Up to 150,000 people a year attempt the journey north. Thousands go missing, leaving families at home waiting for news – or demands from kidnappers
A Central American mother holds her child while waiting to be processed by Border Patrol agents in La Joya, Texas, 10 April 2021. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
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https://www.theguardian.com-Sarah Johnson in Tegucigalpa
Twenty-three days after her daughter and granddaughter left their home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Sandra Lopez* had a call telling her they had been kidnapped and she would have to pay if she wanted to see them alive again.
Her daughter, Rosa*, was taking the perilous journey overland to the US in search of work when she was snatched in Mexico. In that moment on the morning of 23 November 2021, she and her six-year-old daughter joined the thousands of missing people who have disappeared along migratory routes north.
“When I got the call, I was terrified,” says Rosa’s mother. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything. I was distraught.”
Rosa had been unemployed for over a year after losing her job in a textiles factory as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Her plan was to join her child’s father in the US and work to support her mother, who is disabled.
After Lopez found out the pair were being held hostage, she felt powerless. She was hounded several times a day via WhatsApp by the kidnappers, asking for $10,000 (£8,200) in ransom. “I told them I was a single mother, living in a house that wasn’t mine, that I was disabled and use a wheelchair. Where was I meant to get money from?
“They told me, ‘If you can’t pay, do something. Sell your organs to pay for your family. If you don’t, they will not exist in this world.”
The numbers leaving Honduras are rising as the country grapples with the economic fallout of the pandemic, the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, as well as the more entrenched issues of gang violence, poverty and climate change.
The route to the US is full of danger, and migrants are “extremely vulnerable”. Some perish from exposure to the elements in the desert that lies along the Mexico-US border; others are killed in road accidents or die grisly deaths on “the beast” – a freight train that traverses Mexico; some are detained by authorities; and some, like Rosa and her daughter, fall victim to criminal gangs in Mexico, who view migrants as a business opportunity.
“There are multiple factors here in Honduras that force people to migrate,” says Rolando Sierra, director of the faculty of social sciences at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. “Honduras has a high percentage of the population living in poverty without opportunities for employment. And, if levels of violence, corruption and impunity don’t reduce, then neither will migration.”
We need to know what happened to them, where they are, why they disappeared. We need to know the truth and get justice
Eva Ramirez, who hunts for missing migrants
It’s impossible to know how many people leave Honduras. Sierra estimates that, every year, 130,000-150,000 people try to reach the US. Government figures show that, from the beginning of 2022 to June, the US sent 34,278 Hondurans home, more than half of the total (52,968) of those who were returned in 2021.
The International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project documented that between January 2014 and March 2022 at least 6,141 people died or disappeared along migratory routes on the American continent. Between 2007 and 2021, the Jesuit Migrant Service attended to 1,280 cases of missing migrants in Mexico, of which 71% were from Central America.
In Honduras alone there are 3,500 people listed as missing, according to the five committees in the country that were set up to trace those who have disappeared.
Lopez, like many with missing relatives, had no idea where to turn for help and was left to cope alone. Sierra adds: “In Honduras, there are no policies in place to deal with irregular migration. There are no specialised services to investigate what has happened to people who disappear or to support their relatives.”
There is no central database of missing people, which “invisibilises the phenomenon”, according to Jérémy Renaux, coordinator for the programme of disappeared people at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Families face obstacles in reporting cases, and then receive no help.
There is also a lack of coordination between countries, he adds. In Mexico, where many go missing, there is a forensic crisis, with more than 52,000 unidentified bodies lying in mass graves, forensic service facilities, universities and forensic storage centres.
Stepping in to the gap are people like Eva Ramirez, who founded the Comité de familiares de migrantes desaparecidos Amor y Fe, a group of people with missing relatives. Over 23 years she has built a network of activists, journalists and civil society organisations throughout Central America who help search for missing people. Committees like hers also act for families, and have psychologists on hand to provide mental health support.
Her work is unpaid and tough, but she says: “[Missing migrants] have every right to be searched for because they are human beings. We need to know what happened to them, where they are, why they disappeared. We need to know the truth and to get justice.
“People don’t leave the country because they want to. They leave because they have to. We live in a country that expels people through extreme poverty and a lack of opportunities, and violence, among many other factors.”
Ramirez has been involved in negotiating with kidnappers on behalf of victims’ families in Honduras. Her experience proved invaluable when Lopez got in touch. She advised Lopez and her son-in-law in the US to demand proof of life from the kidnappers. Then, when the pair managed to raise the ransom by borrowing money from friends and neighbours, Ramirez told them to ask the kidnappers to leave Rosa and her daughter with migration at the US-Mexico border.
Lopez and her son-in-law sent the money via bank transfer and waited anxiously.
“I called them all the time, asking them to set my daughter and granddaughter free,” Lopez says. “I begged them to hand them over to migration. I was crying. I knew they weren’t OK – they weren’t given food, and were made to sleep on the floor in freezing temperatures.”
Three days later, on 8 December, she was told they were free. On 15 December, they were deported back to Honduras.
Rosa is now safe. Her mother cries when she remembers all they went through. She has been unable to pay back the people she borrowed money from. “I want to try and leave for the US again,” Rosa says. “I know it’s dangerous but I’ve been looking for a job and can’t find one.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities