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Honduran migrants deported from the U.S. often face a grim fate
In Honduras, special correspondent Marcia Biggs heads to ground zero of the Central American migrant crisis to see why people are being forced to flee. Her second report in a four-part series begins in a dangerous neighborhood in San Pedro Sula where there are efforts to help the community left behind. This series is supported in part by the Pulitzer Center.
President Trump has threatened to close the U.S.- Mexico border next week if the flow of undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S. continues.
In El Paso Texas, the growing number of migrants crossing the border seeking asylum has caused border authorities to erect a makeshift holding pen under a bridge there, due to a shortage of space.
Most of those migrants are from Central American countries like Honduras where gang violence and crime have caused some to join the caravans of people leaving there and trying to make it here.
In the second part of her 4-part series: "Fleeing Home," NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Marcia Biggs reports from a part of Honduras that embodies all the issues causing people to flee. She also finds there are many looking to stay and make the best of their lives in their home nation.
Her reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
From high above, San Pedro Sula looks beautiful, calm, an idyllic city nestled in the Honduran hills. but on the outskirts of town, in the district of Rivera Hernandez, over one hundred thousand people live in abject poverty under the control of gangs.
We got special permission to enter the area, but we're told we have to keep our windows down so gang lookouts can keep an eye on us. Trash piles up in the street, even the animals are malnourished. Drinking water is contaminated and we're told that hungry children sometimes eat the sardines found swimming in open sewage lines.
Marcia Biggs, San Pedro Sula, Honduras:
We're at ground zero for all the problems in Honduras, whether they be poverty or violence. Rivera Hernandez is one of the most dangerous districts in San Pedro Sula, it's held by gangs. It really feels like a forgotten world here, you'd never know that we're ten minutes from the center of town.
The most infamous gangs in this district – MS-13 and the 18th Street gang. Both were born in the streets of Los Angeles during the 1970s and 80s, but spread to El Salvador and Honduras in the early nineties when members of their ranks were deported. Here in Honduras, they've divided up the area, running their sectors like organized crime syndicates. Play by their rules and stay on your own turf and you won't get hurt.
Pastor Danny Pacheco has lived here his whole life and like most pastors in the area works as an intermediary between the community, the gangs, and local police.
Danny Pacheco, Pastor (translated from Spanish):
I've been doing this for many years and I am who I am, I stay neutral. All we do is try to help who we can, in any community. The gangs know who you are. So I think with the passing of years, we've earned a level of trust with them, and their respect.
Do you ever fear for your life?
The government has touted a recent decline in homicide rates, but violence is still rampant. Fear of retribution keeps people from reporting crimes and when they do, fewer than five percent are even investigated, much less tried.
Abandoned homes dot the landscape, left by those fleeing extortion and violence. The gangs often turn the houses into dens for kidnapping, rape, and torture They're dubbed "casas locas," which is Spanish for crazy houses.
Hoping to bring some life back into the neighborhood, Pacheco is turning this former casa loca into a "casa de esperanza," a house of hope, a kind of community center where kids can have a place to go.
What's the future for a kid growing up in this neighborhood? In Rivera Hernandez?
Danny Pacheco (translated from Spanish):
It's very uncertain. Because in some ways we have a lot of kids who are good students. [But] if someone says, I'm going to 'burn my eyes' studying so many hours and years, and then not be able to get a job. What's the motivation for our youth to study?
But Pacheco says the biggest problem here isn't violence, it's poverty. Parents can't afford to buy school supplies and uniforms. One in four children in Honduras don't finish primary school.
They have these thoughts about what might happen to them in the future. And a gang comes along and presents to them how much they earn, the type of life they have. It's the best offer they get, so they join the gang.
Pacheco says around three quarters of the kids in his community have joined. Some others join the caravans of migrants heading to the United States.
People continue to leave, all despite threats from President Donald Trump, who has military at the border and could fire shots at people. The goal is for people to get desperate and turn back. Despite all of that, people keep leaving the country. If the United States invests less in the wall and more in reducing poverty in these countries, I'm sure it will fix the problem.
The United States is supplying aid to Honduras. In 2017, $181 million went to programs designed to make Honduras safer and curb drug trafficking. In the process, the U.S. hopes to make it less likely that Hondurans will want to emigrate.
The U.S. State Department and USAID funneled a majority of that cash toward the country's security institutions: military and police. The government built new so-called American-style prisons, rounding up and incarcerating gang members.
But this also bolstered the authority of institutions that are notoriously corrupt.
In the case of the military, when protests erupted over the 2017 election of President Hernandez, security forces allegedly killed over two dozen people, with impunity. In the case of the police, victims of crime are often afraid to make reports for fear that police will inform on them to members of the gangs.
Olga Casele told us that she was in the car with her family when they accidentally bumped a police car and bullets started flying. She says police shot three of her children, her seven-year-old son Jose was shot in the head.
Jose (translated from Spanish):
My dad said "don't shoot, don't shoot, my kids are inside!" But they kept going.
Tienes miedo de ir en la calle? Are you scared to go on the street?
Olga Casele (translated from Spanish):
Yes, I am scared because when I am out with him and he sees police he gets scared and nervous. (Crying) I don't wish this grief on anyone. My kids are here only because of God's grace. The police in this country are worthless, they shoot without even knowing who they are shooting at.
Because of incidents like this one, police who are trying to do right by the communities are struggling to gain their trust. Law enforcement has received U.S. dollars for new community policing and outreach program, sending national police officers to schools to speak to students and funding this day camp. But out of the 8,000 children in this sector of Rivera Hernandez, only 100 can attend this camp.
But just down the road, Jeremias Vobada is giving the children in Rivera Hernandez —and even some adults—another opportunity for free — training future electricians for jobs that can pay up to 20 dollars per day, more than twice what they can make working in a shop or selling water on the street.
Together they walk down the road, past a river of sewage to the abandoned building that pastor Danny Pacheco is fixing up. It will be their classroom for the day, as they begin the basics of electricity installation.
His students range in age. Marvin Marcier is fifty-two years old. He lost his job at a brewing company and needs work. He shares the class with nine year old Isaac, who is on a winter break from school. In Honduras, even a fourth grader knows he has to learn how to feed his family.
Jeremias Vobada (translated from Spanish):
We have spent a long time waiting for help to come from elsewhere. That's why it's important for them to learn so they can teach each other and we can grow and get ahead within our own community. Our vision is to grow across all of Honduras by educating technicians in order to eventually build a solar panel factory to be able to grow in the field of solar energy.
Twenty years ago, Vobada was a drug addict, involved in trafficking for a small local gang. He understands the choices these kids are going to face.
This work keeps them off the streets and with their minds occupied and this also helps them forget about the American Dream. It teaches them that here in Honduras, if they have a trade, they have a tool to help support their families.
After class, Isaac took us home to meet his mother. Eveline Nunas runs a small grocery store and is only able to stay afloat because her brother, who lives in Houston, sends her around 80 dollars a month. She hands almost a quarter of that over to the gang that controls her area. Extortion is so commonplace here, they call it war tax.
Si no pagas? If you don't pay?
Eveline Nunas (translated from Spanish):
We're obligated to pay or they'll take everything, shut you down. They simply give us the order to shut everything down. And we are forced to do it because if we dont we are in danger. It's very complicated here because of this.
She's proud of Isaac. He's smart and meticulous. She wants him to stay in school, and says that vocational training, even at nine years old, is equally important.
Many times he asked me, "Mommy, what do you want me to do in the future?" I say "Honey I want you to prepare yourself, in studies, go to college if god allows you. It's what the whole world wants with God's help."
We asked Jeremias Vobada if he ever thought about joining a caravan, like the thousands of others trying to emigrate. He said he wanted to leave the neighborhood, but not for the U.S.
With a vision, I want to go with the same technical educators trained in electricity and solar energy to different parts of this country, teaching others. Mexico, the United States, it's not my dream. My dream is here in Honduras and here we are going to be.
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Marcia Biggs is a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour, specializing in coverage of the Middle East, where she has over a decade of experience. Recent highlights include a four-part series “Inside Yemen,” as well as in-depth reports on the battle against ISIS in Iraq and the human rights violations taking place against those fleeing Mosul. For her coverage for PBS of Iraq, Biggs has received a Gracie Allen Award, a First Place National Headliner Award, and a New York Festivals World Medal. Most recently, she was named the 2018 Marie Colvin Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the Newswomen’s Club of New York. Before her work with the NewsHour, Biggs reported for Al Jazeera English, Fox News Channel, CNN, and ABC News. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she received her Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut and currently resides in New York City.
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