MEXICO CITY — Two out of three people making their way through Mexico as part of a “caravan” that drew President Donald J. Trump’s ire this week have fled Honduras — part of a recent trend that has seen growing numbers of people escape the country’s exorbitant homicide rates, crippling corruption, increasing political persecution, and a floundering economy.
That is a sharp, recent rise — the number of Hondurans apprehended by US Customs and Border Control increased by 66% from Dec. 2017 to March, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. In February, Mexican authorities detained and deported 4,128 Hondurans, up from 2,780 the previous month. It was the highest number since November 2016.
This exodus comes at a time of extraordinary tensions even for Honduras, a country still reeling from the effects of a coup d'état in 2009. A highly contested presidential election in November drew thousands of demonstrators to the streets, where at least 22 protesters and bystanders were killed, most of them by security forces.
“Honduras is a pressure cooker in every single aspect,” said Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee for Families of the Disappeared and Detainees in Honduras. “We are seeing an unprecedented violation of human rights.”
Repression by the state has continued even months after the election, analysts say. According to Annie Bird, director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, government forces have been intimidating protest leaders — people have reported receiving threatening phone calls and being followed by unmarked cars.
Some in the caravan brought their politics with them, shouting slogans against Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who narrowly won a second term last year and is often referred to by his initials, JOH. He has received support from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, former president Barack Obama, and Trump, but Hernández's popularity at home is suffering: Many in the caravan yelled “Out with JOH!” as they set off.
The large number of Hondurans caught Trump’s attention.
“The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our 'Weak Laws' Border, had better be stopped before it gets there,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. In subsequent tweets, Trump renewed calls for his border wall and tougher immigration laws, warning about a “massive inflow of drugs and people” across the border.
Conditions in Honduras were dire even before the election, with 43.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, 55% of the workforce underemployed, extortions to small businesses reportedly on the rise, and endemic corruption.
The Central American nation has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and was called the most dangerous country for environmental activists last year. The government’s efforts to clean up the police force were dealt a severe blow earlier this year after the Associated Press revealed that the head of the national police had helped a cartel leader deliver nearly a ton of cocaine in 2013. And corruption is widespread: The former first lady was arrested in connection to a graft case in February.
Even the anti-corruption mission backed by the Organization of American States, known for its Spanish initials as Maccih, is languishing without a director after Juan Jiménez Mayor resigned in February, citing a lack of support by the head of the OAS.
In the meantime, Hernández has quietly cemented his power, taking control of most of the country’s institutions, including the Supreme Court, which in 2015 struck down a law forbidding presidents from seeking a second term. His administration continues to receive a portion of the $644 million appropriated by the US Congress to assist Central American governments.
Hondurans went to the polls Nov. 26 in a tense and highly polarized environment. Already distrustful, many voters were incensed after the Honduran electoral commission mysteriously stopped releasing results for 36 hours just as the opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, took a 5-point lead over Hernández. When it resumed, Hernández quickly overtook Nasralla.
Violent protests ensued, with people defying a 10-day curfew declared by the government, which deployed the military and police to the streets. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras, at least 23 people were killed and at least 60 were injured during the following weeks.
Two days after the election, the State Department certified that the Honduran government had been combating corruption and supporting human rights, a requirement for the US to continue sending it millions of dollars worth of aid.
But a report by the United Nations’ office said that the use of live bullets by security forces “raise serious concerns about the use of excessive lethal force and may amount to extra-judicial killings.”
“The level of desperation has risen since the election,” said Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “All signs indicate that the situation is only going to worsen politically, economically, on the human rights front.”
It is unclear whether the post-electoral crisis will push more Hondurans than usual to emigrate this spring, when migrants usually undertake the trek. But despite a clampdown on immigration, Honduran migrants are increasingly looking to settle in Mexico, rather than continue on to the US. Last year, 4,272 Hondurans requested asylum in Mexico, up from 1,560 in 2015.
In July, about 86,000 Hondurans living in the US could be forced to leave if their temporary protected status is not renewed. (In January, the Trump administration announced it was ending the program for 200,000 Salvadorans in the country.)
Honduras would struggle to absorb the return of thousands of people, and the economy would suffer from the decrease in remittances likely to follow — possibly pushing another wave of Hondurans toward the US.
“I call it a self-inflicted wound,” said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“You could create further instability, which leads to further migration.”