In Honduras, returned migrants endure challenges
First of two parts
Amaris Castillo, a reporter for The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise’s sister daily, was one of six journalists across the globe selected to participate in the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative. Castillo, who is fluent in Spanish, spent July 12-20 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, reporting on the impoverished nation’s migration issues.
By Amaris Castillo
HONDURAS — Mary Isabel Salgado Perez was unable to stand after falling from a train in Mexico with other migrants en route to the United States. It was raining and she slipped.
Feeling weak, Salgado recalled crying out for help to a young man but was met with hesitation. He appeared shocked.
“He couldn’t talk,” said Salgado, 43. “It was like he had a knot in his throat.”
Salgado said she slapped the young man to jolt him awake.
“That’s when he said, ‘Mary, I can’t help you … I can’t lift you. Look at your legs,'” she said. “When I looked down, that’s when I saw my legs were cast aside.”
Salgado’s legs had been cut off by the train during the fall in Orizaba, a municipality in the Mexican state of Veracruz.
“In that moment, I wanted the Earth to open up and swallow me whole,” she said. “I said, ‘Dios (God), I don’t know what’s going to become of me now.'”
The accident on March 17, 2007, forever altered the course of Salgado’s life. After undergoing an emergency operation and subsequent procedures, her plan to work in Miami crumbled and she was eventually deported back to her native Honduras. She is now wheelchair-bound, but moves with ease inside her modest cinder block home in Zambrano, a peaceful village roughly 35 minutes outside the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa. The small inside entrance of the house has a pulperia (a small grocery store) that she and two of her older children opened eight months ago.
Like many migrants attempting to cross illegally into the United States, Salgado rode on what’s known as “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), a network of Mexican freight trains that has earned the moniker “El Tren de la Muerte” (“The Train of Death”). While climbing on or jumping off, some are seriously injured or even killed.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how many Honduran migrants have been hurt or disabled while riding “La Bestia.” Fleeing economic instability or violence, they headed north in hopes of a better life and achieving the American dream.
For those who suffer serious injuries during the trip and are caught, they are sent back to their native country with a new, harsh reality.
“Truthfully, those of us who make that decision to take the migratory route do it for a reason, and I think the main reason is the economic situation that has invaded our country … and the lack of jobs,” Salgado said. “Here in my country, I worked and could barely survive the day. I couldn’t move forward with my children. I was a single mom with five kids. In one way or another, I had to do something to push my family ahead by myself.”
Honduras is the second poorest country in Central America, with an annual per capita income of $4,869. Its gross domestic product (GDP) is $21.5 billion, much less than the state of Massachusetts’ fiscal 2018 budget.
Honduran government officials say the total number of migrants deported back to the country has decreased over the past few years. Those sent back are called “retornados,” which means “the returned” in Spanish. In July 2017, there were 3,855 Hondurans sent back to their country, a sharp decrease from 5,981 migrants in July 2016, according to data from the Honduran Consular & Migratory Observatory, which serves as an official resource for the Honduran Secretary of Foreign Relations & International Cooperation.
“I insist, and I defend, and I stress that this decrease is mostly due to the efforts of the government,” said Maria Andrea Matamoros Castillo, Honduras’ vice minister for foreign relations, from her office in Tegucigalpa. She said the government is working to help returned migrants reintegrate into society more smoothly through the Center of Attention to the Returned Migrant (Centro de Atencion al Migrante Retornado). The center provides food, medical assistance and other services to recently returned migrants.
By December, she said the government hopes to have 15 centers operating throughout the country.
Matamoros said officials are working to improve the employment sector and added that Honduras has seen a sustainable growth in the economy of almost 4 percent.
“We’re seeing that as the country advances and improves, the migratory flow out of the country decreases,” she said. “Without a doubt, there’s a lot of work left to do. We still have enormous challenges.”
A total of 27,358 migrants have been deported back to Honduras so far this year, according to the latest government figures. Last year, 39,341 were sent back. There were more Honduran migrants deported back from Mexico than from the United States — adults and unaccompanied children combined.
“Illegal immigration is not only dangerous for this nation, but often times it’s dangerous for illegal immigrants themselves. They’re opening themselves up to exploitation,” said David Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to restrict immigration. “You hear stories of people losing their lives, people losing limbs, people being repeatedly raped. It’s an enormous risk for the would-be illegal immigrants, which is one reason why they may want to try and take the legal route to get here instead, like more than 1 million people do every year.”
If given the opportunity to migrate legally, many Hondurans would, Salgado said.
“Instead of paying a coyote (someone who smuggles in migrants), I think we would do all we could to secure a visa and arrange documents legally,” she said. “In this country, it’s impossible to travel that way.”
After leaving Honduras for the U.S. on Jan. 5, 2007, Salgado’s journey took a harrowing turn when she said she was held captive in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, for two months by coyotes who forcibly recruited her into commercial sex work.
“They took us to brothels, where we were forced to drink and take drugs,” she said. “Even rob.”
A man Salgado knew from Honduras was able to help her escape, she said. Another 200 miles of travel and she reached Orizaba, where she would tragically lose her legs. At the time of the accident, Salgado was roughly 700 miles away from Brownsville, Texas — where the U.S.-Mexico border dips low.
The distance from Honduras to the heart of the U.S. is about 1,616 miles if you fly, but the journey by land is longer. It can take anywhere from weeks to months to reach the U.S. Migrants pay thousands to coyotes to lead them on the route north.
Despite the decrease in the number of migrants that travel on train, fatal accidents still occur, according to Sister Lidia Mara Silva de Souza, national coordinator of the Human Mobility Pastoral in Honduras and a member of the Scalabrinian missionary order who has worked with returned migrants for many years.
“People don’t leave because they want. No one wants to leave Honduras, no one wants to leave their land,” she said. “We’re in a country that is in a complete state of non-governance. We have a failed health system, a failed education system … we have the highest rates of violence in the entire world for a country that is not at war.”
Since 2009, de Souza said the Human Mobility Pastoral and Association of Returned Migrants with Disabilities (AMIREDIS — Asociacion de Migrantes Retornados con Discapacidad) have assisted more than 500 people deported back to Honduras with disabilities. Through workshops and counseling, AMIREDIS helps returned migrants such as Salgado and Juan Carlos Hernandez Barahona, who lost his left lower leg when he was 19 years old after slipping while trying to jump onto a train in Mexico.
“It was difficult,” Hernandez, 33, said of adjusting to the below-knee prosthetic he now wears. “It takes character … it takes a lot of will power. With God’s help, I have received a lot of strength to keep moving forward.”
Hernandez stood inside the wooden frame of his future tire shop along a busy road in Los Horcones, a village northwest of Tegucigalpa. It was a warm Saturday afternoon in mid-July and Hernandez took a break from working on the structure.
Hernandez, who currently works as a taxi driver to make ends meet, said there are many reasons why Hondurans flee the country. There’s the high homicide rate, the lack of jobs, and extortion by street gangs.
“But if we come back and seek coverage by God, it’s different because God gives us a security better than perhaps the government, the police — better than surveillance,” said Hernandez. “If God allowed us to be born in the countries we were born in, it’s for a reason.”
Back in Zambrano, Salgado has adjusted to life without legs. It took her time, but she’s now able to do a lot on her own — even run errands amidst the hustle and bustle of Tegucigalpa. On a recent July afternoon in her kitchen, the upbeat mother of five stretched both arms to reach a pot on the stove. She poured boiling hot water from the pot into a cloth strainer filled with ground coffee.
“This is how I make coffee,” Salgado said, her mouth stretching into a smile. “Everyone does it a different way.”
Salgado’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Yonary, stayed by her side. In the front of the house, Salgado’s 16-year-old son, Hendrix, watched over the family business. Light streamed into the tiny space lined with snacks and toiletries.
The painful trip back to Honduras a decade ago remained sharp in Salgado’s mind — returning home as she did was not what her children expected, she recalled.
“At the time, my youngest son was 6 years old and he didn’t comprehend the situation and it was hard to make him understand, but with God’s help, we have been able to push forward,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy. It was as if I was born again … as if I had to start over.”
COMING WEDNESDAY: Art workshops help young Honduran girls cope with the absences of their fathers who’ve migrated north to find work.
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.
Population: 8.63 million (2015)
Size: 112,492 square kilometers
Government: Presidential republic
Per capita income: $4,869
Annual GDP: $21.5 billion
Official language: Spanish
Major exports: Textiles, shrimp, and tilapia
Neighbors: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua