'A death sen­tence': mi­grant car­a­van mem­ber killed in Hon­duras af­ter US sent him back

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Jeff Ernst in Tegu­ci­galpa

Sev­eral days af­ter Nel­son Espinal slipped across the US south­ern bor­der, he called his fam­ily back in Hon­duras from in­side a US de­ten­tion cen­ter.

“Tell Mom not to worry – I’m ap­ply­ing for asy­lum,” Espinal, 28, told his sis­ter Pa­tri­cia, who re­counted the De­cem­ber phone call with tears stream­ing down her sun-scarred cheeks. “We must pray to God that they give it to me. I told them I can’t go back to Hon­duras be­cause if I go back, they’re go­ing to kill me.”

Espinal had made the 4,900km jour­ney with sev­eral thou­sand oth­ers who joined the mi­grant car­a­van in Oc­to­ber in the hopes of start­ing a new life.

Within weeks of reach­ing the US, how­ever, he was de­ported back to his gang-in­fested neigh­bor­hood in the Hon­duran cap­i­tal Tegu­ci­galpa – and the death threats that had prompted him to flee.

He re­solved to try his luck again in the new year: head north, save his life and find a way to help his fam­ily and pro­vide for his seven-year-old son.

But just over a week af­ter his re­turn, Nel­son was shot dead on the street out­side his home on 18 De­cem­ber 2018.

Despite a re­cent drop in homi­cide rates in Hon­duras and neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, Espinal’s murder is a sharp re­minder that for many peo­ple in the re­gion, the de­ci­sion to mi­grate is one of life or death.

A rul­ing last June by the then US at­tor­ney gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions made it all but im­pos­si­ble for vic­tims of gang vi­o­lence like Espinal to ob­tain asy­lum. And as a new mi­grant car­a­van pre­pares to set off from Hon­duras on Tues­day, more will prob­a­bly suf­fer the same fate.

Espinal lived with his par­ents, four sis­ters and son in a rough shack in the José Án­gel Ul­loa neigh­bor­hood. High in the moun­tains that cup the city cen­tre, the area is dom­i­nated by the no­to­ri­ous MS-13 gang.

In cities across Hon­duras, El Sal­vador and Gu­atemala, gangs ter­ror­ize res­i­dents into sub­mis­sion and re­cruit young peo­ple by force or co­er­cion, promis­ing “work” for youths who have lit­tle prospect of find­ing for­mal em­ploy­ment – and threat­en­ing death for those who refuse.

“When they get their eye on some­one, they search them out again and again,” said Pa­tri­cia Espinal.

The gangs had tried to re­cruit her brother since he was a teenager, but he had stead­fastly re­sisted. “They’re ask­ing if I want to work with him,” she re­called him say­ing. “[But] I’d rather have rough hands [from man­ual la­bor] than join a gang.”

So when news broke last Oc­to­ber that a large group of mi­grants was plan­ning to head north from the city of San Pe­dro Sula, Espinal and a pair of friends rushed to join the car­a­van, cal­cu­lat­ing that there would be safety in num­bers.

It was un­prece­dented for such a large num­ber to set out to­gether, and Espinal be­lieved the car­a­van of­fered the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to es­cape. In the end, how­ever, the vi­o­lence that has plagued Hon­duras for more than a decade proved in­escapable.

Ac­cord­ing to Mig­do­nia Ayestas, direc­tor of the Vi­o­lence Ob­ser­va­tory at the Na­tional Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity in Hon­duras, more than 70 mi­grants have been mur­dered upon re­turn­ing to the coun­try in re­cent years.

“In a coun­try as vi­o­lent as Hon­duras, many of the peo­ple who are forced to mi­grate do so out of fear of vi­o­lence – so when they are de­ported it’s es­sen­tially a death sen­tence,” said Joaquin Me­jia, a hu­man rights lawyer, who added that the re­spon­si­bil­ity lay with the Hon­duran gov­ern­ment for its fail­ure to guar­an­tee the se­cu­rity of its cit­i­zens and the US gov­ern­ment for not ful­fill­ing its hu­man rights obli­ga­tions.

Due to the gov­ern­ment shut­down, the Guardian was un­able to reach US Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion for com­ment.

Homi­cide rates in Hon­duras peaked in 2011 at 86.5 for ev­ery 100,000 in­hab­i­tants, and have since de­creased to 43.6 for ev­ery 100,000 in­hab­i­tants in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Vi­o­lence Ob­ser­va­tory.

But that still works out to more than 10 mur­ders a day – in a coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion slightly larger than Lon­don – and is still the fourth-high­est rate in the Amer­i­cas.

Across the coun­try are neigh­bor­hoods like Espinal’s, where the threat of vi­o­lence is om­nipresent and ev­ery­one knows some­one who has been mur­dered.

“In this neigh­bor­hood they’ve killed tons of boys,” said Espinal’s mother, Sara Mata­moros. “Neigh­bors and friends.”

Men ac­count for nearly 90% of homi­cide vic­tims in Hon­duras. Those be­tween the ages of 20 and 29, such as Espinal, were mur­dered at a rate of over 160 for ev­ery 100,000 in­hab­i­tants in 2017.

But no pop­u­la­tion group es­capes the blood­let­ting.

Women make up a small per­cent­age of vic­tims, but the coun­try’s femi­cide rate is among the world’s high­est. And in 2017, Hon­duras’s child homi­cide rate was the high­est in the world, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Save the Chil­dren.

Mean­while, do­mes­tic and sex­ual vi­o­lence is en­demic, but ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Women’s Rights in Tegu­ci­galpa, re­mains largely un­re­ported due to struc­tural machismo.

“Peo­ple don’t mi­grate [just] be­cause they fancy it, but be­cause they are search­ing for a new life, a bet­ter eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion. But also, the peo­ple mi­grate out of fear of vi­o­lence – and that of­ten is not un­der­stood by leg­is­la­tors or Pres­i­dent Trump,” said Ayestas.

The Hon­duran gov­ern­ment has re­lied heav­ily on hard­line mano dura poli­cies, such as the cre­ation of a heav­ily armed mil­i­tary po­lice, which has pa­trolled the streets since 2013.

The new Na­tional Anti-Gang Force reg­u­larly pa­rades young men in front of the me­dia with small stashes of mar­i­juana or cash al­legedly from ex­tor­tion.

But the poverty, lack of op­por­tu­nity and fam­ily dis­in­te­gra­tion that prompt gang mem­bers to choose such a life go un­ad­dressed.

Mean­while, im­punity rates are ex­ceed­ingly high even for se­ri­ous crimes; despite a re­duced homi­cide rate, the ter­ror en­dures.

“Bring­ing back peace is not just about low­er­ing the homi­cide rate,” said Ayestas. “Be­cause there are other crimes and the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of se­cu­rity – which haven’t im­proved.”

Ayestas and oth­ers ar­gue that un­til Hon­durans feel se­cure in their homes and neigh­bor­hoods, they will con­tinue to mi­grate.

“Here in this coun­try they just kill,” said Mata­moros. “They don’t care about the fam­ily’s pain.”

That pain was clear in the face of Espinal’s son Yo­jan, who sat in the fam­ily home, star­ing blankly and clutch­ing a toy car; Nel­son bought it as Christ­mas gift, but didn’t sur­vive long enough to give to him.

Ac­cord­ing to his fam­ily, Yo­jan has al­ready started talk­ing about leav­ing home and head­ing north to es­cape.

Pho­to­graph: Jorge Cabr­era/Reuters

A child touches the cof­fin of Nel­son Espinal, who was shot dead out­side his home on 18De­cem­ber 2018 in Tegu­ci­galpa, Hon­duras.

Nel­son Espinal. Pho­to­graph: Fam­ily

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