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Whenever Honduras makes the papers in the States, it’s about the astonishing murder level there, or about the critical role the country’s assumed as a way station for cocaine making its way to the United States. Lately, it’s been in the news because its children are pouring into the United States to get out of the line of fire.
As the New York Times reported this month: "Honduran children are increasingly on the front lines of gang violence. In June, 32 children were murdered in Honduras, bringing the number of youths under 18 killed since January of last year to 409, according to data compiled by Covenant House, a youth shelter in Tegucigalpa, the capital."
"The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States," a mother of two told the Times. "That’s the idea, to leave." And no city in Central America is sending its children north in greater numbers than San Pedro Sula, which in addition to the country’s international airport can claim "the world’s highest homicide rate," the Times noted. "Between January and May of this year, more than 2,200 children from the city arrived in the United States, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics."
Juan Hernandez, president of Honduras, observed the other day that "seven out of nine children who venture on the dangerous journey towards the United States come from the most violent areas of Honduras." He added, "Those are also the regions where the drug cartels are most active."
The kids come because their parents are trying to keep them alive, and because a sympathetic 2008 federal law forbids children from Central America from being deported before they’re given a court hearing.
But they don’t get a warm welcome here; for instance, Fox TV commentators, a barometer of conservative sentiment, have fretted about diseases such as leprosy and TB that the kids might be bringing into this country, not to mention the possibility that they’re merely a front for drug dealers and terrorists.
Let’s not muck around in easy ironies. Yes, there’s big money in drugs, and yes, this big money is ultimately American money; and yes, it’s all that money that drives the violence that sends children fleeing for their lives to the U.S., where we give them a cold shoulder because, after all, if they have problems back home why should we suffer?
But what matters here is simply that my daughter was in Honduras a year, I couldn’t wait for her to leave, and she knows one or two things about Honduras.
She taught fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders in a town a long car ride from San Pedro Sula. When she had to go there, she relied on drivers to get her back and forth. "This road was incredibly dangerous," she says. One night a colleague picked her up at the airport and then got a call on his cell phone warning him of a vigilante on the road. He immediately called his wife and told her to get inside and stay there, and then "we sped at nearly 100 miles an hour back to town."
Laura told herself that as an American she was "safe-ish." She liked to jog along a shady, unpaved street in town until a tenth-grader came up to her and said his dad wanted her to stop—there'd been too many kidnappings along that stretch. "Did I feel that [danger] when I was running?" Laura tells me in e-mail we just exchanged. "No. I felt the poverty but not the insecurity."
Her students felt it in their bones. "I remember one sixth-grade girl who clearly was emotionally disturbed," Laura writes. "She wrote and spoke eloquently, even beautifully, about her brother who, according to her, was at the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot and killed at a mall in San Pedro Sula. Her friends were able to comfort her because they could relate to her. Many students had stories of family members, all male, who had been killed violently."
She didn’t allow herself to dig for further details about all the lost primos and tios (cousins and uncles) in those stories because the details weren’t her business; but her reaction to the cascade of homicides was a kind of "gaper’s block."
The parents of her students paid a lot of money to send them to a school where they'd learn English. "While many families were well-off, many sacrificed everything to send their kids there," Laura tells me. "Some families paid for their children’s education with checks that came from family members in the United States. (Honduras receives more money from US paychecks than any other country, I think.) I would say the goal for most if not all parents was to get their kids out of Honduras."
Someone told Laura there was only one DNA kit in all of Honduras, and it was broken. True or not, the story summed up the people's low opinion of law and order. She was also told Honduras was a place where "no killer was ever convicted of any crime." A colleague’s father was shot entering his home in San Pedro Sula; another colleague’s husband had been killed a couple of years before Laura arrived.
"I can’t think of anyone I met, poor to rich, who hadn’t had a loved one murdered," she says. And adds, "Nearly every male adult I met had been to the United States either legally or illegally. I was told it was the only option. If you were smart enough and resourceful enough, you got the hell out."
And if, by chance, you prospered in-country, your children’s teacher knew better than to ask you how you managed it. But Laura had to learn this lesson, and before she did she asked a father about his work. He answered. "He said something like, 'If a business wants to do business in this town then they have to go through me to get the contract or license. I get them the contract.' This man did not hold any public position and was part of a controlling family in the town."
Laura almost stayed a second year. In fact, she went back the next fall; but after a week she realized she’d had enough: if she wanted to go on teaching kids who needed her, there were plenty in Chicago. Today she’s a bilingual teacher for CPS.
After Laura moved out of her apartment near the school, a new American teacher moved in. Last Christmas he was walking home from a school party and someone shot him four times in the back. He was lucky. He was evacuated back to the States and he’s slowly recovering at home.