Pretend you are a Honduran male who has come to the United States to make money to send to your family in Tegucigulpa. Your wife and three daughters run a small tienda (store) out of the front room of their house and have been paying $3 a week “tax” to the local drug gang that runs things around there. One week, the “collectors” tell your wife that their service is going up to $4 a week, but she can’t pay that much so only gives them $3. In the meantime, the gang members get beaten and robbed by the police and the next time they visit your wife, it isn’t the collectors, but the hit crew. Your two younger daughters watch their mother beaten, strangled, and murdered before fleeing the house. Your father, who lives next door, and a neighbor were also witnesses and had to flee. Fortunately, your oldest daughter was on a church retreat so did not see anything, but still, she can’t go home because the gang is angry and suspects that your wife cooperated with the police, which is part of why they killed her. The gang wants to eliminate any potential witnesses to the murder so anyone who they think may know something is on the hit list. Life is cheap.
Your daughters never return home. They stop going to school and remain in hiding for a year while your petition for asylum and their petitons to join you is considered by U.S. immigration. You are granted asylum. Your daughters arrive in the U.S. almost two years after their mother’s murder. You haven’t seen them in over seven years, but now you are together again, in the U.S.but without your wife. You won’t ever see her again.
This tragic story was one of R’s clients, and R has heard many others tales of gang brutality over twenty years of working with Central American clients that are even more horrific. Things are especially bad in Honduras. Tegucigalpa, the capital city with 1.8 million inhabitants, was recently declared the murder capital of the world and there are large swaths of the city where police don’t go. We didn’t want to go to Honduras at all, but because of the way God designed Central America, we had to cross one hundred kilometers of the country to arrive in Nicaragua.
We prepared as best we could – we gassed up Wesley and I got my fake wallet out and put twenty bucks in it. We spent our last night in El Salvador, Honduras’ neighbor to the southwest, as close to the border as we could get and still have a decent room – about 15 kilometers from our planned crossing at El Amatillo. After breakfasting on bananas and cereal in the comfort of our air conditioned hotel room, we pulled up to the steamy, teeming border checkpoint at 9 a.m. where we chatted with a couple from California that was also crossing that day, and driving straight to Nicaragua, Honduras’ neighbor to the east.
None of our border crossings have been particularly difficult – it’s just the tedium of waiting, typically in sweltering heat, while the immigration people do their thing and then tell you to go pay over at that window and get photo copies of every document you can imagine, including your third grade report card, at some other window, and then come back. Crossing into Honduras was no different, except R started chatting with the woman behind the glass and she ended up making the copies for us right there, and let us pay in U.S. dollars right there, even though just before she processed us she made the California couple go to the bank to change dollars to Honduran Lempiras (21 L to 1 USD) and get photo copies at some other building. We got the special treatment.
There were hundreds of people hanging around the immigration complex and we were a little wary because of all the tales of woe R knows about Honduras. It made her comment that you can’t tell a bad person just by looking at them – a bad person could be in a suit or jeans, have brown hair or black hair, wear flip-flops or sneakers – and that made me think of the Lou Reed song “Sweet Jane” and his lyric that “villians always blink their eyes” and maybe we could use that as a clue. But a lot of people blink their eyes so that didn’t really help, but it did provide the impetus to put the Velvet Underground record “Loaded” on the player and it turns out that it was the perfect soundtrack for driving Honduras.
The first part of our Southern Honduras drive was through flat, dry, dusty, scrub land with brick houses and wooden shacks standing here and there, none of them painted with the bold and vivid colors we are used to from Mexico and Guatemala, so everything was just brown. It’s how I imagine the American West to have looked in the 1880’s so it felt right to listen to “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” while driving through.
We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the city of Choluteca and watched Saturday afternoon traffic circle the roundabout before we began our climb into the mountains and the border with Nicaragua at El Espino. The drive into the hills was actually quite breathtaking – a vast, empty stretch of green laid out below us as far as we could see with a big, blue sky above – and the landscape seemed very familiar to me like I might have been a rock on the hills of Honduras in my past life just staring out over the valley for a century or two. Around this time “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’” came on so I was especially moved and feeling very small in this great big world – I ain’t got nothing at all – so I pulled over a few times to try to take a picture of everything to remember how it was making me feel, and I’m sure I didn’t capture it, but that part of the drive felt pretty special and it’s how I’m going to remember Honduras.
After a while the road started winding through this little town and then it just kind of ended at the immigration building where the usual money changers with fat wads of cash and “helpers” hang around. The helpers want to lend assistance by showing you where to go first, where to get copies made, where to go next, and they bug the customs people. We don’t typically get a helper because R can navigate things perfectly well with her Spanish chops, but it can be useful – we paid $2 to a guy at one of the busier crossings when leaving Guatemala and got moved up in line because the guy we “hired” kept pestering the customs official to do our paperwork next.
We drove about an hour into Nicaragua and spent the night in Condega, which is in the mountains and was a base for the Sandinista movement in the 1980’s – more on that in another post. There was a woman grilling meat on the sidewalk next to our hotel and it smelt so good we all agreed it was the perfect dinner to complete our trifecta – three meals in three countries in one day. Breakfast – El Salvador; lunch – Honduras; dinner – Nicaragua.