Friday, February 25, 2011

A Rite of Passage

It is almost a right of passage in Honduras that when you are of the appropriate age, you should try to make a life in the United States; whether you have the means to enter legally or illegally.  For this reason, the economies of Central America are in part held together by the money being sent via Western Union or Money Gram from the U.S. to Latin America.  We estimate that there are approximately fifteen million illegal immigrants in the United States earning about sixty billion dollars a year.  Ten billion dollars of this money without a doubt and on record, leaves the United States and bolsters the Mexican economy enough to make a significant impact on the value of the peso.  Ten billion dollars alone goes to Mexico, and it isn’t hard to imagine that the figure is equally as impressive in the smaller countries of Central America given their size.  The prospect of earning twelve dollars an hour working construction is enough for Central American citizens to sacrifice their family, money, and even their lives to chase the amenities of the American Dream.

Mario, my neighbor in Honduras, has his own story of illegal immigration.  As if it was a right of passage, Mario turned nineteen and left for the United States.  The route to the United States isn’t an easy one.  A person has to ride on public transportation from Olancho to the border of Honduras and Guatemala, which is about a 15 hour trip.  Anyone that is familiar with the ‘chicken bus’ transportation in Central America knows that the journey is as boring as it is uncomfortable.  After leaving one of the most dangerous departments in Honduras, you enter one of the most dangerous cities in the world—Guatemala City.  The central bus station in the most dangerous city is located in the most dangerous location.  At night, the streetlights rarely work giving the criminals a perfect office for business.  When traveling in Central America, you only need to hope that you don’t arrive at your destination after dark.  After staying the night in Guatemala City, you hop on a bus to Mexico.  Regardless of how it looks on a map, the distance from Guatemala City to Mexico’s border is equally as grueling as the first leg of your journey.  As you get closer and closer to the northern part of Mexico and ultimately the U.S. border, your travel becomes more covert.  You begin traveling under blankets in the back of pick up trucks and in secret compartments as practice for the real deal.   And so it was with Mario at the tender age of nineteen. 

The ‘coyotes’, as the human traffickers are called, are most often linked to the drug cartels.  In terms of profitability, human trafficking can be just as lucrative as drugs.  Illegal immigrants often spend their life savings of up to ten thousand dollars to enter the United States illegally with the possibility that they may not even make a successful trip.  Mario and his parents paid his way with three thousand dollars that was supposed to be paid to the cartels upon his successful arrival in Houston.  Mario made contact with the cartels near Juarez, Mexico to begin the most dangerous part of his journey.  Upon arrival, the cartels kidnapped Mario and demanded payment up front.  The money was already in Houston and took a long time to be rerouted to Mexico for prepayment.  Mario was kept in a cell with one wool blanket and one meal a day consisting of a corn product such as tortillas and a glass of water.  This went on for several weeks.  Mario was fighting intestinal distress from bad food and water, as well as a fever and chest cough from the wet, cold conditions of his captivity.  Mario explained, “Since then, I have never felt as close to death as I was when I was shivering in that cell.”

The journey to Houston is approximately four days under a plank of wood in the back of a bumpy truck with little food or water.  I can only imagine his feeling of relief when he arrived in the United States.  Mario spent time in Houston and traveled to meet some family in the Mid-Atlantic.  He was only in the United States for about four months when he was asked by an immigration officer for his papers.  Mario, unable to speak any English, was not able to defend himself or offer any explanation as to where he came from or why he was there.  Mario was taken into custody by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Mario was incarcerated for a week in the United States and again was placed in a situation where hunger became an important factor.  The U.S. officials provided absolutely no food for five days in custody, only a glass of water midday.  Mario had never experience such intense pain as the distress of hunger.  Finally, on the fifth day, Mario was given a ham sandwich with disgusting moldy bread.  At that point, Mario didn’t care too much about the quality of the food, only that it was in fact food.  Regardless of the conditions of his captivity, Mario says it was a blessing that he was caught, because he was the only one left out of the group that he came with.  Everyone else had surrendered or had been caught already.  After several months of hardship, Mario made his journey back home.  If given the opportunity to return to the United States, Mario said he would return in a heartbeat. 

Mario’s cousin Edgar has a similar story.  Edgar looks very out of place in San Francisco de la Paz.  He is clean cut and handsome with dark skin and a square jaw line.  If he weren’t in Honduras, I would think that he was of African American descent.  Though, he made it clear that he wasn’t.  Edgar doesn’t talk much.  He has a quiet air about him that makes a lot of people nervous.  He only offers his opinions when directly spoken to, which is why it took me so long to hear his story. 

Since just September, he has been living in his birthplace of San Francisco de la Paz.  Before September, Edgar had a life in the United States working construction.  He met a girl born with citizenship in the United States, whose family is originally from El Salvador.  Frequenting the Washington D.C. nightlife, Edgar got the opportunity to meet people from a variety of Latin American countries that made the journey to the United States.  Edgar began establishing routes in Virginia.  After five or six years in the United States, Edgar became more comfortable and had a child with the woman with El Salvadoran ties.  Edgar was involved in a traffic accident that was not his fault, and was discovered by police.  It was only after his return from the United States that he found out his significant other was pregnant with his second child. 

It is never easy to see another man stricken with sadness and grief.  Even more so, it is difficult to see a callous man unable to express or deal with grief in front of others, because he lives in a world insensitive to emotion.  He asked me how he might be able to get back.  He asked me as if I could call the land line to the White House and ask for a personal favor.  Tears began to fill eyes that usually never see a drop.  Edgar the usually callous and emotionless conversationalist said in broken English, “I cry to sleep every night here.”    


  1. Such a sad story, and I am sure it is one of many in Latin America. It makes you wonder why America is such a unique place and why our model of government and civilization has not or cannot be replicated successfully to other countries of the world?

    Btw, how much does it cost for someone to enter the country legally? For $10k we can travel almost anywhere in the world, legally.

  2. It is comforting to know you are well. Take care.