A horse grazes in the Travesía town cemetery, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Some of the tombs shine in the sun with new tiles, while others are marked by little more than rusted crosses. On one such grave — a stark box of bare concrete — lies a white wreath, which is turning brown in the sun. This is Catrín Bernárdez’s grave, the final resting place of his American dream.
Bernárdez, 43, was Garifuna. This Afro-Caribbean ethnic community, of mixed Amerindian and African descent, is scattered across Central America, but is centered in Honduras, where an estimated 200,000 Garifuna live. With a massive wave of migration to the US currently underway, the Garifuna people are being severely depleted in their ancestral homelands.
Over the past year, US government agencies have been overwhelmed by the recent influx of migrants from Central America, many of whom travel on top of a train known as “La Bestia” [The Beast]. Migrants jump the dangerous freight train, often embarking on a grueling 1,500-mile journey from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the US. The trip is marked by extortion, violence, and sexual assault. Human traffickers who control the route charge an impuesto de guerra [a war tax] to ride the train. Migrants who fail to pay are shot or thrown from La Bestia’s roof.
In May, Bernárdez left Travesía to hitch a ride on the train. Unable to find steady work in Honduras, he was seeking to return to the US, where he had lived and worked for seven years before being deported in 2005.
According to his friends and relatives, Bernárdez got off The Beast at a routine stop two weeks into his journey to hide from either the Zetas cartel or the Mexican immigration authorities — it is not clear which. While attempting to climb back onto the train as it departed again, Bernárdez slipped under its wheels, severing a leg.
He died from shock and loss of blood. On June 26, after a month-long wait, his body was repatriated to Travesía.
“He wanted to break out, to be his own man,” his widow, Maída, told VICE News. “He knew what it was like there. He worked in Boston for seven years. Every single week, he sent money to us. So, when he was deported, all he wanted was to get that back for us. One of our kids is dead. The other has special needs. What else could he do?”
An Exodus of Garifuna
The Garifuna have held ancestral lands in Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize for generations, a legacy of their assistance to the Central American independence struggles of the early 19th century. For them, the route to the US — to New York City and Boston in particular — has been a well-trodden path since the 1970s. But the causes of this migration movement have been virtually ignored by the Honduran government, and the flow has accelerated. This exodus is draining the Garifuna communities of Central America.
As many as 60 Honduran Garifuna ride La Bestia every day, according to the advocacy group Association of Afro-Descendants of Sula Valley (ASAFROVA). Many of them are minors, fleeing a country where, according to the World Bank, half of the population of 8 million lives in extreme poverty. San Pedro Sula, the country’s main economic center, has been named the “murder capital” of the world, for the second year in a row.
“Our despair reached a critical level in Honduras this year,” ASAFROVA President Humberto Castillo, told VICE News. “The violence is like a Hollywood movie here. You no longer know who is at your door.”
“It’s better to die trying to get out, than to die by hunger or get killed by the Maras,” he added, referring to the powerful Mara Salvatrucha street gang.
For Castillo, the spike in migration may wipe out the profile of the Garifuna in Honduras. He estimates that roughly half of the Garifuna population between the ages of 12 and 30 have left the country since mid-2013. The figure could not be independently confirmed, but a visit to Garifuna regions certainly demonstrated a thinning-out of the local population.
“The last three months have been the worst. The big event for our community is the Saturday of Holy Week [April 13-19]. We had to cancel it. There weren’t enough young people to perform in it,” Castillo said. “It’s getting to the point where the Garifuna in New York wear traditional clothes, eat traditional food, and speak our language more than we do here.”
Dayona Mejia, the head teacher at Travesía primary school, confirmed this picture.
“We’ve lost 10 of our 300 kids since the beginning of the term. Two 14-year-olds left for the train six weeks ago, to rejoin their mother in the US,” Mejia told VICE News. “Nobody has heard from them since.”
Ten Garifuna children have abandoned the primary school in Travesía since the start of the term, says teacher Dayona Mejia.
Diminishing Government Resources for Afro-Hondurans
Garifuna in Honduras confront a “subtle but universal” racism at all levels of society, which may also contribute to the migration, Castillo said. “A black man doesn’t get called ‘sir’ around here. He’s ‘buddy’ or ‘primo‘ [cousin]. They look at your address, your surname, your photograph.”
According to Castillo, the new government of Honduras, under President Juan Orlando Hernández, is giving these attitudes material form.
“Over the last six months, the government has shut every single department related to Afro-Descendant and indigenous rights,” Castillo said. “Either they no longer exist or they have been folded into some minor ministry that will not give priority to our concerns. We’re forced to take these to the streets, where the police repress us and the media ignore us.”
In February, the employees at the Secretariat for Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Hondurans were locked out of the building where they worked, under the pretext of late rent on the property. The workers claimed that this issue should have been taken up by the government’s finance ministry. After the employees defied the order and continued to work directly outside the building, Hernández’s administration canceled the secretariat’s mandate and folded it in to the Ministry for Social and Community Development.
For Castillo, this political marginalization runs in tandem with a government land-grab movement, which began in 1992 with the passage of the Honduran Agricultural Modernization Law.
“Garifuna land rights are being eroded year on year, as unscrupulous authorities exploit loopholes in the country’s land laws,” he said. “The lands are communally held. But the municipalities can bypass this and allow sales to individuals because reforms in the early 1990s made these into two separate forms of land title. This is a great wrong to our constitutional rights as Garifuna.”
Castillo pointed to Article 107 of the Honduran Constitution, which states that only those “of Honduran birth” can purchase lands in traditional Garifuna areas. Loopholes are being vigorously exploited to get around the clause. The most extreme effects of the land-grab are happening just an hour-and-a-half west of Travesía, in the community of Tornabé, where rezoning for tourism has reduced Garifuna ancestral lands from 3,000 hectares to less than 800, he said. A massive national park has eaten into the eastern limits of Tornabé, while a Canadian-owned hotel complex lies to the west.
ASAFROVA’s president stated that, under government rules, residents of Tornabé are entitled to 30 percent of the jobs in the new developments. The qualifications for these jobs are prohibitive for a community with relatively low school-attendance rates, however. Among Afro-Descendant Hondurans, according to a wide-reaching 2008 study on the state of the community, only 17 percent of Garifuna complete high school and only about 3 percent go as far as university.
Watter Suaso, a migrant who returned to Tornabé, also risked his life on La Bestia.
Watter Suaso, 32, is a Garifuna migrant who has recently returned home. He works with Tornabé’s remaining young people at a community center, teaching workshops on sexual health, job counseling, and encouraging dropouts to finish high school. With a pristine baseball cap, shorts, and braids, Suaso seems a lot younger than his age. When VICE News met him to talk about the migration of the Garifuna, he cut off the interview several times to deal with queries from teenagers scurrying about the center.
Suaso’s manner makes it easy to imagine why his workshops have proven so successful. To look at him leaning back in his chair, with his wrists draped over the frame, you would think he’s telling friends about his weekend. Yet what he tells us makes his calmness all the more surprising.
Suaso returned from La Bestia on June 26, the same night as Bernárdez’s funeral. “I saw him after he died,” Suaso said. “But I had to fall off myself, before I even thought about turning back.”
“When you change trains, they slow down towards the new engines. But the new engines move quickly when they pull out. So you run, you jump up, you grab the little ladder, and you pull yourself up, like in a movie,” he told VICE News.
“I didn’t make it. I fell, rolled head over heels through the dirt,” Suaso went on. “My friends pulled out the peg connecting their wagon to the train. When the people driving noticed they were missing one wagon they came to get me. We had to convince them to let me go back on, even though I was lying there covered in blood.”
Now wounded, Suaso had to find a way back to Honduras. A friend loaned him some money, but his change of direction did not guarantee an end to the danger.
“Returning is even worse. The ones who extort you there are even scarier, because southbound trains transport imports from the US that carry more value. The Rojos and Metros [warring factions of the Gulf Cartel] try to rob these trains, and that’s why they go so fast,” Suaso said, with visible cuts on his arms and legs that have yet to heal. “Fall off one of them, and you’re finished for sure.”
As he accompanied us through the town, Suaso described the scene that Garifuna youth are fleeing: long empty days of joblessness under the baking sun, crack and marijuana readily available, and local versions of the US Bloods and Crips gangs making their presence felt.
There are no children in school uniforms, no teenagers. The occasional kindergarten-age child totters through the dust with one hand out for a dollar.
A view of the beach in Travesía, Honduras.
But as Suaso leaned back against a boat on Tornabé beach, he was sanguine about recent events and his future working with Garifuna young people.
“I’m doing this so they don’t have to leave as well,” he said. “La Bestia made my heart grow hard. I was 16 hours away from the US when I turned back. I saw too many people get shot or thrown off. I heard the same thing happened to too many others. I saw too many kids die of the cold,” Suaso recalled. “But all of that just showed me why I want to work with the young people here.”
“This is important work. Every kid wants to get out if they haven’t already. Everyone has a friend or family member telling them how great an idea it is to get out. But I know better.”
Suaso shrugged and took off his cap to run one hand through his braids. “I’m back. And I’m intact. So I’m still lucky.”