In 2009, the Honduran military deposed Manuel Zelaya, the country’s democratically-elected president, after he signed agreements to enter into a regional socialist trading bloc with Cuba and Venezuela—the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas. Following a long tradition of U.S.-backed military coups against left-leaning governments, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the move. The military transferred control to Nationalist Party congressional leader Juan Orlando Hernández and suppressed mass protests against the usurpation of democratic government.
Over 250,000 Hondurans have fled northward in three waves of caravans since the armed forces and paramilitary death squads brutally repressed popular mobilizations against the fraudulent November 2017 national elections that kept President Hernández in power. And they keep coming.
Below are stories of human beings, gathered in trips to Honduras and the U.S.-Mexico border. They are stories of students and farmers, priests and protesters – stories of a modern exodus and a struggle for freedom.
Student of the Autonomous University of Honduras
Five students from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, (UNAH), Tegucigalpa’s main public university, spoke in a crowded room.
The oldest student’s grizzled black facial hair had been neatly trimmed, and he wore a loosely fitting, collared flannel shirt, one button undone. “I was one of a dozen leaders of the student movement expelled from UNAH. I am in hiding, living off the grid, underground, staying at a different place every night. They targeted me; I found out that masked gunmen were asking for my whereabouts. If they find me, they will kidnap and kill me.”
“The university students have just concluded a six-month strike that shut down the campus. Occupying the administration building to oppose student fees; the administration called in the military police. Uniformed officers beat and jailed student demonstrators.”
“University officials levelled criminal charges against us. One fellow pupil was ‘disappeared,’ his body never found. His mother held a press conference outside the rector’s office to demand they give her back her son’s body. The next day, the grieving mother was charged with libel for leveling false accusations against the university’s president.”
Another began talking, but choked, and started crying. He couldn’t have been over 21. One of his friends, with a baby face and blue striped shirt, got up to rub his shoulder. He was still trembling. The older continued. “The students are radicalized. They learn, and educate themselves, and it liberates them. They bring it back to the people, in the city’s colonias, the slums on the hillsides, in the countryside and in the villages. The bring this libratory education and it opens the people’s eyes. That is why they are privatizing education, dumbing down the curriculum, and making education harder to access… The university opens our eyes and allows us to open the eyes of others. That is why we continue to fight for public education, at the risk of being teargassed, or shot with rubber bullets and hit by batons. That’s why we risk being disappeared, kidnapped, assassinated, our bodies never to be found. This is why we continue.”
The boy who started crying had regained his composure. The kid with the blue stripes had returned to his seat. A young woman on his right pressed her hand on his back rubbing it in slow circles to console him.
They began listing the names. Erick Josué García. Marvin Israel Campos. Moisés Cáceres. Sergio Ulloa. Cesario Padilla. Jersi Francisco Aguirre Rivera. Abiezer Zabdiel López Bonilla. Engels Bladimir López Sánchez. Sergio Luís Ulloa Rivera. Miguel Ángel Mendoza Díaz. Fausto Manuel Cálix Márquez. Edwin Robelo Espinal. Ebed Jassiel. Those names. They kept repeating them, those who were jailed, disappeared, beaten, and shot. One name escaped their memory. Everything stopped, for a moment no one spoke; all silent. They had to remember. Another said his name. Roberto Gómez. The names to remember them, their lives snuffed out too young. They had courage. They were afraid, terrified, but they kept going.
The woman who rubbed the shoulder of the boy broke down weeping, but then began to speak clearly and calmly. “They are increasing tuition and fees. They increased the cost of labs, of books, of supplies; there are all these additional fees and costs that make it almost impossible for a Honduran family to afford to send their children to the University, even if they passed the admissions test. They are changing the curriculum, dumbing it down, tailoring it to career training. A liberal arts education is dangerous,” the student explained. “With philosophy, sociology, and history, students are taught to ask thought provoking questions and engage in critical thinking. When people know how to think, they realize that things don’t have to be the way they are; that there is a better way to live.”
They were headed back to the student neighborhood near the university. An older student would go separately. “Just downtown,” he said. He was in hiding. They smoked cigarettes nervously in the corner of the hotel’s courtyard. The cabs came, and they left.
Indigenous Lenca Evicted from Communal Land
A group of American human rights observers and members of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) traveled from the highland city of La Esperanza up a mountain hillside rough dirt road paralleling a new power line. We arrived at a line of small huts with mud walls and thatched roofs, six or seven adults, along with two dozen small children, sat bunched along a wooden bench in the dimly lit room.
After hydroelectric contractors assassinated Berta Cáceres, an internationally recognized indigenous environmental activist, COPINH elected her younger daughter to lead the organization. Next to the young leader sat the head of the organization’s committee of elders. One or two other young men came and left.
One mother began to speak. “Thank you to you all for coming to meet us, and to COPINH, and to Berta, who is here with us. She fought alongside us to defend our land, and the ancestral home of the Lenca people. We are a small community here, less than a dozen families. We have been working the land, cultivating it, to grow a bit of corn and beans, and other food to sustain ourselves and our families. We have been here eight years. Then the soldiers came. A man came and said he owned the land, and the soldiers came in the middle of the night; they arrested us, destroyed our homes, and took all we had—our chickens and livestock, our food—they took it for themselves.”
“But thanks to COPINH, we are here alive today, able to work the land. We plant seeds in the earth, and with the power of the sun and the nourishing water from mountain streams, our crops grow. We can eat and feed our children. Thanks to Berta and COPINH and the forests and mountains that sustain us. Yes, they killed her. But Berta didn’t die, she multiplied. Her spirit lives. She beats in the hearts of each of us. She is that spirit inside each of us. That fire inside, in our chests: it is our will to survive, to overcome. Berta remains with us, her spirit is inside us, in our blood and our souls. She is with all people who fight to live free; raising our families to work in peace and harmony with our mother earth.”
We walked through the dark to where other homes had once stood, now piles of dirt and a few wooden beams cast about on the hillside. A mother picked up her son, who was just beginning to walk. “I was still nursing him, and they arrested me. I was in jail for three days,” she recalled. “What will happen tomorrow, only God knows. I hope I can stay free, to care for and to provide for my family.”
The Jesuit Priest by the Side of the Road
A church delegation stopped by a store selling coffee grown by farmers from the surrounding area.
“We are from Lempira, the city where the president was born. We work with the Catholic Church with the pastor, he supports a lot of people. He teaches them how to eat healthy. We teach how to plant food to eat, and how to eat well.”
The Priest, Padre Fautisto, an older man with wisps of white on his thinning hair, joined the conversation. “It is illegal to think in Honduras,” he said. “The telephones are controlled. They can listen to everything we say. If a person says something bad or different, they are called a rebel. Now they call you a terrorist. How can we not say things when in the last five years there have been 25,000 assassinations? They’ve assassinated more people than any other country on earth. Do you know about Berta Cáceres?” he asked me. “They assassinated her too, for defending nature, for defending our rivers.”
The first man continued. “This is Honduras. There is also beauty and our natural resources. The pastor teaches people how to grow food using no pesticides or chemicals, only organic products. He has 45 people working with him to teach tens of thousands. But the seeds now are owned by Monsanto or by Asian , European, and other countries. Berta Cáceres is a heroine and a martyr of this cause. She defended the environment. We are an amazing people spiritually, but we are losing trust in institutions.”
“This is a country with a future,” he continued. “That future will come the day Hondurans are owners of their land, mines, country, forests, and waters. The last fight of Berta was to defend the water of the people. The water is life.”
Teargassing the Vote Count
At the National Institute of Professional Development (INFOP) three days after election day, people inside were counting the vote by hand. Outside demonstrators waved flags and chanted in front of a two-story black metal gate, protected by a triple line of police in riot gear. Teenagers lit firecrackers, running away and returning after they exploded, jumping up and down like kids at a concert. A truck’s stereo played salsa music, a young man asked his partner to dance; he lifted his hand and she spun around. College and high school-aged youth waived red flags of the opposition Libre and Alianza parties. A group of teenage boys and one girl, about four feet tall, clutched the corners of a giant blue and white Honduran flag, running through the crowd, stopping suddenly to lift the flag up and down, chanting and singing.
Salvador hugged his mother Michelle, wrapping his tiny hands across her waist, gripping the red fabric of her dress; he was cold, hungry, and getting sleepy, he complained, his face pressed against her navel. “Under Juan Orlando Hernández, health insurance premiums have skyrocketed,” she explained. “The doctors are on strike because they haven’t been paid. Tegucigalpa only has two hospitals. My cousins live in Sacramento and Houston. I have a good job, and want to stay here, but….” Michelle’s sentence trailed off as she looked down at her son. It was Salvador’s bedtime. It was time to go.
Twenty minutes later, the military police tear gassed the assembly. Pedestrians ran clutching their faces with garments, crying and screaming. The stench of tear gas overwhelmed the senses and burned the eyes. Young men called out excitedly, waving flags on wooden sticks. The military police advanced, gripping shields to form a wall.
One could see their wide-open eyes encased in the plastic goggles of their gas masks; afraid, bewildered, and excited, just like those they tear gassed. Suddenly the police retreated.
A military tank sprayed chemicals on a crowd to our right. One could see the red light of burning tires and thick black smoke. A human rights observer snapped photos. A soldier approached, raising his baton; his superior called for him to return to their defensive perimeter.
A semblance of calm descended. A few brave protestors faced the soldiers. The streets were full of burning trash piles and discarded metal tear gas canisters. A woman walked calmly through the smoke, selling gum and cigarettes out of an open suitcase strapped around her neck.
An election observer from Alianza had been inside observing the vote count. During tense hours disputing the validity of truckloads of recently arrived ballots arriving in boxes with broken seals, the police had fired tear gas. The wind shifted, and the election observers inside, with no gas masks, fled crying, gasping for breath. Only the government controlled the ballots.
Cars leaving the area were stopped by a young protester who guarded a hastily constructed barricade blocking the street. He moved a row of concrete cinder blocks with a few words and let cars pass. The next day black smoke from burning tires drifted above streets and highway intersection, amidst cheers and chanting, interrupted by the piercing crack of gunfire as police cleared one barricade after the next.
Days later, a group of elite military police called the COBRAs went on strike, refusing to tear gas, beat, and shoot demonstrators who were protesting the fraudulent election. In their barracks, they were tear gassed and attacked by the Honduran military. The military commander was fired, and later the troops received a pay increase as police repression escalated. A few weeks later, Trump’s then-Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson certified the Honduran election as free and fair.
The Committee of Families of the Disappeared
“These aren’t normal times. First we have an illegal candidate. Never in the history of the country have we reelected a president. The only way you could run again would be if there were a national plebiscite. The president violated the constitution. When any candidate runs, by law he must step down from other political offices six months before the campaign period. But he never did that! The fundamental point is that he can’t run for reelection. He has absolute power, that’s why he can do it. His dad is head of the armed forces.” His father was a major landowner and Colonel in the military.
“This is an illegal election already. Now, the armed forces have come out of their barracks to carry out operations in the neighborhoods with bulletproof vests and weapons.
“Right now, we have to joint together with everyone to stop the violation of human rights, the murders, and the attacks against women. The violence has a big impact on the entire population.”
“They are using the same tactics they did in the 1980’s when they assassinated people. We are very afraid. This is a dictatorship as the attacks make clear. The assassination of Berta Cáceres was an attack not just on her, on COPINH, but on the entire planet. A clear signal; they are willing to attack all of us.”
A Refugee in Tijuana, Mexico
Eddie stood in the corner of the shelter’s courtyard, thin and malnourished, he looked no older than his mid-20’s, but with a worn, tired face. He wore a brown and white plaid shirt, a black baseball hat, and jeans. He was tending a large four-foot tall, black and grey metal pot of beans that sat on top of a wood fire. Over the green wire mesh of a chicken coup and clotheslines hung wet blankets that straddled a terraced incline behind a single room with a sink and small kitchen. The kitchen is used to feed migrants staying at Tijuana’s Rock of Salvation Mission, a small refugee shelter tucked into a dense neighborhood on a steep hillside.
Younger Honduran teens kept running up to him, one to borrow a cell phone charger. “Here you go,” he told the youth, “make sure to bring it back and don’t break it.” They clearly looked up to him.
After the election, Eddie and a group of friends helped lead the protests in his sector, of San Pedro Sula called Choloma. “They shot people with rubber bullets and with live ammunition too. They have tanks that spray tear gas and they are used to break up the barricades that protesters and strikers erect on main roads and in key intersections. Most of the protests have died down. People are scared, terrified. The military has come down with a heavy hand.”
He left before the caravan, on the third of October.
He was active in the Libre Party, an opposition group, and was an active supporter of Presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla. Five of his comrades who worked with him had been murdered, disappeared by paramilitary death squads working for the government.
“The November 2017 election was stolen,” he said “The National party came around to buy votes before the election, driving around in blue cars with the party’s logo, giving construction supplies—wood, bricks, cement blocks—as well as bags of money.
“One of my friends was a University student, we were with the Libre party, and had a small group in our city. One person I know ran for mayor. She became the mayor of a small pueblo on the frontier with Guatemala and El Salvador, called Ocalpatec. They threatened to kill her, and she fled too. She is here in Tijuana like many others, not far from here, he motioned left down the hill and across the valley, about 20 miles away. She wasn’t a member of the Libre party, but another, with a yellow logo, another part of Salvador Nasralla’s coalition, the Alianza (Alliance Against Dictatorship).”
“In the election I worked at the polls as an official election observer. No one slept all week, they kept delaying the vote count, saying they would announce it late at night, and they never did.”
“Like everyone else in Honduras, we took to the streets, taking over roads, engaging in peaceful protests; it was a general strike. There would be cacerolazos where everyone would bang on pots and pans from their windows, making a loud clanging that resonated throughout the city. A few months after the election, about a year ago in January or early February, after the protests died down, I had to leave. They killed many of my friends. Sometimes they’d say it was a random murder, or blame la mara, the gangs, the cartels, or they said a neighbor had killed him, but it was the death squads. Sometimes bodies would be found, sometimes people just disappeared.”
“I traveled around, went to Guatemala for a few months, then came here.”
Eddie is a barber. He found some work recently at a barber shop down the hill; he recently got eight days of work. But he’s in Tijuana to apply for asylum, and has a number. He doesn’t want to miss his place in line, and so doesn’t always go out and work. He’s waiting for his number to go through the process.
Kenia: Exodus Organizer
Kenia addressed a small crowd in a little storefront, a single room with folding chairs, covered with a poster of Black Panther leader Assata Shakur. A mural on one wall showed an indigenous woman raising a fist on a plain within a landscape of a forested mountain and a desert. Across a river, a snake coiled up in the far right corner, the bright yellow sun shining in on the left as it arched across the sky.
Gunmen assassinated Kenia’s mother Margarita Murillo on August 27, 2014. Kenia and her family organized delegations to the state attorney’s office and sit-ins outside the prosecutor’s office demanding that the murderers be brought to justice. After the government’s lead investigator was killed, prosecutors just evaded and delayed. “We want to go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,” Kenia explained, “so that the government investigates the case.” Many members of her family in Honduras are documenting the tortures and murders that have been happening. They want to bring their evidence to an international level to expose what is taking place in Honduras.
Like Berta Cáceres of COPINH, Margarita died organizing rural and indigenous families against multinational companies displacing families from the land. Kenia said that her mom was the 120th political assassination in their area and that since the 2009 coup there have been another sixty political murders.
“They are killing kids. A one-year-old was killed by a tear gas canister. A twelve-year-old spoke out on a media platform about the repression of social movements, and he was found dead the next day.”
“Meanwhile the cost of electricity and natural gas have skyrocketed, though there has been no increase in the minimum wage, and there is no working healthcare system to speak of. There aren’t enough supplies, doctors, or nurses in the hospitals. I just heard how in a hospital in the south, a baby died of a snakebite because they had nothing to treat him with.”
“Then there is the unemployment. You have to be younger than 35 to work, just to get an interview. Bosses don’t like older workers. Workers often have to labor for very bad pay to secure a chance at permanent employment. The maquilas, the factories that make apparel, exploit women. Workers in those factories make only $5 dollars a week. This is less than a subsistence wage, less than the cost of rent and lights and food.”
“The situation in Honduras is so bad, we had to take drastic action. We had to leave. We thought if we left in a group, we wouldn’t be hurt. But we are disappointed; by the United States, and by the government of Mexico. In Mexico they have hurt us, beat us, and at the US border we face tear gas and rubber bullets. We don’t really want to come to the United States; it’s not that things are so great here, but we have no other choice. In Honduras, if you protest, they kill you.”
“A fourteen year old was murdered. The father of the family said we aren’t secure here. They left. There are no other options. That’s why we formed the caravan to come here. The gangs impose taxes on the people. They recruit kids; if you don’t join the gang they kill you.”
“The government of Honduras robbed the national social security system, the public institutions, and the entire country, to steal it’s wealth to go to the family of President Juan Orlando Hernández.”
“Now that the caravan is here, people need to help the caravan in a humanitarian way, and to help them find a place to go; they don’t want us in Mexico, we are not going back to Honduras, no one wants us. The U.S. won’t let us enter. But we need to survive.”
“We need the United Nations or human rights organizations to help us find a place to go, a place we can stay. We are not going back.”
“How can Trump say that there are criminals, drug traffickers, and murderers in the caravan? We are fleeing poverty and violence. How can he say this, whey the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was just captured in Miami, charged with drug trafficking. They say we are the traffickers? Everyone knows the drugs come by plane.”
“In Honduras there has been a lot of repression. In my community, in three years, gangs killed 470 young people. All of these murders of children have gone unsolved. Kids are found later, their bodies in a sack, left by the side of the road or tied to a post.”
“There are daily strikes, blockades, boycotts, and protests in Honduras. The governments of Nicaragua and El Salvador closed the border for 48 hours, but they reopened them, so as not to hurt business.”
“So we left. People feel like they are in limbo, that they have no support, that they aren’t welcome anywhere. But we will continue, we must, to survive.”
President Donald Trump has used the exodus of Hondurans traveling north to rally white nationalists against religious and ethnic minorities in the United States. Shootings at synagogues, a Walmart, and churches have followed his hate filled speeches attacking asylum seekers like Kenia and Eddie, providing a justification for a Southern border wall and brutal conditions in immigrant detention camps. The overthrow of democracy in Honduras threatens remaining civil liberties and social protections in the United States. Our struggles are bound together, across borders, language, ethnicity, and skin color. Truly, no one is free, unless we all are.