and beans — if they can get the money, they reach out to a person like Juan. He asked that his full name not be used because his livelihood is illegal.

The Ciudad Planeta neighborhood of San Pedro Sula was turned into a vast muddy lake by the 2020 hurricanes. Sights like this vehicle ruined by the flood are still common.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
The Ciudad Planeta neighborhood of San Pedro Sula was turned into a vast muddy lake by the 2020 hurricanes. Sights like this vehicle ruined by the flood are still common.

He's a coyote, and he's proud of his nickname — Speedy Gonzales. He takes his clients all the way from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Reynosa, Mexico, usually in under a week. He prefers the easterly coastal route through Mexico, staying off major highways and away from hotels and putting his clients up in modest private homes whose owners are compensated. Once they get to the Mexico-U.S. border, they're expected to pay a local smuggler to ferry them across the Rio Grande into Texas.

"What we're interested in is our clients arrive at the destination safe and sound. That's it," he said. "For this we charge $1,000 to $1,500 a person. Now we have a new service — the VIP trip — where we only take only three or four people and the truck is more comfortable. For this we charge $2,000."

Speedy's face is whiskered and fleshy, with the eager smile of a salesman. Like La China, he asks to be interviewed inside the car, out of sight. It's daytime and beastly humid. He squeegees his brow with his thumb and flings the sweat out the open car window.

Speedy said he has been a coyote for 10 years, through three U.S. presidents, and he has seen how U.S. immigration policy affects his business.

"With Trump, we had lots of problems. Things were stricter," he said. "But with Biden, his people seem more accepting. There's more opportunity for the migrant to get work up there, and for the coyote too, because there's more people to move."

But Speedy is the face of the enemy as far as the Biden administration is concerned. On April 27, officials launched Operation Sentinel to target criminal smuggling organizations and "help save the lives of those who are preyed upon by these unscrupulous criminals."

The Department of Homeland Security reports that the numbers of Central American families and children currently crossing the border is nearing a 20-year high.

Speedy laments the reputational damage done by fellow coyotes who rape their clients, rob them, extort them and abandon them. He also denies pressuring anyone to go north.

"We don't go out looking for clients — they look for us. What we tell them is that they'll have security. Sadly, all the compañeros who do this kind of work are not benevolent. Lots of coyotes abandon their clients. This happens all the time, way too often. They're not coyotes — they're vultures."

When a Honduran goes missing on the trek to the Texas border, Edita Maldonado may step in to help. She's the founder of a group called the Committee of the Families of Disappeared Migrants, or COFAMIPRO.

The animated woman, in her 70s, sits in a plastic chair outside her house surrounded by flowers and birds in the town of Progreso. She agrees that migration has picked up, primarily because of the hurricanes.

Portraits of missing migrants from Honduras posted by members of COFAMIPRO, which is composed of loved ones who stayed behind but have never stopped looking.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Portraits of missing migrants from Honduras posted by members of COFAMIPRO, which is composed of loved ones who stayed behind but have never stopped looking.

"People were left without houses, without work. They see no other option than to leave," she said. "Next, the reason is the criminal gangs. These hoodlums have killed whole families. People realize they can't live here anymore because they're being extorted. So they leave their homes and their jobs, and they hit the road."

For two decades, Maldonado has hosted a program on Radio Progreso called Opening Borders that broadcasts the names of the newly disappeared. She says that more than 600 families currently have loved ones they've reported lost on the journey. From experience, she said, most disappear in Mexico — they're either kidnapped or killed, or they decide to stay there and work.

Edita Maldonado, mother of Rosa Lidia Pérez, holds a photograph of her once-disappeared daughter, whom she found with support from COFAMIPRO. Maldonado found her daughter and brought her home before she passed away in 2004.
/ Tomas Ayuso for NPR
Edita Maldonado, mother of Rosa Lidia Pérez, holds a photograph of her once-disappeared daughter, whom she found with support from COFAMIPRO. Maldonado found her daughter and brought her home before she passed away in 2004.

She said Hondurans are so desperate to get out that they are leaving unprepared for the trip.

"Now the majority leave with no money!" she exclaimed. "They beg. They ask for rides. They depend on handouts."

When asked if she has a message for the Biden administration, Maldonado was quick with a response: "Help the migrants who are fleeing our country. They're not criminals. They're just hungry."

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