Roberto, a newspaper salesman that we were acquainted with was gunned down at 8:00 a.m. in a Tegucigalpa neighborhood, where he sold papers. It is said that his employer didn’t pay the required war tax, money paid to gang members to do business in their controlled neighborhoods. It is said the gangs wanted to make an example of Roberto. His bleeding, lifeless corpse was displayed in the local paper. This man was well-known and well liked in our small, safe community north of the city. All the businesses were closed on the day of his funeral so people could attend.
Violence in Latin America
Drug trafficking: Honduras and its Central American neighbors are a favored smuggling corridor for South American cocaine headed north to the U.S. It is tempting and easy to blame the violence on increased drug trafficking. By blaming drug trafficking, we put the problem in a simple box, throw our hands up in the air and say, “What’s to be done?” But there are a number of additional factors that contributed to Honduras' alarming murder rate. The factors involved include drug trafficking, the proliferation of gangs, a struggling world economy, corruption, impunity and human trafficking.
Gangs: Latin America is riddled with crime, and no place is more violent than Honduras. Honduras has just 8 million people, but with 20 people killed every day, it now has the highest murder rate in the world. The two largest gangs in Honduras, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street (M-18) gang, got their start in the U.S., moving to Honduras when hundreds of imprisoned gang members were deported in the years between 2001-2010. Deported gang members replicated their activities back in Central America, where they found willing recruits to fill the ranks of their organizations. Each gang has control over different neighborhoods so people can’t leave their own neighborhood because they risk attack by a rival gang.
The gangs own the streets, the police, the taxis, and the judges. Young people, ages 13-20, served by the Christian Commission for Development (CCD), the agency with which we work in Honduras, walk to classes each day in dangerous neighborhoods. It is common for the young people to get harassed, threatened and robbed on their way to school. CCD relocated the classes nearer the neighborhoods to reduce the risk to students.
Our taxi driver crosses himself as we enter the neighborhoods. He tells us to roll down our tinted windows so that people can see us. If they can't get a glimpse of us, it will make them more suspicious. We know to put away our cell phones and deposit our purse or bags out of sight.
Impunity: The police force is underfunded and officers are underpaid, often receiving their salary weeks or months later than anticipated. Income in the form of bribes from gang members and criminals is welcome. In exchange, the police look away. Calls to the police go unanswered. It is not uncommon for emergency response to be delayed by several hours, or forever. It is estimated that only 2% of crimes are prosecuted. “There is no criminal investigation, no use of technology,” said Juan Fraño, a delegate for Honduras’s National Human Rights Commission. He said all efforts to ensure accountability for serious crimes and abuses have failed. “Crime scenes are contaminated. There is no DNA testing. No fingerprint bank. No logistics.” Denis Erazo Paz, police commissioner in the city of Tocoa, told Human Rights Watch, “There’s too much work. And the peasants look at the police as their enemy.”
Some very good friends of ours were carjacked. Truck-jacked, actually. The mother was dropped on a dark street with their three young children, after stealing her cash and cell phone. They kidnapped the father, beat him and released him after 45 minutes. I asked my friends if they called the police but they only laughed at me. “What for?” they said. “It was probably the police who stole the truck.” The family was happy to escape alive. Another friend got out of her car to open her gate. A man came up to her with a gun and politely asked for her car. She happily gave him the keys in exchange for her life. We haven’t talked to a single person in Honduras, including ourselves, who haven’t been a victim of a crime.
Why Leave One’s Homeland?
It is this reality of gang activity, weak law enforcement and poverty that has led to the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding along the U.S. border.
In our experience, we have found Hondurans to be a proud people who love their country. They love the land, they love their children and they love their soccer team. Why would children brave danger and possibly death to cross a border thousands of miles away, enduring hardship, hunger and separation from their family? Why would parents pay someone to smuggle their child across the border? The United Nations High Commission on Refugees interviewed 408 children. The children report they are escaping crime, poverty and violence.
Over the years a large number of Hondurans have immigrated to the U.S., leaving young children in care of family members. Work in the U.S. provides money for their support. As the years go by, relatives face challenges with the growing children, often the parent has a new family to support in the U.S. and the remittance checks slow down or stop. Children often are willing to risk the journey to be reunited with a parent. Children will travel with nothing but a phone number in their pocket.
Complicating the situation is the very nature of human brain development. The prefrontal cortex acts as a voice of reason, guiding human beings to make rational decisions over impulsive ones. However, this part of the brain does not fully mature, neuroscientists tell us, until the mid-to-late twenties. Young adults whose prefrontal cortex is still developing tend to participate in risky activities.
Finally, the most compelling argument, children are motivated by the hope for a better future. This hope drives young people to face incredible dangers. Hopping a Mexican train called “The Beast,” children face hunger, assault, robbery, rape and injury. If they are captured by authorities, they are deported, yet they turn around, sometimes after multiple deportations, and continue to make the journey toward hope. In all of the interviews of children conducted by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, no child mentions U.S. policy on immigration or the hope of getting welfare benefits as motivating factors.
Children at the Border
The United States faces a perfect storm of humanitarian crisis. Unaccompanied and separated children have crossed the border at unprecedented rates, the unanticipated result of foreign policy. Because they are on U.S. soil, our government has a legal, not to speak of ethical, obligation to provide protection, due process and basic needs to this wave of immigrants. Each child has the right by our own laws, to a fair hearing. This obligation was codified by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which passed the House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President George W. Bush. That law says the children cannot be immediately sent back. Due process must be followed. They must be held humanely by the Department of Health and Human Services until the courts release them to a “suitable family member” or to the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sources say more than 80 percent of these children will find permanent homes in the U.S., with either family or foster homes and not be sent back to Central America.
Each child is entitled to a fair hearing to assess their unique circumstances. Many children are brought here by smugglers or “coyotes” making them victims of human trafficking, qualifying them for refugee status.
Providing food, safe housing, transportation, legal assistance and medical care for this new wave of immigrants is proving to be a monumental task. Non-profits, volunteers and other government agencies have stepped forward to help. Citizens of the U.S. know how to come together in a crisis. President Obama has asked for increased federal funding to relieve financial burden on state agencies.
We Christians use the Bible as our map and Jesus as our model. That being the case, I am constantly amazed at the wide variety of Christian responses considering we all read the same map. In the United Church of Christ, leaders are calling for justice and action. On the United Church of Christ web page there are suggestions for ways to get involved.
Global Ministries, along with Honduran partners, Christian Commission for Development and the Evangelical and Reformed Church of Honduras, are responding to the crisis. Both organizations work in the education sector providing training and counseling for youth affected by violence; training that will help them get jobs and avoid involvement with the gangs, the “maras.”
The United States government has legal responsibilities to provide due process and keep children safe and Christians have a moral and ethical responsibility to do the same. Face it, we have the money, but do we have the will? In the end, this new “surge,” these new children may prove to be the salvation of the United States, just as other immigrants have been. Hondurans are hardworking, independent and extremely family oriented, the very qualities we value. I am reminded that the Samaritan was a foreigner who stopped to help a stranger in need. In addition, contrary to the stereotype, Honduran immigrants are not accustomed to government programs and are less likely than U.S. born people to seek government services.
Here in Honduras, the crisis is unfolding and I sympathize with people who want to escape. Please understand that leaving one’s homeland is not easy and is never a first choice. Hondurans are drawn by fear and a need to escape violence, but even stronger is the need for hope.
Don and Maryjane Westra serve with the Christian Commission for Development and are based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Don's appointment is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and both appointments are made possible by Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission and your special gifts.