Since I moved to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in September 2017 to do research for my doctoral dissertation, I’ve accompanied a 16-year-old with three bullet holes in his body to the hospital, only to find that there was no blood for transfusions. I’ve looked in the face of a young mother, anguished over whether she should try to make it the United States, because the gang that she used to be a part of but had left behind wanted to pull her back in. I’ve gotten tearful phone calls from a single mother and her two children, who have been told by a gang that they want her house — and she has nowhere else to go. I’ve talked to many families whose teenagers have been taken away by police, never to be seen again. And I’ve also talked to police officers who have given up on law enforcement here, as their superiors undermine honest work and reward corruption.
On Friday, President Trump declared a national emergency as a pretext to allow him to begin construction of a border wall. But the real national emergency is here, in Honduras.
I arrived shortly before a likely fraudulent election installed Juan Orlando Hernández in a second, unconstitutional term as president. Rather than protest irregularities in the vote-counting process, the Trump administration congratulated Hernández on his victory.
Honduras was already in bad shape: a devastating hurricane in 1998; a coup d’etat in 2009; becoming the world’s most homicidal nation in 2010; and a long history of U.S. intervention. In 2015, the ruling National party was implicated in stealing millions of dollars from the nation’s social security fund. Honduras is also on the primary route for cocaine trafficking to the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration has arrested many alleged narcotraffickers, among them the president’s brother, Tony Hernández. The country ranks high in corruption, impunity, poverty and inequality. It ranks low for literacy, employment and life expectancy.
The 2017 election, though, brought things to a head. There were massive protests, the country was shut down for more than a month, and at least 31 protesters were killed. Honduras has erupted in moments of insurrection since then, though the most visible aftereffects of the election have been a crackdown on dissidents, especially the young and students, and the caravans heading for the United States. People had staked their hope for a better future in a different electoral outcome. When that was taken from them, they went back to leaving the country.
Honduran migration isn’t new; what is new is that they are doing it publicly, in large groups, and asking, collectively, for protection. The real humanitarian crisis is that, mostly, Hondurans are denied this protection and deported.
So many young Hondurans — especially the urban poor — feel like they have no future here. Eight out of 10 violent deaths here are of young people. A young man told me, at 21 years old, that he once had a dream but it’s over. He has no dreams now. He was recently deported from the United States after losing an asylum claim. Yet, back in Honduras, he has to hide in the trunk of a car to be able to visit his mother. The gang there would kill him if they saw him enter her house.
At least he came back alive.
A week ago, I went with a family to receive the remains of their 16-year-old son, who had been murdered in Mexico. He had traveled as part of a caravan and was killed in Tijuana. We picked up the small coffin at the San Pedro Sula airport and loaded the slight white box into the back of a borrowed, barely running pickup truck. As I drove to the airport with his grandmother that day, her eyes had filled with tears as she told me how his father used to paint his face and take him on the bus, performing simple clown routines, hoping to be given a few lempiras. She also told me how two of her three sons were murdered in their early 20s. The third one was disappeared. An unasked question hung in the air: whether her grandson would have lived to adulthood had he stayed in Honduras.
Human history is one of migration; we are exceptionally good at moving around when the conditions for life become tenuous. Neither walls nor deserts nor oceans have ever deterred us from seeking safer horizons and better opportunities for survival.
Under these circumstances, Hondurans’ drive to seek safety elsewhere is not an emergency; that there may be no place in the world where they are allowed to find refuge is the real crisis.
Amelia Frank-Vitale is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan.