By Ali Noorani
In the late afternoon sun, an elderly woman swept the front of her home with the same pride of suburban America. But we weren’t in suburban America. We were in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the 2013 murder capital of the world.
Dust filled our bus as we bounced along the dirt road cutting through one of the city’s bordos, neighborhoods of extreme poverty — the dirt road was the elderly woman’s front yard.
Exposed by open windows so we weren’t mistaken to be police, our awkward gazes were greeted with nonchalant glances. Children played in front of tiny, one-room homes made of corrugated metal and scrap wood.
Back in the U.S., President Trump claimed throughout the week that America was being invaded by the type of Central Americans we spoke to that afternoon — proud, hard-working people seeking a life free of violence. Over the course of two and a half days in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, we saw firsthand what leads people to pack their bags and walk to America.
In addition to meeting faith leaders, business leaders, law enforcement, international NGO and U.S. Embassy staff, we spent a couple of hours at a U.S. AID-sponsored Save the Children community center in La Rivera Hernandez, a notoriously violent neighborhood controlled by six different gangs.
The center provides about one hundred children a day recreation, classrooms and training on sewing machines and computers. They are expanding to provide electrical and welding training.
In addition to the center’s staff, four young women, from 16 to their early 20s, gave us a glimpse of life in Rivera Hernandez. Time at the community center or church was cherished. Walking home at dark was avoided. Dreams of working with technology in an office or learning multiple languages to work at a call center were vivid.
One of the young women grew up in another neighborhood. But her mother moved her to Rivera Hernandez because she had caught the attention of a local gang member. One of the staff told us she moved her son out of Rivera until the gang member who recruited him died. Families who could not find safety for their children from the gangs sent them to the United States.
We learned that in neighborhoods like Rivera Hernandez, extortion is a fact of life. Whether you are driving a bus or selling gum, if you didn’t pay the “war tax,” you are threatened. If you don’t pay, you are killed. The police, despite anti-corruption efforts, were not trusted. And if you want to escape the extortion and apply for a job outside Rivera Hernandez, a prospective employer will see your address and likely deny you the job.
Extortion leads to violence which leads to hopelessness. One of the young women was talked out of leaving on a caravan. She is proud of Honduras. But she understands why people flee. Because in a country that cannot provide the rule of law to those who have no economic opportunity, walking thousands of miles to safety sounds like a better option.
Yes, one U.S. AID-funded community center in one of the worst neighborhoods in San Pedro gives people hope. But it does not solve the big systemic problems of corruption, violence and joblessness that undermine Honduras. That will take a big, courageous vision. A vision the Obama administration never realized. A vision the Trump administration has sullied.