Migration Maze: Epic Corruption Inside Central America's Northern Triangle

Oct 2, 2015

Despair wrought by corruption scandals also drives migration to the U.S.

TEGUCIGALPA    |    Hondurans don’t get riled easily. And they’re not known for takin’ it to the streets.

But this has been a year of loud and angry torchlight protest marches in Honduras — and for good reason. The impoverished Central American country is wrestling with perhaps the worst government corruption scandal in its history.

Or as Honduran protesters like Eldan Cruz put it: “Corruption on such a criminal level it’s basically sociopathic behavior.”

Cruz has been helping organize demonstrations in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. He’s not a left-wing radical; he’s a Canadian-educated corporate communications consultant. But he can’t contain his ire over this particular outrage.

“People identify it as a crime against humanity,” he says.

Cruz might not be exaggerating. Since 2010, $350 million has been looted from Honduras’ federal health and social security institute. The plunder allegedly involved ruses such as overpaying tens of thousands of dollars for ambulances, then laundering the excess money back to corrupt institute officials through shell companies.

The agency’s former director, Mario Zelaya, is accused of leading the scheme and using the cash for mansions and sports cars. He’s under arrest on a military base in the capital, Tegucigalpa, but denies the charge.

A number of others, including Zelaya’s relatives and his model mistress, were also allegedly involved.

People of all ages join a protest march through the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Credit Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald Staff

But what’s far worse: Honduran doctors estimate thousands have died as a result of the theft — because they say it’s led to acute shortages of medicines and equipment.

Which is why so many protesters carry skulls during their marches.

“It has condemned people to suffering without treatment,” says attorney Wilfredo Méndez, head of the Honduran Center for Research and Promotion of Human Rights (CIPRODEH), which is helping affected families.

“This is a system that laughs in your face.”

There is indeed insult to injury in this case: It turns out the shell companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the 2013 election campaign of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his conservative National Party — to which Zelaya belonged. Hernández now admits this, but he insists he wasn’t aware of it.

Not surprisingly, most protesters are calling for Hernández’s resignation. (It does not look forthcoming.)

Ricardo Ponce, 19, joins protesters through the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The public outcry is in response to a major government corruption scandal.
Credit Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald Staff

But people who work with Honduran migrants say affronts like the health institute debauchery have another big effect.

“You’re forcing people to leave the country,” says Julio Calderon, who fled to the United States from Honduras as a teenager a decade ago to escape gang violence.

Today Calderon aids the growing number of Central American migrants in Miami for the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

Increasingly, he says, they tell him that along with poverty and insecurity, the despair wrought by corruption scandals like Honduras’ is also driving them to the U.S.

“It’s a big issue,” says Calderon, who has also led Honduran-American protests in Miami this year against Honduran corruption. “It says a lot about your values as a government.”

Back in Tegucigalpa, lawyer and anti-corruption activist Natalia Lozano often works with poor people on the verge of migrating to the U.S. Her voice cracks when she points out that it’s not just the poor who are exasperated by corruption.

Political activist Natalia Lozano joins a protest march through the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Hondurans aren't prone to dramatic civic action, but a major government scandal sparked public outcry.
Credit Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald Staff

“I know I’m privileged because I’m a young woman with a job,” says Lozano. “But I’ve been thinking a lot about leaving the country.”

She points out that middle-class Hondurans like her know how badly government larceny drains the nation’s economy — as much as a point of GDP growth, by some estimates — and therefore their economic opportunities.

“So,” Lozano says, noting that two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty, “can you imagine how this is for the rest of the people who have no chance of surviving here? That’s why we have a lot of emigration. That’s why our towns are full with old people and not young people.”

So if the U.S. is serious about reducing illegal immigration from Central America — which reached crisis levels last year — is it as serious about curtailing the region’s epic corruption?

This past summer James Nealon, the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, did take the noticeable step of meeting with the young Hondurans whose social media campaign sparked the anti-corruption street protests.

People of all ages join a protest march through the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Credit Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald Staff

“We’re not going to dictate the mechanisms that Hondurans will use to address these problems of impunity and corruption,” Nealon said. “But we’re going to support their efforts.”

Much of that support would come from President Obama’s billion-dollar aid proposal for Central America. A full quarter of it is earmarked for promoting more transparent government — including training and technology for better monitoring of public funds like Honduras’ health institute budget.

But here’s the rub: Honduran officials — and a powerful oligarchy that profits from the country’s astonishing cronyism — show little if any interest in becoming more transparent. Protesters like Cruz note that many in and outside Honduras assumed by now that President Hernández would face a congressional inquiry.

“In any other country in the world this would be grounds for impeachment,” says Cruz. “But not here.”

In fact, just next door in Guatemala, President Otto Pérez was forced to resign last month amid a massive corruption scandal inside his own government.

The difference? Guatemala today uses a special U.N. prosecutor to pursue such cases. Honduras’ Congress just rejected adopting a similar independent investigator — even though a key witness in the health institute scandal was mysteriously shot in 2013 (he survived) when evidence of the crime began to emerge.

Anti-government protest in Honduras have evolved into a movement sparked by a social media campaign against corruption in the Central American country.
Credit Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald Staff

As a result, a growing chorus in Honduras and the U.S. is warning Obama to steer less aid directly to the Honduran government and more of it to vetted civil-society watchdogs there.

“The Honduran people need the U.S. government to take a stand and say, ‘Listen, we really are fed up,’” says Cruz. “I don’t think American taxpayers want to see their money spent on corruption.”

That’s the dilemma for Washington.

Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that throwing hundreds of millions at ultra-corrupt governments is always risky. But precisely because they’re so corrupt — and because that corruption so often results in more migrants on the U.S. border — they say it’s also urgent.

INTERACTIVE MAP

PART ONE: DEPORTEES

PART TWO: EFFORTS

PART THREE: POLICE

PART FOUR: CORRUPTION

PART FIVE: SAMARITANS 

PART SIX: KIDS

  WLRN's reporting for Migration Marathon was made possible by MBAF.