What do you when you live in the most violent place on earth and you can’t take another day of it?
We’re not talking about Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. This is about Honduras, in Central America, little more than a two-hour flight from Miami. It has the highest murder rate of any nation in the world today, more than 80 per 100,000 people. Its second largest city, San Pedro Sula, has the worst homicide rate of any urban area in the world, almost 175 per 100,000.
Honduras, which is holding a presidential election on Sunday, receives a fraction of the attention we give so-called hotspots on the other side of the planet. (So goes the stale journalist joke: Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it.) But Honduras is finally getting harder to ignore, at least for us in South Florida - because more and more terrified Hondurans keep coming here.
Hondurans such as Daisy, a 23-year-old woman who couldn’t take another day of it.
“We saw murders on our street on a regular basis,” says Daisy, who arrived here with siblings over the summer. “You couldn’t even feel safe inside your own home.”
Daisy, in fact, decided to bolt Honduras when the Maras -- the vicious drug and extortion gangs that rule Honduran towns like hers, which lies not far from San Pedro Sula -- attacked and ransacked her house, leaving her family with nothing. She gave up her college mathematics studies and made the perilous journey through Guatemala and Mexico.
“I was too afraid of being killed to stay anymore,” she says.
Little wonder then, that Miami-Dade County’s Honduran population has leapt by more than 100 percent in the past few years, from fewer than 25,000 a decade ago to more than 60,000 today. Tens of thousands more reside in Broward County, where Daisy has settled in as a house cleaner.
That growth was evidenced by the sea of Honduran flags at Sun Life Stadium last Saturday when the national team played Brazil. Numerous Honduran restaurants are sprouting up in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, serving catracho (Honduran) favorites like baleada tortillas.
But the problem is how undocumented Honduran immigrants like Daisy convince U.S. authorities that they’re not just impoverished “illegals” but war refugees in their own right.
“It’s like a war on the streets” in Honduras, says Gabriel Callejas, the pastor of Amor Viviente, a storefront evangelical church in North Lauderdale where Daisy and her family found a Honduran ex-pat community. “[Where] my mother-in-law lives [in Honduras], the gangs put curfews for the people. They say, ‘If you leave [your house] after 8, we can kill you or do something bad [to] you.”
Hondurans hope something good might come of Sunday’s presidential election. It’s the first since 2009, when a coup ousted liberal President Manuel Zelaya. A conservative government was elected a few months later that year, but the country’s security horrors have only increased since then.
The Honduran police are often accused of being as criminally violent as the mafias they’re supposed to confront. The government has taken some reform measures, but “the results have so far been deplorable,” says Adriana Beltran, head of the citizen security program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The U.S. is withholding millions of dollars in aid to Honduras because of gross human rights violations.
One of Sunday’s leading candidates is Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro. Still, few expect her or anyone else to tackle the crisis.
“Per usual,” says Andrew Bodden, a coordinator at the Mennonite Central Committee in Miami Gardens, which aids Honduran immigrants, “the candidates will simply reproduce the system, not change it.”
If so, one of the saddest results will be the rising number of kids fleeing here alone, often because the Maras are trying to recruit them. Immigration advocates say that among all undocumented youths in detention in South Florida, a full third are Honduran -- and most have been traumatized by gang savagery back home.
“They’ve witnessed murders, rapes, they’ve been victims themselves,” says Michelle Abarca, a supervising attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami. “They say, ‘I don’t go to school because it’s too dangerous to leave your house.’ A whole generation is being deprived of basic things like education.”
Lawyers like Abarca have won some asylum cases for Honduran minors. But they can’t convince every judge that every Honduran child is a refugee.
So the U.S. -- whose rampant drug consumption helps Central American gangs thrive -- will have to help Honduras change. But even men of faith like Callejas, whose mostly Honduran congregation is growing by the week, are skeptical.
“Only God can change Honduras,” he says. “We need a miracle.”
That’s at least what they’ll be praying for in North Lauderdale this Sunday.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.