By Matt Rivers and Natalie Gallón, CNN
It’s best to get permission from local gang leaders before entering a small neighborhood that locals call La Playita in Chamelecón, Honduras. Violence here is as pervasive as poverty in this region, and foreigners are generally not welcome.
But these days, access is a little easier to find, especially if you’re a media outlet that wants to talk about the incredible destruction that still plagues this neighborhood.
Double Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in Central America less than two weeks apart at the end of 2020, decimating huge portions of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.
In La Playita, or Little Beach – so named because the community sits on the banks of the Chamelecón River – hurricane rains have caused the river to rise more than 20 feet, pushing torrents of water upward and above the levees of the earth. Hundreds of residents rushed to safety with nothing more than clothes on their backs, many seeking refuge under nearby bridges.
When the waters receded, colossal amounts of thick mud remained, submerging entire structures in the silt. There was no home to return to.
“The truth is that many people have been forced to flee here,” said Father Saul Arrieta, a well-known local priest in the neighborhood. “Many have gone north, many young people have gone to the United States. It hurts my heart to see all of this.
The migration of Central Americans to the north, even in large numbers, is not a new phenomenon. But hurricanes coupled with a deadly pandemic have combined to create an unprecedented situation where, for many, migration isn’t just about seeking a better life – it’s about survival.
It also created unique challenges for the Biden administration and its immigration point of contact, Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris was in Central America this week tasked with helping the United States find a way to reduce the record number of migrants arriving at the southern border.
Visiting the Arias Sánchez family is more difficult than before, given that they now live on top of a 10-foot-high dried mud heap. They ask the guests to use the half-dozen steps they dug in the mud to make it easier.
When the water rushed in last November, the family of nine, two grandmothers, sons, daughters, babies, had to flee to a local shelter. Upon their return, they discovered that their family home was completely covered in mud.
With nowhere to go, they gathered all the materials they could at random – tarps, old doors, corrugated iron sections of collapsed roofs – climbed over the hardened mud and built the makeshift structure. of a room that they now share all nine.
“Everyone sleeps together on the dirt floor here at night,” said Juana Fransisca Sánchez, the family matriarch. “We have lost absolutely everything.
The family say they have lasted here as long as they can, but without government support soon there will be only one option.
“We would leave,” said her son Joel Raul Arias Sánchez, 26, with a one-year-old daughter. “There is no work, there is nothing here. There is no future. Many neighbors are already in the United States and many are planning to leave soon. “
In an interview with CNN, a senior government official admitted that many parts of the country have yet to receive the necessary level of assistance.
“It is not possible for everything to be instantaneous,” said Hector Leonel Ayala, the Honduran government minister. “We are not a powerhouse. We are a developing country with challenges.
He pointed out that the government had already done a lot of work, including cleaning up at least one million cubic meters of mud, building new homes and taxes, and providing loans to some affected industries.
Critics, including ordinary citizens who spoke to CNN and non-governmental organizations, argued the government had not done enough to help its people rebuild and say the proof was in the sheer numbers. who are gone.
Entire sections of the neighborhood where Arias Sánchez lives are empty. Some houses are still filled with mud from top to bottom, tall grass growing skyward where the ceilings used to be.
“A lot of people have not returned since the storms,” Arias Sánchez said, adding that most had gone to the United States.
A few minutes away by car, a mattress half buried in the mud serves as a sort of doormat for the small batch that Osban Obdulio Cruz Henrique shares with his family of half a dozen people. His “house” is in worse shape than Arias Sánchez’s. Two walls are made of tarps and sheets, the other two of a patchwork of old doors and thin plywood.
“Whenever it rains, the water flows through the tarp above us, and it flows under our feet,” said Cruz Henrique, showing the gap between the walls and the ground. Three mattresses rest directly on a dirt floor, permanently half-soaked in rainwater that does not dry out.
“We are desperate,” he told CNN. “We don’t know how to start from scratch if we have no chance of earning an income. There is no other choice but to leave.
The total number of people displaced by the storm is difficult to estimate, and the government told CNN it does not have such figures. But various think tanks and the United Nations Refugee Agency have put the number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. That’s a staggering percentage considering the country’s total population is less than 10 million people.
In two dozen interviews, CNN heard story after story that reflected. Before the hurricanes, many were barely hanging on. After the hurricanes, they had nothing left.
Seven months before the hurricanes hit, another storm hit Central America. While the Covid-19 pandemic has spared no country its biological wrath, perhaps no region has been harder hit economically than Latin America.
Nation after nation have crouched down, closing borders and shutting down businesses. The region’s economies generally weren’t doing well before the pandemic – once it hit, many simply collapsed.
Honduras was no different. In 2019, nearly 15% of the population lived on less than $ 1.90 a day, a figure that has likely increased according to World Bank data.
When the coronavirus arrived, government-imposed closures and strict restrictions combined with migratory flows and devastating storms contributed to a 9% drop in the country’s GDP in 2020, according to the World Bank. More than 50 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line.
The Honduran think tank FOSDEH, short for Social Forum on External Debt and Development of Honduras, says more than half a million people lost their jobs in 2020. Given the informal nature of so many jobs in the economy here, a true figure is impossible to pass, to visit, to arrive before. Yet this level of job loss represents more than 12 percent of the workforce, according to World Bank statistics.
More than 15 months after the start of the pandemic, lost jobs are not really materializing in Honduras, a huge factor in some people deciding to leave. “It’s terrible because we are going to leave my mother, but we have no future here,” said Gerardo Alexis Perez Argueta, 17.
He and his twin brother Celin Adolfo said they plan to leave and head to the northern United States in about two weeks. They showed off the new sneakers they planned to wear as they hiked nearly 1,500 miles. Each pair costs $ 35, a huge amount of money for a family that only survives on a few dollars a day.
“What can you do,” their mother Griselda Argueta Argueta asks in tears. “It hurts your kids to leave. You don’t know if they will return or not, but there is no other option for them here.
The brothers don’t want to leave Honduras, but with nothing more than a sixth-grade education and a shattered economy, the decision, they say, was essentially made for them.
“If they had more opportunities, people wouldn’t have to leave this country,” said Arrietta, the local priest.
Tackle the root causes
Storms and the pandemic have combined to exacerbate long-term trends in the region, forcing people to migrate: corruption, food insecurity and lack of economic opportunities. Although homicide rates across Central America have generally declined in 2020, it remains one of the deadliest regions in the world and violence remains a driver of migration, Human Rights Watch said.
None of these problems are new, but they are likely to worsen without significant relief. And this is where the Biden administration wants to make its mark.
Vice President Kamala Harris has taken the lead in leading the American push to fundamentally help address some of these concerns. The Biden administration has earmarked some $ 310 million in short-term humanitarian aid as part of a longer-term plan to invest some $ 4 billion in the region.
But this isn’t the first US administration to try to stem migration by throwing money at the problem, often channeling funds through agencies like USAID. Solving the systemic problems that cause people to flee cannot be solved simply by budget allocations alone.
“[Harris] has a very, very difficult job ahead of her, ”said Cynthia Arnson, Latin America program director at the Wilson Center. “It’s not impossible, there is a lot to do, but achieving the generational change that the administration hopes to bring about will be extremely difficult to achieve.”
Let’s start with the fact that Central American governments are largely corrupt. Transparency International ranks countries’ levels of corruption on a scale of 0 to 100. El Salvador was the top performer of the bunch with a score of 36, good enough for 104th place in the world. The others did less well.
In other words, the United States cannot count on good government partners in the region to ensure that the aid money does what it is supposed to do. The risk of government officials simply lining their pockets is high.
The Biden administration knows this and has indicated that it is keen to work with the private sector and non-governmental groups on the ground to ensure that aid gets to where it needs it and improves the lives of ordinary citizens everywhere. the region.
Even if it works, it will take time. Meanwhile, the increase in the number of migrants at the US border is now a political issue for the White House.
“The kind of deeper structural changes that will create opportunity and reduce violence are really long term,” Arnson said. “The question is therefore whether [the administration] can move fast enough to give people hope for what their fate will be like if they stay.
Leonardo Pineda contributed reporting.