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I spent last week in and around San Pedro Sula, Honduras – the city where the large migrant caravans that journeyed through Mexico to our Tijuana-San Diego border last year launched from.
While the largest number of Central American migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border are from Guatemala, Honduras has had the highest migration rate since 2018, shortly after President Juan Orlando Hernández was re-elected amid widespread allegations of fraud and protests over the election were met violently by government forces, resulting in at least 31 deaths.
A Honduran photographer, Melvin Cubas, accompanied me on several excursions and interviews along the way. I pulled out some of his best photos that illustrate what’s happening in the country, and the conditions driving people there to seek refuge in the United States in such large numbers.
Hondurans’ economic struggles aren’t just caused by unemployment, especially in the cities. Many people have jobs, but they just don’t pay enough. Even foreign factories, or maquiladoras, pay most employees below minimum wage – which for factories ranges from about $350 to $450 per month, depending on the size of the factory. That means it’s a strain for people to afford the “basket of goods,” a fixed set of basic consumer products and services valued annually that economists often use to determine inflation or purchasing power. The cost of energy is also debilitating for many households. One man in Cofradía, a semi-rural town about 10 miles outside of San Pedro Sula, told me he makes a bit over $100 every 15 days, which is on the higher end for many maquila jobs. But he spends nearly a third of that on energy bills each month.
Violence is a daily reality in San Pedro Sula and throughout Honduras. While I was in San Pedro Sula, five people were massacred one night in the city. It’s at least the 32nd massacre in the country in 2019. While I was there, a gay man was also stoned to death in Choloma, a city just outside of San Pedro Sula. Between January and November 2018, Honduras saw 3,310 murders, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras – a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people. It’s down from a high of 85.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, but it’s still far higher than the United States, where the FBI’s most recent data shows a murder rate of 5.3 per 100,000 people in 2017. Honduras also has very high impunity rates, meaning that most of these crimes aren’t investigated or prosecuted.
Hundreds of deportees are brought to San Pedro Sula by plane from the United States several times a week. Mexico also deports Hondurans by bus and plane several times a week to the city. Many deportees go straight to the bus terminal after arriving back in the country, where they turn right around to try to leave Honduras again. As of April, the government of Honduras – which has a population of only about 9.5. million – said it expects a minimum of 80,000 deportees back to the country by the close of 2019.
Falling coffee prices have hit many rural communities in Honduras hard. When coffee prices were high, many people in communities like Santa Lucia in northwestern Honduras, took out loans to try and take advantage of the business. Now that prices have fallen, they are finding themselves in debt and without a source of decent income, further driving migration to big cities, like San Pedro Sula, and to the United States. This father from Santa Lucia tried to make it to the United States to earn money for his family a few months ago, but was detained in Mexico and deported.
Protests have reignited across Honduras in the past few weeks over government proposals to privatize health care and education. Education and health care have suffered severe budget cuts and multiple corruption scandals under the National party, which has ruled Honduras since a military-backed coup in 2009. Court documents released recently in a U.S. drug trafficking case against the brother of Hernández revealed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was also investigating the president and other high-level government officials, further fueling the protests.
Military and police have brutally cracked down on the protests, using tear gas and live bullets. There have been reports of many injuries and even deaths related to the protests in the past several weeks. It’s emblematic of how many people in Honduras don’t just fear gang violence, but violence from the state.