The Stories of Women, Children Stopped by U.S.-Trained Honduran Military While Fleeing Violence

“Justice?” says one of the women who took desperate steps to leave the violence in her home country. “That’s for those who have money. For the poor, there is none.”

Central American migrant woman and her baby at La 72 take a walk outside the shelter while awaiting decisions from Mexican government on whether or not they get a visa to stay in Mexico. Kathy Bougher

While Honduran women attempt to flee their country, trying to get their children out of what they have described as a war zone, elite U.S.-trained and -funded Honduran military forces are reportedly stopping them near Guatamalan border crossings to demand passports and written documentation from the children’s fathers allowing the children to leave the country. The troops have the power to turn back these women and children.

I came across this chilling news in the Los Angeles Times, as reported by Cindy Carcamo the same day I was interviewing Honduran women who had made it to a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Mexico, “La 72,” near the border with Guatemala.

La 72, named in memory of the 72 migrants massacred in northern Mexico in 2010, forms part of an extensive network of migrant shelters in Mexico, run mostly by religious groups, and located near the rail lines where Central American migrants ride freight trains north. For more than a year, La 72, one of the first stops on the route, has experienced a surge in the number of women with children and unaccompanied minors that preceded the more recent humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.

What does the presence of these elite Honduran forces, carrying out what is called “Operation Rescue Angels,” mean for Honduran women who take desperate steps to get their children out of the violence that permeates and controls their lives in the murder capital of the world? Although the women come from all over the country, the largest numbers are from the two major cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

As Carcamo explains, the special forces are enforcing existing law in Honduras and many other countries, which says that children must have permission from both parents and a passport to leave the country.

According to the national police, the team is primarily funded by the U.S. State Department and was trained by a U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC. The team’s aim in this operation is to stop the flow not just of unaccompanied minors, but of children who head north illegally with only one parent.

The group professes humanitarian goals, according to Carcamo’s conversation with Commissioner Miguel Martinez Madrid, a Honduran liaison to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, coordinator of the special unit and “father of two young daughters.”

“These are little angels,” Madrid told Carcamo. “They are not conscious of the risks they are taking. We are doing something good.”

Carcamo also cites Noel Hernandez, a first lieutenant with the unit, the Honduran Special Tactical Operations Group, who says, “We are saving the lives of our country’s children.”

Honduran women at La 72 told me different stories.

Gangs murdered Ana Elena’s younger brother ten years ago, and when her mother demanded an investigation she was murdered as well. The family continued to insist that authorities investigate, but nothing ever happened. Now Ana Elena is trying to get her 13-year-old daughter, Cecilia, to safety in the United States because she was receiving threats by cell phone, which included threats of abduction, assault, rape, and murder. Cecilia thinks gang members pressured other students at her middle school to pass along fellow students’ phone numbers.

I sit on chunks of cement outside the women’s dormitory at La 72 with Ana Elena, who has her arm around Cecilia’s shoulder. “I am scared,” Cecilia acknowledges, “and I’m glad to be out of Honduras.” She added that she feared being raped if she stayed.

Ana Elena left two other children at home in Honduras with her husband. Her son has been assaulted. Her other daughter hasn’t answered directly her mother’s questions about whether or not anything has happened to her.

Central American migrant women and children resting at La 72 after walking several hours from the Mexico-Guatemala border.
Central American migrant women and children resting at La 72 after walking several hours from the Mexico-Guatemala border. (Kathy Bougher)

This journey is not Ana Elena’s first attempt to provide safety for her family. About a year ago she attempted to go to the United States alone. “I wanted to make money so I could move my family to a safer place in Honduras,” she said. However, she was detained crossing the international bridge in McAllen, Texas, and deported. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave her a five-year bar, which means that if she is caught entering undocumented within five years, she will serve prison time. “But,” she emphasized, “keeping my daughter safe is my priority.”

“I’m fearful every day when I send my children to school,” she said, noting that she fears they’ll be taken by gangs. “It’s the same for all parents.”

Neither Ana Elena nor her husband have had work in Honduras. Gangs all over Honduras (as well as in much of El Salvador and Guatemala) extort impuestos de guerra, “war taxes,” from everyone—small family businesses and large companies alike—to continue operating. Those who don’t pay in cash pay with their lives. And many who do pay initially can’t afford to keep it up, so they go out of business, which increases unemployment. Ana Elena worked in a large factory that closed two years ago because the owners couldn’t pay.

“Justice?” She shrugs. “That’s for those who have money. For the poor, there is none.”

So far in their journey Ana Elena and Cecilia have been stopped by innumerable men in uniforms, gangs, and other criminals who extort money in return for allowing them to travel along a particular road or cross a border.

Operation Angel Rescue forces have been at work for about three weeks, including the time during which Ana Elena and Cecilia left Honduras, but there’s no way to know if the uniformed authorities they encountered were trained by the United Sates. Whoever the extortionists at the border were, they are part of a long list; extortion at all levels is so rampant in Honduras that it is impossible to imagine that any authorities could remain immune for long.

Ana Elena hugs her daughter tightly and strokes her curly hair. “I hope people understand that these are true stories,” she says. “I remember my mother and my brother, and I think about having to leave my other children. But, there’s no other way.”

Carcamo described how a woman and her child were turned over to governmental child welfare services. In a country where almost no institution functions without intense corruption, we must ask, who are the people running child welfare services in the country? Are they any more trustworthy than the criminals on the street? How do we know they are not connected to gangs or trafficking rings? Even if their intentions are honorable, do they have any actual services or protection to offer the mother and her child? As Human Rights Watch-Honduras has noted, “The institutions responsible for providing public security [in Honduras] continue to prove largely ineffective and remain marred by corruption and abuse.”

Both the United States and Honduran governments make evident their astonishing lack of awareness or concern about the realities poor Honduran women face when they claim that requiring documents to leave the country will protect women and children. The idea that forcing women and children who cannot produce the documents to stay in the country is safer than allowing them to leave only creates a false illusion of safety in a country that migrants describe as a war zone. In this sense, the United States is funding a type of military death squad masquerading as child welfare workers.

Central American baby traveling with her mother plays at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)
Central American baby traveling with her mother plays at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)

Even if we pretend that there is a legitimate reason to demand that mothers and children carry certain documents, finding a possibly absent, unknown, abusive, or non-cooperative father can be impossible. Coming up with the money to get a passport and then obtaining that passport from a barely functional government can be a fantasy. In addition, along the way documents get stolen, often by the same officials who demand to see them. A piece of paper does not protect a child or a mother from rape, kidnapping, or murder.

Then, what happens when a gang, uniformed or not, steals the documents? Now they possess precious, confidential information about people who are trying to escape with their lives. The migrants on the road and their relatives still at home have just fallen into even more danger.

Based on the stories migrants tell of their experiences with other authorities they encounter on their journey, it seems highly doubtful that this newest obstacle for women seeking safety really has anything to do with documents. It seems more likely that these elite forces will soon cross the line and become yet one more set of uniformed men with weapons, whether backed by the United States or not, who extort money from women, and possibly do other things that are much worse. From those stories migrants tell, it becomes obvious that virtually every Central American migrant who has reached Mexico has paid innumerable bribes at just about every point in the journey and will continue to do so all the way into the United States. These bribes, and the threats of violence and death that accompany the “war taxes,” comprise part of everyday life in Honduras and have helped solidify many women’s decision to leave.

Central American migrant women and children seek shade and a place to talk at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)
Central American migrant women and children seek shade and a place to talk at La 72. (Kathy Bougher)

Gloria, another migrant at La 72, is guarded about telling her story because she and her family decided to request asylum in Mexico due to credible fears of death if they return to Honduras. Close relatives refused to join gangs and refused to transport drugs, so the gangs threatened to kill the entire family.

She arrived in Tenosique from a large city in Honduras. She and her husband had to decide which two of their four children to bring with them. They chose their 2-month-old baby, whom she is nursing, and their 9-year-old boy. “Boys 10-years-old walk the streets with weapons killing people. That’s why we brought the 9-year-old,” she said. “I can’t let that happen.” The other two children stayed with relatives.

While leaving Honduras through Aguas Calientes, the region Carcamo describes in her LA Times article, Gloria’s family encountered uniformed authorities who demanded bribes to let them continue on their way, along with taxi drivers and bus drivers who charged four to ten times the established prices. “They take advantage of our fear, so we pay. We sold everything before we left to have money for this trip. But we arrived here to Mexico, still far from the United States, without anything because of the extortion.  Sometimes we could negotiate to lower the price, but we always had to pay,” she said.

Her priority now “is to bring my other children here. I can’t live without them. We do this for those we brought with us and those we left.”

Gloria then mentioned something that helps explain why the data on numbers of people leaving because of violence may be underreported: “Sometimes when people ask us why we came, we say ‘no work,’ because we’re afraid to tell the real story.”

It is politically inconvenient for the United States to acknowledge its responsibility for the depth of the violence, poverty, and instability in Central America, historically and more recently, such as in the 2009 coup in Honduras. Training Honduran military to stop women fleeing violence and putting women and children who reached the United States on planes and flying them back to Central America, which the the United States began doing on July 14, only inscribes another chapter in this horrific and shameful story.

The names of the women at La 72 have been changed to protect their identity.