From Honduras to Yonkers
Fleeing the World's Most Violent City
Lidia is perched on a wooden chair in the middle of the sitting room of the small Yonkers apartment she shares with her husband and three sons. It is stuffy with the heat of family life and overworked radiators. Her long blonde hair is swept off her shoulders, framing her heart shaped face.
Lidia remains totally calm as she recounts the implosion of her former life in soft Spanish. It is hard to sense any stress as she describes how her family were forced to flee the brutal violence of their home in Honduras. She has spent the subsequent hours and hours of these past four months meticulously gathering every piece of documentation her shattered family might need in their case for asylum.
Eight months ago Lidia was too far from this long street to ever imagine its parallel rows of wooden panelled houses, painted in sweet, love heart pastels. She was still living in San Isidro, the small suburban colony in Honduras’ capital city, San Pedro Sula.
Last year, for the third year in a row, San Pedro Sula was the most violent city in the world, according to the Mexican Citizen’s Council for Public Service. Murder rates remain staggeringly high across Honduras. In fact, the country has the highest murder rate in the world. The UN’s office of drugs and crime states that 90 people are killed for every 100,000 inhabitants. This statistic is double that of neighboring El Salvador and four times the rate of Mexico.
For Lidia, however, the city had always been her home.
Everything changed in the middle of a March afternoon last year. Lidia was watching television at home with only her youngest son, 14-year-old Juan Carlos. There was knock on the door.
When she went to answer it, she found three men, each holding a gun.
Get out, they said. You have six hours to get out.
Their house in Honduras was large and painted white. It was surrounded by even larger walls and topped with barbed wire; necessary precautions against the armed robbers who terrorized the neighborhood.
But these men had walked straight up to her front door. Lidia recognized them immediately. Although she didn’t know their names, she says she knew them by sight.
They were local members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of the many street gangs whose turf warfare was tearing Lidia’s part of Honduras apart. Many of them are exports of American culture. They originated in cities like Los Angeles in the 1980s; the product of immigrants fleeing Central America’s civil wars. When these communities were deported back home in the 1990s, they took their gangs, and their bitter rivalries, with them. Over the past two decades they have spread throughout Central America, bringing with them more death and destruction.
The UN has linked their presence and the pervading levels of drug trafficking and organized crime to the instability and danger in the region. In 2010, their Office on Drugs and Crime also found that street gangs were responsible for nearly 40 percent of all homicides, a figure that has been steadily rising.
“In a way, I was lucky,” Lidia says though. MS-13, the gang that came to her home, typically allow people time to disappear. Their main rivals, Mara 18, or the 18th Street gang, will kill everybody on arrival.
As soon as the men had left, Lidia called the rest of her family. In a panic, she stuffed all the important documents and some of their clothes into the back of her green Toyota and drove them away, leaving the house almost exactly as it was.
It was a matter of mere hours since Lidia had opened the door to the gunmen. She has not returned. She does not think that she will ever be able to. The family had to forget everything they’d been buying and collecting throughout their lives, she says. “All of our memories.”
The family left for Lidia’s brother’s house, far enough from San Isidro to feel safe for a few days. They stayed just long enough for Lidia and her husband Carlos to buy plane tickets to New York, selling the two family cars for some quick cash to pay the price. By the end of the week they were gone.
That is the easiest and quickest way to explain what brought her family to Yonkers, Lidia says.
Lidia’s story stretches back long before her family’s panicked flight, finding its roots eight years ago. Back then, the gang violence was still bad, she says. But it was getting worse. The raids and robberies were on the rise, while the extensive security precautions that adorned everybody’s home became a necessity. More sinister, the disappearances and sudden deaths were creeping into the dynamics of daily life.
And people were becoming frustrated with the police force. They were worse than inefficient, they were complicit. “The judiciary in Honduras is corrupt,” says Dana Frank, a specialist in Honduran politics and professor at the University of California. “You can do anything you want and nothing will happen to you.”
The Honduran police have a long history of corruption. In April 2013, the chief of Directorate for Investigation and Evaluation of the Police Career told the Honduran Congress how 33 police tested for corruption had failed. Only seven of them were ever suspended.
Everyone knew they police were crippled, Lidia says. Many of them were working with the gangs, taking a share of the profits from these attacks where “they would take everything they could. Everything that had value.”
According to Frank, there is no true separation between the police and the gangs in Honduras. They are intertwined, their mutual corruption and exploitation helping to fuel one another and working to further foster Honduras’ state of instability.
Lidia’s father was one of those angered by the police’s inactivity. He’d previously worked as a kind of engineer, overseeing local construction, but in 2006, he set up a security council for the area, that would work with law enforcement and inform on the street gangs. Four years later, he died at their hands.
The consequences of Lidia’s father’s boldness had been instant and irreversible. It immediately entangled the entire family on a path that would slowly drag them towards tragedy. His death marked the true descent of Lidia’s life into the unimaginable.
The threats had been immediate, promising death if he continued to work with the police, a common outcome in Honduras for anyone who dared to inform on MS-13 or Mara 18.
Over the next four years, gang violence escalated throughout Honduras and, despite the efforts of the security council, in Lidia’s small section of San Pedro Sula. Her father was shaken. “He was scared,” she says, but his commitment never wavered. In 2010, he was shot at a petrol station by the side of the road. Newspapers reports speculated over which bus route the killers might have used to escape, relaying the witness accounts and grief-crazed terror of his family. No one was ever caught.
Lidia quietly pulls a photograph out of the bulging yellow folder she has been clutching to her chest. It is another piece of the endless evidence she has painstakingly curated for the asylum hearing they will face in a few weeks. It shows the smiling security council crowded round a table groaning with platters piled with food. Her father is stood front a center.
After his death, the council quickly buckled under the weight of the violence. Within months, almost all of the men surrounding her father in the photograph had met the same fate, she says. All around her, the gangs were expanding effortlessly, staining the streets of San Isidro with their vicious rivalries. “It was inevitable,” she says.
Lidia says how the colonies of San Pedro Sula, which seemed to merge into one another, were divided by wide avenues. It was here that the fighting took place, as the gangs in control of these neighboring sections clashed against one another with blood and bullets. “It was like living in Iraq,” her husband, Carlos, says.
“There were battles between the gangs at every corner, every day, all day long,” Lidia says. She recalls how there were days when her sons couldn’t leave home, for fear of stray bullets on their way to school. “We didn’t know when they’d be shooting,” she says.
The two gangs levied war taxes as well, on anybody who owned their own business. Carlos ran an air conditioning company. He reckons he had to pay MS-13, who dominated San Isidro, around $25 a week.
There were also other, less official payments as well. Jose, Carlos and Lidia’s second son, used to be stopped sometimes at the entrance to the avenues as he drove home from work or university, quickly handing over little bits of cash to buy his way back in.
A few dollars here and there was the less frightening request, however. Strong and muscled from days spent hanging out with friends at the gym, by the time
Jose turned 17, he was an attractive prospect for the ever-growing street gangs. He was soon approached, with promises of pairs of smart new sneakers and Beats headphones to become one of them. Each time Jose would quickly change the conversation.
There is an unspoken rule of thumb in his hometown in Honduras, however, Jose says. A gang will ask you three times to join them. If you refuse the third offer, they kill you. Statistically speaking, it is young men that are the most vulnerable in Honduras. By the time Jose and his family left in March, he’d already been approached twice.
After Lidia’s father died, the chaos of the street gangs quickly encroached further into her life. Many from her extended family were members of either MS-13 or Mara 18, and she lost a nephew and two cousins in the middle of the violence and calamity.
The confusion of life in San Isidro was reflected in the casual and constant presence of death in people’s daily goings on. One of Lidia’s cousins, a street gang sympathizer, was murdered by the police.They pulled her in for questioning late one night, but she never made it to the morning. The other cousin was a victim of his own gang after he refused their requested mission. Lidia says she never found out exactly what this mission was, but more often than not, they involved murdering someone else’s murder.
Lidia’s final moments in Honduras were tied up with the fate of yet another cousin. This one was a member of Mara 18, now spending time in prison. Things quickly escalated after his father, Lidia’s uncle, paid him a visit, to the consternation of MS-13.
Not long after, Lidia’s uncle found himself opening his front door to the same threats that would drive Lidia and her family from the country in a few days. Only instead of fleeing, Lidia’s uncle went to the police.
“It was really stupid,” Lidia says. The police are notoriously inactive because of their own entanglement with the gangs. They were well aware of who had killed her father, she says, not that she ever expected them to do anything about it.
“If you go to the police, you’ll be killed. You tell the police, they tell the gangs and that’s the end of that story,” Lidia says. She was friendly with one family who tried that tactic after one of them was kidnapped. Eight of the 11 were killed the next morning.
The police provided Lidia’s uncle with protection, but only for a night. The following day he was forced to leave, to go somewhere where nobody would know him. Lidia doesn’t know where he’s living now. Probably the mountains, she reckons, but she doesn’t care. “I don’t need to know because he was the problem.”
It became her problem, though. Immediately after, the three members of MS-13 arrived on Lidia’s doorstep, menacing with their three guns and threats of death. They were well aware of her uncle’s disappearance and they were angry. The gang demanded that she call him back to San Isidro. As his niece, they argued, he would not expect her betrayal. Lidia refused. Even after all that had unfolded, she would not give up her family. They were all she had. The choice signaled the end of her life in Honduras.
Get out, they said. You have six hours to get out.
Lidia is bluntly honest in her reflections. She says her story is not unusual in any way. Her family’s only exception to the Honduran story was their ability to escape. “Everybody wants to leave,” she says. “Everyone is danger.”
They were lucky, they had some money from their cars and both her and her husband had tourist visas from holidays to Miami and Las Vegas. Most refugees from her country arrive in the US illegally.
Of the estimated 573,000 Honduran immigrants living in the United States today, more than 60 percent of them are thought to have come here without a visa, according to the Pew Research Center. While the numbers of unauthorized immigrants from other countries in Central American and around the world falls, the number from Honduras continues to rise
When they arrived, Lidia’s family were helped out by a Honduran émigré, who found them odd jobs and their small apartment in a quiet corner of Yonkers. Jose and his father now work for a Mexican goods delivery company, and Lidia picks up bits of housework here and there, while Juan Carlos goes to school.
They have also found assistance from a local religious and legal organization, a blessing, Carlos cries, “that was God’s will.”
But it has been difficult, Lidia admits. None of the family speaks any English, except for Juan Carlos, although Lidia is trying to take lessons. “And we don’t have any friends, we don’t know anyone, “ she says.
It is a problem faced by most Honduran immigrants when they first arrive in the United States, thinking they have found safety.
“They have no cash, they don’t have no jobs,” says Mirtha Colon. She is a member of the National Alliance of Latin American and Central American Communities and the president of Casa Yurumein, a group of community activists that help promote the needs of Honduras and other Central American immigrants.
Her organization tries to offer legal advice to those campaigning for refugee status, although the situation is troubled. Not all families coming from Honduras have the good fortune like Lidia to find legal advice.
“We have no free lawyers,” Colon says. “And all those documents are in English, they’re not in Spanish. Even if they find someone here who speaks English, they’re for the government so they need to be filled out properly. You want them done well.”
Lidia says she misses some of their family, but most of all she misses the small menagerie of pets she had to leave behind. A black and white cat, Milo, a parrot and a tortoise all still live in their house in Honduras. And then, there is her glossy Pit bull puppy, Hunter, who picture still adorns various family members’ mobile phones. Lidia is careful to send back money every month so a neighbor can feed him. Hunter is still the greatest hole in her heart.
In New York, the family is almost entirely isolated and they all feel the loss of the freedom of their lives in Honduras. Lidia says she feels especially confined without a car. Each Sunday, she has to wait for the local priest to pick her up before she can go to church.
For now, however, she has to focus on their petition for asylum that has been so many months in the making.
But even if they are awarded asylum, it will still take them at least another year before they can’t get immigrant status. And if they don’t win asylum, they would face deportation, the consequences of which Lidia cannot even bear to think about. For now at least, she says, she must remain positive.
Additional Spanish Reporting and Photography: Adelie Pontay