Dried blood on the stairs of a building used for torture and murder in La Rivera Hernández, Honduras. Credit: DM Mackey
The Atlantic, June 2018.Edwin Vásquez, a 16-year-old, is learning how to live with fear. One afternoon last fall, as he played soccer on a field near his house in La Rivera Hernández in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, gunfire suddenly rang out, and he barely dodged bullets meant for him. Lurking around the field were members of the Olanchanos, one of six gangs in La Rivera. Although Edwin is not a member of MS-13, the Olanchanos’ rival, it does control the street he lives on. This fact alone marks him as an enemy of the Olanchanos.After the shooting, he considered joining MS-13 for protection, but suspected the threat was so imminent that he didn’t have time. “Our greatest challenge here is to stay alive,” he said. “To be together with your mom, your family, and to make it to 18 or 22.” So at sunrise the day after the shooting, Edwin and his half brother left for the United States. They passed through Mexico atop la bestia, the train that migrants often ride for part of their journey, notorious for robberies and assaults. Gripping white-knuckled to its roof one night, he watched a man tumble to his death while fending off two men attempting to rape his teenage daughter, Edwin said.Yet even if Central American migrants survive the horrors of la bestia, they must contend with Plan Frontera Sur, the result of an $86 million investment by the U.S. government into Mexico in 2014 to help it beef up its security forces to trap migrants. Within one year, the program halved the number of Central Americans able to reach the southern U.S. border and doubled deportations from Mexico—nearly 170,000 by July 2015. Every year since, Mexican authorities have far surpassed the U.S. in deporting Central Americans home. In 2017, Mexican authorities caught nearly 95,000 from the region—including Edwin, and deported him back to La Rivera just before Christmas.But even if he’d gotten through Mexico, made it to the U.S. border, and sought asylum, he would have run into more obstacles from the Trump administration. Soon after taking office in January 2017, the administration began pushing the claim that the asylum system is rife with fraud and threatens national security.The administration later specifically targeted immigrants from Central America with a policy that led to forced family separation, and Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that he said would keep families together.But the move that will have the greatest effect on Central American asylum-hopefuls like Edwin came on June 11, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions struckthe fear of gangs and domestic violence as legal grounds for obtaining such protection. He argued that these people do not flee the classes of imminent danger codified in asylum laws, enacted after World War II to protect those facing religious or political persecution. “An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family, or other personal circumstances,” he wrote in his decision. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.” Effectively, Central Americans victimized by violent gangs and abusive law enforcement are on their own, despite the fact that the U.S. government has played a central role in creating the very conditions they are desperate to escape.While recent events at the U.S. border have stoked political outrage, the larger trend of repelling migrants while feeding the violence they flee predates the Trump administration, when Obama’s border strategy effectively pushed much of the enforcement south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The story of Edwin and La Rivera is one version of what happens to those who are forced back.
Edwin’s mother Aurora felt conflicted. She was overjoyed to have him back, but she couldn’t keep him safe. “I know it was dangerous, but I agreed with his decision to go” undocumented to the U.S., she said. “We were so afraid.” Over the past nine years, she watched as her friends from the textile factory where she works grieve for their murdered children. If one day it happened to her, she would get through it as they had, “by the grace of God and for the children who remain.” Like other parents in poor neighborhoods across Central America, she has told Edwin to “be good”: to pray, and do well in school.
For Edwin, to “be good” also means rarely leaving his four-room cinderblock home—a benevolent house arrest of sorts. He has almost completed a degree program at an alternative high school that meets one day a week. After finishing, he’ll look for a job. That will mean frequently risking trips into the world outside.Edwin’s mom does allow him to go to his best friend Pablo’s house three doors down. Pablo knew they might be saying goodbye forever when Edwin went north, and was glad to have him back. But the Edwin who returned was different—guarded and somehow mysterious. He seemed suddenly older than his 16 years. After Pablo heard his stories from the migration, though, it made sense. Edwin doesn’t want to dwell on the horrific past with most people, so Pablo guards his friend’s memories in confidence. Now, when they’re with others, Pablo often speaks for Edwin first. When alone, they just goof around.One day in February, Edwin walked into Pablo’s house to hang out with friends. He was tense: He’d left his birth certificate at home, and had spotted a police patrol just down the street and knew they’d seen him, too. In the eyes of many policemen in La Rivera, all teenagers are potential criminals. Edwin and his friends knew other kids who’d been arrested for not having their papers—despite the fact that this isn’t illegal in Honduras—or for running from police, walking away from police, letting the police search them, holding eye contact with the police, or averting eye contact with the police.Edwin trembled as he gamed out what would happen if the cops followed him to Pablo’s house. Once arrested, he’d be in their hands—“almost a death sentence,” he said. He feared they’d torture or kill him, practices identified by social organizations and journalists across Central America. Yet Honduras has received nearly $114 million in security aid from the United States since 2009, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.Edwin had spent his short life on the run: from gang members, from U.S.-supported police in Mexico, from U.S.-supported police in Honduras. He feared his luck had run out. “They’re masked,” he said. “They’re here to kill.”Suddenly, the boys heard gravel cracking under tires. Edwin’s face went pale when he saw the nose of a police truck inch into view. The truck parked, and three officers carrying semiautomatic rifles stepped out, slammed the doors, and walked to the front gate of Pablo’s house. In silence, they scanned the group cross-legged on the ground in front of the house. Then they noticed us—two foreigners with reporting equipment sitting among the boys. They shifted their feet; two retreated a step toward the truck. One craned his neck as if focused on something far away. The boys hardly breathed as the police radio squawked. Within three minutes, the officers loaded back into the truck and drove away.The boys began talking all at once, a rush of nervous energy. Pablo’s mother, sitting inside, hadn’t noticed what was happening, but she walked out when the boys erupted and they burst into telling the story. She told Edwin that he should have remained in the street and let the police come to him; he has nothing to hide. Her advice angered Pablo. “Mom! You know how the police are,” he said. She nodded, standing behind Edwin and rubbing his shoulders. He reached up for her right hand and guided it across his chest, laying it on his heart so she could feel it racing.
Experiences like Edwin’s are what Daniel Pacheco, a 39-year-old Christian pastor, is trying to change. He wants to rebuild the trust that usually holds communities together but is absent in La Rivera, a place where police break laws, gangs wield state-like powers, and politicians breach promises to the voters who elect them. Pastor Daniel believes that all of these actors can be redeemed by joining in the solution. “The enemy isn’t the person, but instead what the person does,” he told me. He works with kids, parents, police, and municipal and national lawmakers, and all six of Honduras’ major gangs, to build relationships between them, in hopes that will slowly lead to peace. Among his secret weapons is the sentence: I need you.
Pacheco began in 2014 by working with a group of congregants to reclaim a house where gang members had raped and murdered a 13-year-old girl and buried her in the yard. They turned it into a place where kids could hang out and adults could seek fellowship. Pacheco later recruited businesses to sponsor soccer teams, which don’t exclude gang members. The game provides a space without stigma.Later, Pacheco and his group chopped thick brushwood and leveled the soil of an empty lot that was once the site of a dump for bodies of those murdered by gangs, police, or the various organized criminal groups operating in the zone. They turned it into a sports field. On Valentine’s Day 2018, they held a neighborhood festival there that began with a historic soccer game: community police officers vs. current and former gang members.Next to the field, five teenagers leaned against a motorcycle. One, a 15-year-old member of Barrio 18, said he joined the gang after he was deported from San Diego and that he was at the game because he supported the pastor.Across the field stood a tent shielding the event organizers from the sun. Jorge Tabora, a government official in Tegucigalpa who worked in youth outreach, said that “many gang members were born in areas they’d probably rather not have been, and they ended up joining, and many later want to leave,” so activities like the soccer game create “a very small escape hatch.” A community police official named Delvin Castro added that another goal was to help La Rivera “overcome fear of police.”Among the leaders of La Rivera that Pacheco brought together that day was 21-year-old Zuelen Madrid. Because she hasn’t been able to find work—she said that employers have refused to consider her application after realizing where she lives—she has poured her energies into organizing a youth group of some 30 people, including three ex-gang members, to help get kids out of their houses. It hosts game days, clean-up campaigns, and movie nights. “When others see kids who are working for the neighborhood, they get motivated to do the same,” she said.After the soccer game, the children sat in plastic chairs to watch Coco, an animated American film about a Mexican boy who unites his family and accomplishes his dreams—life prospects normally absent here. But that night in La Rivera, a former body dump was full of laughing children.All this is possible because Pacheco has become his work. Making himself available to La Rivera at all hours seems necessary to sustain the trust he seeks to build. “In biblical strategies,” he said, “the leader must be present with the people.” That means loading parents into the bed of his old, bullet-riddled pick-up to race to the police station after their teenagers are arrested to make sure they aren’t disappeared. It also means some meetings in prisons with gang members, and others with Leonel Ayala, the minister of interior, who finances one of his youth soccer teams. Pacheco also sometimes meets with officials from USAID or INL, two U.S. federal agencies that have begun offering tepid support for parts of his work in recent years. The U.S. government’s interest in the pastor, albeit small compared to its investment in the police, marks a shift from its historical preference for exclusively heavy-handed security.Yet for years, while helping fund an often-abusive security strategy in Honduras, the United States has pursued a series of policies that seal off the escape valves available to people fleeing violence. Plan Frontera Sur outsourced the crisis of unaccompanied minors to Mexico, and it was followed by Attorney General Sessions’ restrictions on the asylum system that single out Central Americans. The combination of these policies places people like Edwin and the residents of La Rivera in great danger.One afternoon four months ago, Pacheco shuffled over broken glass inside an unfinished abandoned apartment complex in La Rivera that became a site for torture and murder, a four-story labyrinth of small would-be bedrooms with no roof. The walls are slashed with black graffiti, proclamations of power from the six gangs. There is even a scrawled threat against all the gangs from the country’s military police, reportedly responsible for most of murders of protesters during chaotic 2017 presidential elections. Pacheco scaled a stairway stained with dried blood. He pointed out a corner with strings affixed to the adjacent walls at shoulder height, a mechanism for tying victims while torturing them, crucifix-style.Pacheco’s work is dangerous. He has received multiple death threats. His mission helps him keep fear at bay, but he faces great odds. He is trying to balance radically different interest groups with a shared drive for control—police, gangs, politicians, U.S. federal agencies—in a community where successive generations don’t remember what it’s like to trust their neighbors. He is trying to make La Rivera a place where kids like Edwin can survive.
See The Atlantic for accompanying images by photojournalist Danielle Villasana, with whom I reported thanks to support from the Adelante Initiative at the International Women’s Media Foundation.