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Reclaiming home turf

Migration from Central America has surged, but in Honduras, some Christians are doing unsung work to make their country a safer place to live

Reclaiming home turf

Omar Rivera, with other members of the Honduran government commission responsible for purging corrupt cops, speaks during a press conference in Tegucigalpa. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

When Omar Rivera agreed to join an independent commission to purge rampant corruption from the Honduran police force, he and other Christians on the panel had at least three things, he says: “We had moral strength. We had Christ in our hearts. And we weren’t worried about whether we’d be killed.”

As it turned out, the commission would need all three.

President Juan Orlando Hernández formed the panel in 2016 after leaked evidence revealed senior Honduran police officers conspired with drug traffickers to assassinate the country’s top drug-enforcement agent. Even in a country accustomed to widespread corruption, the scandal produced outrage.

The president agreed to form an independent commission to purge corruption from the police force. The six-person team included four outspoken Christians. Omar Rivera and Carlos Hernández joined the panel as part of their work with the Christian organization Association for a More Just Society (AJS).

One morning before work, Hernández unfolded a note on the front steps of his home in Tegucigalpa. The message inside: “We found you. We know that you live here. You’re going to pay.” Hernández hid the note from his teenage son, and thought, “What am I doing?”

Jorge Machado was a commission member and the executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Churches in Honduras. A few months after the panel’s work began, Machado returned home from grocery shopping with his wife. Six men emerged from two SUVs and opened fire. Machado and his wife escaped injury, but their bodyguard was killed. 

For Rivera, death threats grew serious enough to convince him to send his young family out of the country for a time. But Rivera stayed. “We had to be brave Christians,” he says. “We were all in.”

Eventually, the independent commission removed six out of nine police generals and 5,000 out of 13,000 police officers on the Honduran force.

Three years later, Rivera still travels with security and tries to avoid public areas where he might be a target. “Our lives have changed, probably forever,” he says. “But Jesus would tell us not only to pray for the country, but to do something for it.”

The stories of what Christians and others are doing for Honduras don’t get as much attention as news about Hondurans migrating to the United States. But it’s important to pay attention to both.

The conditions that drive many Central Americans to flee to the United States—including poverty, violence, and corruption—are the same problems some Christians are combating in Honduras, often in particularly courageous ways. 

Kurt Ver Beek, a Calvin University professor in Tegucigalpa, helped start AJS more than 20 years ago. For him, the goal is as simple as it is sweeping: “We are doing our very best to make Honduras a place people don’t want to leave.”

IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE WHY some people do want to leave Honduras.

Though the nation’s murder rate has dropped significantly in the last few years, it remains high. (In 2012, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world.) Poverty also remains stubbornly high, with more than 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Corruption has long been notorious: In October, U.S. prosecutors accused the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo of giving $1 million to the brother of President Hernández, with the intent of funneling the money to the president. The Honduran president denied any knowledge of the scheme.

But corruption is also a daily reality for many Hondurans. 

Want to drive a taxi or start a small business? Prepare to pay a “war tax” to gang members who control large swaths of urban areas. The gangs demand the extortion payments in exchange for not harming or killing a business owner or his family. (Since 2010, an estimated 1,500 Hondurans driving buses or taxis have been murdered.)

Ver Beek, the AJS founder, says such conditions create a sense of hopelessness. Even if the murder rate has gone down and the poverty rate isn’t significantly higher, many Hondurans despair that conditions will ever get any better. When they hear about crackdowns on migrants at the U.S. border, some may think, If we’re going to go, we have to go now.

Many are going: U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 250,000 Hondurans apprehended at the U.S. border in the 2019 fiscal year. Many migrants cite economic factors as their primary reason for leaving, though violence often contributes to economic woes.

Confronting the woes in Honduras means grappling with a painstaking reality: Changing a whole system happens case by case, community by community, and family by family. 

Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

Residents of Tegucigalpa stand at the crime scene where gang members killed a taxi driver for refusing to pay a “war tax.” (Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images)

ARRANGING A MEETING with a family affected by violence can be a painstaking affair itself. 

On a fall afternoon in Tegucigalpa, I headed out to meet two families that AJS staff members are helping through grueling trials: Both families have lost loved ones to murder. 

Finding the families involved rendezvousing in an unmarked office in a nondescript building away from AJS headquarters. 

The secrecy comes from fear. When family members lose a loved one to violence, they’re sometimes afraid to call the police: What if an officer is corrupt and tells a perpetrator about the report? For someone who witnesses a crime, it’s often even more frightening: What if a witness loses his own life for testifying against a gang member or other criminals?

The deep fears have led to a high rate of unsolved crime: Some 90 percent of homicides in Honduras are never prosecuted.

One couple I met described the murder of their adult daughter in front of her two young children a year ago. The woman was standing at a corner store when three gang members forced her into a car.

Her father called police, but says officers told him they had to wait 24 hours before investigating. He searched the streets all night, and the next day he heard a news report about a woman found dead in an alley in Tegucigalpa. He went to the morgue and asked to see the body. It was his daughter. He could see the marks of strangulation on her neck.

In this case, the murdered woman’s children recognized one of the perpetrators. Police caught the offender, but the other two men remain uncaptured. The grieving grandparents moved to another community for safety and are now raising their five grandchildren.

Another woman I met witnessed the murder of her brother on a street corner four years ago. The accused is still awaiting trial, and the woman may have to serve as a witness. That frightens her, but she says she’s convinced it’s important to move forward: “I have to ask the Lord for strength—and for His will to be done.”

AJS intervenes in cases like these by dispatching a three-person team to help families and witnesses work through their anxieties over reporting crimes: An investigator tracks down evidence to help police, a lawyer helps families and witnesses navigate hearings and trial dates, and a psychologist helps deal with trauma and loss. 

In the neighborhoods where AJS has focused its efforts, the organization has seen prosecution rates go up and murder rates go down, as police arrest more criminals and as courts prosecute more perpetrators. In one community, the group reports the average number of homicides per year dropped from 54 to 8.

The group applies the same case-by-case approach to confronting corruption in civil sectors as well. For example, a few years ago, AJS launched a project to find out how many of some 60,000 teachers on government payrolls were actually in classrooms. The results: They found 26 percent were not at their posts. 

The findings led to the resignation of the minister of education and an overhaul of the government slate of teachers. 

That monitoring project continues, and it’s dependent on an army of volunteers willing to help. Hundreds of volunteers from local churches and communities show up at schools and report whether they find teachers on-site and in classrooms each day.

Sonia Diaz volunteers as a monitor for local schools and government-run health clinics. Trek down a steep road, cross a footbridge, and descend a flight of stairs, and you’ll find Diaz in a small concrete home with a couple of rooms and a single light. 

She has four sons in school and says raising boys is challenging in Honduras. Making sure they go to school wouldn’t matter if teachers didn’t show up and teach. She regularly walks to the school and keeps tabs: “I want to be responsible, and I want to make sure they’re responsible too.”

Diaz takes the duties seriously, and when I ask if anyone has ever tapped her to do this kind of work before, she quickly shakes her head: “No, no—but it depends on us.”

AJS plans to continue its efforts to monitor civic and criminal sectors and to work with the Honduran government on reforms. But in January, the group might have to do it with half the staff: The Trump administration’s recent cuts in aid to Honduran organizations will slash AJS’ $4 million budget in half. 

When I interviewed Ver Beek in his office in October, he was working on a plan to give 60 of the 150 staffers a two-month notice. “We’ve had success, and not in tiny things,” he said. “This ought to be the time to double down.”

Jamie Dean

Lucy Espinal (Jamie Dean)

LUCY ESPINAL has doubled down by staying at the same church in the same Tegucigalpa community for nearly 40 years.

The church runs a large children’s program with assistance from the Christian organization Compassion International. Espinal and her husband have served as pastors in the congregation for 37 years and have seen the community go through many changes—most notably a shift to gang violence that made the neighborhood one of the most dangerous in the city.

That didn’t deter the Espinals. Instead, church members put banners along the electric poles near the church with a simple message: “This territory belongs to Christ.”

Local gang members initially didn’t approve of the church reaching out to children they intended to recruit to their ranks. Espinal says several years ago a gang threatened her husband to scale back the church’s work or face death. 

The pastor told the gang members he would plan arrangements for his funeral, but he wouldn’t back down from telling children and their families about Christ. Lucy Espinal says he told them: “We’ve already lost one generation, and we’re going to fight not to lose another one.”

The gang backed off. Espinal says some of the members now send their children to programs. The neighborhood is still dangerous, but she says the church encourages members to stay in Honduras, and the members are hopeful: “We still believe that one day our area won’t be a hot zone for gangs. We want to be known as the zone that flourishes.”

Jamie Dean

Carlos Alvarez (Jamie Dean)

Carlos Alvarez also sees plenty of need, but he also encourages locals to stay. He leads a church in a rural area a few miles away from the city center. In some cases, he says, families thinking about fleeing to the United States decide to stay when the church offers simple help. 

For example, a woman who nearly lost her home in a landslide despaired of life in Honduras, but the church gave her $20 to keep her modest business selling corn tamales. She says she wants to stay, and she finds the connection to the local church as compelling as the money they gave her.

Alvarez says he understands why many Hondurans flee to the United States, but he says part of his work as a pastor is helping people consider how to stay and serve their communities. “We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” he says. “We need to be the light in Honduras.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.