Deported Into a Nightmare
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras—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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.