Thousands of unaccompanied children are coming from Central America, crossing the Rio Grande and being apprehended at the Texas border. They are coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – but Honduras is the main source.
As night seizes Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the streets of one of the capital city’s toughest neighborhoods, Comayagüela, are virtually deserted. Most people here know that it’s not safe for anyone to be caught out alone at night. This is where the killer gangs are notorious.
But then a bus pulls up and out pour about a dozen young American missionaries. They enter what looks like an abandoned building -- a homeless shelter run by a faith-based charity called Breaking Chains Honduras. The volunteers are spending their summer vacation feeding the homeless in the murder capital of the world.
Honduras was branded the murder capital of the world by a 2012 United Nations report finding 90 homicides per 100,000 people. On Tuesday the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Americans thinking of visiting Honduras citing “critically high” levels of crime and violence in the country.
But the grim statistics about Honduras don’t deter Breaking Chains liaison Courtney Mathews.
"There are a lot of kids there that we know that come to church with us or that we just try to build relationships with,” Mathews says.
She’s giving the new volunteers the rundown on what to expect later when they meet the homeless – she says many will be drunk or high on glue, and you need to watch your valuables.
“If you take a picture of somebody and you put it in their hands to look at that might be the last time that you see your cell phone," Mathews says.
Mathews is taking the group to a street corner where every night trash gets dumped. The homeless come to sort the garbage, salvaging recyclables that can be sold. And they have learned that this is where they might get a hot bowl of rice and beans.
“This is a good spot for us to come because there is a good amount of people already here," Mathews says. "And kids like this will go through the trash and look for stuff, or they will beg, or some of them will steal, things like that, but just to kind of get by day to day. So we come to kind of pass out some food and really kind of love on them for a little bit.”
Mathews says she has been doing this work for almost four years. In that time she has gotten to know many of the homeless here, especially the children. She has seen how the gangs are part of life here.
“We’ve had a few losses, mainly among the teens," she says. "A lot of it is – the ones that we’ve experienced are people that live on the street or people who are involved in gang activity or something like that previously."
Despite the rain some of the volunteers have formed a circle in the street and they are kicking a hacky sack back and forth. Soon some of the homeless kids join in the game. But not one homeless youth called Joey. He and his friends are passing around a Coca-Cola bottle holding about a half an inch of brown glue. They are too high to join in the circle. But Joey sees my recorder and he wants to tell me his story.
In his slurred Spanish Joey says he’s on the street because his mother drinks too much and his father beats him. His family told him to leave the house and never come back.
Joey says he knows that many from Honduras are leaving for the United States. And he has an Uncle there too. He said he would go if something touches his heart.
Something has touched the hearts of over 10,000 Honduran youth, more than any other Central American nation. Unaccompanied children and single mothers with children are showing up in staggering numbers at the Texas-Mexico border.
And the big question is: Why?
And the question isn’t just being asked in the United States. Hondurans also want the answer. The same images in the U.S. media of children being warehoused in U.S. Border Patrol detentions facilities are front page news in Honduras. And here TV round-table talking heads are also debating what’s causing the exodus.
The consensus is that it is the out-of-control gang violence, the grinding poverty and lack of economic opportunity.
But why now? Many in Honduras say the nation has hit a tipping point. The gangs have gotten more aggressive with their extortion and recruiting of teenage boys. They are being targeting to either join the gang or be killed.
Meanwhile, Honduran parents, who are already in the United States and working illegally, are now financially able to hire human smugglers to bring their children to the Texas-Mexico border.
That’s also the view of Yanina Carranza, a 17-year-old girl sitting in a Tegucigalpa park with two of her school friends.
She says that the trip to the United States is very dangerous, some of the children never make it to the border -- they suffer, die or are disappeared into the world of sex trafficking.
When asked if they would go to the United States someday, the girls said that would depend – they don’t want to go, but if they can’t find a job here in Honduras, who knows?
The United States is looking to create more economic opportunity in Honduras and recently the White House announced plans to increase spending in the USAAID program for Central America. However, much of that aid is focused on rural development and helping farmers in Central America find new markets.
But the Honduran crisis of gang violence and the flight of their children to the United States is coming mainly from the urban centers. And that could require a new strategy.