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.
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. 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.
“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.”
The former Honduran president, Zeyala, 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 to do to 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”.
The 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. The president has admitted that he too has previously been investigated by the DEA. The newly elected president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, declined to invite Hernadez to his swearing in.
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