The U.S. border crisis, as seen from Honduras
By Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press
News headlines this week in Central America offer ample clues about what's prompting so many parents to entrust their children to human smugglers for an uncertain journey to the United States.
Those unaccompanied minors were the big political story in the U.S. this week. But back home in northern Honduras, where many of them are from, the big political story of the week involved a stomach-turning death.
It began with gangsters beating and torturing a young man with electric shocks.
For 24-year-old victim Luis Alfonso Cabrera, things then got worse.
He was left to languish in hospital for two weeks without treatment. Eventually, he was eaten alive by maggots.
Honduran TV news outlets broadcast grotesque footage of Cabrera's final hours, as he appeared half-awake in his hospital bed while larvae slithered into a hole in his skin, just above his shoulder.
The national government responded by sending in the military to take over the hospital security operation, and hinting that powerful and malevolent criminal forces had infiltrated the administration.
It's all there — violent gangs; crumbling institutions; accusations of systemic corruption. The story of Mario Catarino hospital in San Pedro Sula sums up the factors driving people out of Honduras, and why that country is believed to be the largest source of the current influx of migrants into the U.S.
A politician who once lived in Canada says people shouldn't rush to judge the parents sending their children away.
The journey is expensive, and can cost people their life savings. It's dangerous, with brutal gangs often involved in the smuggling trade known to kidnap migrants, force them into prostitution or drug-running, and summarily execute those who refuse them.
But many feel it's still worth the risk, said Beatriz Valle.
"It's not that they're bad parents," said Valle, who was Honduras' ambassador to Canada and then a cabinet minister in the Honduran government that was toppled in a 2009 coup.
"They're afraid that their children will be murdered here. They cannot foresee any future."
Valle herself went into hiding last year.
Just before she won a congressional seat in a national election, she avoided public appearances and her own home for a week. Opponents of her left-wing Partido Libre derided it as an election stunt — but Valle said she'd been receiving death threats.
In Honduras, there's ample reason to heed a death threat.
The country has the highest murder rate in the world, and it's surged these past few years. San Pedro Sula's is particularly high, at a war-zone-like 169 killings per 100,000 people — which, for comparison's sake, would be more than 100 times the rate in Canada.
Pre-teens are being forced into gangs or murdered.
"I can't express in words (how bad it is). It's unthinkable," Valle said in a phone interview from Honduras. "In the (southern U.S. border) centres where (the migrants) are detained, they have a better life than they have here."
She blames different factors for the degenerating situation — corruption, poor economic choices, crumbling social services.
Then there's the U.S.-led war on drugs.
She's among those who wish the Americans might rethink their strategy on fighting narcotics — a strategy she said is losing in the U.S., losing in Latin America, and winning fortunes for criminals.
The sentiment is echoed by another ex-Honduran diplomat who worked at the embassy in Washington.
Rodolfo Pastor recalls feeling disbelief when a high-ranking American official told him the war on drugs was working.
According to Pastor's recollection of the conversation, the U.S. official said it had succeeded in disrupting the supply chain and driving up the price of cocaine — so it's harder for American kids to afford it.
"Guess what? We're the ones spilling the blood," said Pastor, who now runs an opposition-backed NGO called the Foundation for Democracy and Non-Violence, after losing his diplomatic post following the 2009 overthrow.
"It's our blood."
He's frustrated that the U.S. response to the migration influx appears to be to ramp up the war on drugs. The US$3.7 legislative package President Barack Obama asked Congress for would include sums for international narcotics control.
To Pastor, that means more guns in his country. And more weapons for state institutions he says can't be trusted.
If the U.S. really wants to help, he said, it could target the "big fish" — the military men, bankers, shippers and public officials tied to the narcotics trade, instead of hunting down farmers and drug mules.
Better yet, he said, the U.S. could just leave his country alone.
He said enough American guns have been pumped into the country to fight American causes. He said the weapons have been coming in ever since he was a child and Honduras was used as a Cold War training hub for anti-leftist fighters in the 1980s.
He now knows many people who dream of fleeing their fractured homeland.
It's not even the poorest Hondurans leaving, he said. The poorest of the poor can't afford the human smugglers, the so-called coyotes.
It's just people looking for a safer life, a better job, and maybe a family member up north. He said they don't give much thought to what their legal status might be once they arrive.
They certainly haven't given much thought to the possibility that, upon their arrival, they might wind up in confrontations with American protesters in front of television news crews.
They just want to go.
"Anybody in their right mind would probably run as far as possible (from Honduras)," Pastor said, over the phone.
"It's only the crazy ones, like me, who stay."