FOR MANY CHILDREN on the streets of Tegucigalpa, things do remain terrible.
Michael Miller has lived in the capital city for nearly 20 years, after visiting Honduras for the first time as a Wheaton College student in 1993. In 2000, he founded the Micah Project—a Christian home for boys living on the streets.
Miller describes the dynamic from his office in Tegucigalpa, where he’s just returned from the seventh funeral in three years for boys known by the ministry. (The group’s work includes regular outreach to boys still living on the streets.)
He says many boys run away from their own homes because of domestic or gang-related violence. Like other cities in Honduras, gangs are pervasive in the capital, as members divvy up the city in grids to control drug trade and extortion rings. Signs of a dangerous climate are ubiquitous—down to the armed guards outside the McDonald’s and Wendy’s.
For those living in poorer neighborhoods, the danger is hard to avoid: Gangs often demand an extortion fee known as a “war tax” from Hondurans who own a business, even if it’s a small local market. Failure to pay can invite death. “That’s when you see the bus burned out, and the driver shot,” says Miller. “These are daily stories.”
Boys fleeing violence in their homes or neighborhoods often live in packs of four to twelve in pockets around the city. They beg for money or do small jobs for local vendors, and they often become addicted to yellow shoe glue, sniffing the toxic substance from empty Coke bottles.
Miller says the boys he knows (as young as 11) aren’t usually recruited by gangs, but they still don’t always escape the harassments.
A 2015 study by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported on the two major gangs in Honduras—Barrio 18 and MS-13. The report outlined the highly organized gang structures running drug traffic and extortion rackets and followed operations down to its lowest level: boys between the ages of 6 and 14.
In Barrio 18, the boys—known as banderas—are often forcibly recruited to serve as lookouts or messengers and to carry weapons or pick up extortion payments. Not all banderas are recruited to become gang members, but it’s still a dangerous life for young boys.
Overall, migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States rose by 25 percent from 2007 to 2015, even as the number of Mexican immigrants declined by 6 percent.
Most Central American migrants still cite economic concerns as their primary reason for trying to cross into the United States, but for at least some, economic woes and violence are connected. For example, if a merchant can’t pay a war tax to a gang, he sometimes flees with his family.
Some Hondurans flee to other parts of the country, but they often find gang violence there too. Others apply for asylum when they arrive in the United States, but it’s a long shot: Immigration judges denied nearly 80 percent of the 11,020 asylum requests from Hondurans from 2012 to 2017. Miller says he counsels people not to go to the United States illegally, but he also has compassion for their desperation: “That’s a line most missionaries walk.”
At the Micah House, Christian counselors and staffers try to ease the boys’ sense of desperation and focus on recovery and rebuilding their lives: They help them detox from addictions, and they start a homeschooling process with them.
Some have graduated from college or vocational schools, some have gone into ministry, and some have worked lower-wage jobs. Miller says whatever work they find, the goal is to help the young men find a way to live a stable life in Honduras. It’s one way to keep them home.
Other Hondurans won’t stay, despite the ongoing controversies at the U.S. border. They know about the strife, says Miller: “But I just don’t think it’s a deterrent for many people. They think it’s riskier to stay.”