Journalist to Discuss Transformation in Honduras

Sonia Nazario aboard the "Train of Death" in Mexico. (Courtesy photo)
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September 15, 2016 - 8:06pm

Honduras was once the murder capital of the world. A Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has been documenting a remarkable turnaround in the Central American nation will be speaking in Nebraska soon. Robyn Murray talked with Sonia Nazario, who will give the Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities at the Lied Performing Arts Center on September 27.

Robyn Murray, NET Radio: Sonia, thanks so much for joining us today. It's nice to have you.

Sonia Nazario, Journalist: I'm delighted to be here.

RM: In your reporting from Honduras, you witnessed a remarkable turnaround in the country in a span of just a few years, can you describe what you saw change?

Sonia Nazario is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Enrique's Journey, a national bestseller that is now required reading in high schools and colleges. (Courtesy photo)

SN: Well, I should stress that Honduras is still one of the most violent places in the world and 570 children were killed in one year in a country with fewer people than New York City. So it's still not good or anywhere near good. But what I saw was that last December, the U.S. Congress more than doubled foreign aid to Central America with the thought that this was the only way, addressing the root causes of what's driving migrants out of these very violent Central American countries, that was the only way that you were going to slow the flow of migrants, especially migrant children coming to the United States.

So I went in June to see in Honduras what had that money brought. And what I found was that there were these — instead of the traditional approach of funding law enforcement and suppression efforts and lock 'em all up, the iron fist approach to violence, they were doing violence prevention programs in these very targeted neighborhoods. And some of the programs they had instituted two years before had brought about in one neighborhood I was in, the most violent neighborhood and the murder capital of the world previously, a 62 percent reduction in homicides and a big cut in the number of children that were fleeing that neighborhood as the violence had dropped.

RM: And you write in your New York Times piece that people have kind of lost their faith in American power, and America has struggled to broker peace in other parts of the world where it's intervened. So why do you think the efforts to turn Honduras around really worked?

SN: Well, I think that there is that concern that we have tried to nation build in Iraq, Afghanistan and that we're not particularly good at this, so why would we try to spend money in places like Central America to reduce violence, will that really work, do we know how to do this? And what I saw was that in these very targeted neighborhoods, we went in and we really tried to concentrate on the hot spots, where does the shooting actually happen? And we tried to figure out in those neighborhoods, who are the community leaders?

In this one neighborhood I was in, they gathered 17 leaders, the head of the high school, the church leaders and they organized for them they started creating for them outreach centers where they could help children to you know, play soccer and help with homework after school and help with vocational training and get jobs, and so they started to try help a lot of these kids have an alternative to the gangs that they were being forcibly recruited into.

And so what you saw in these places  I mean the neighborhood I was in, you could not go out after 6 p.m., it's controlled by six gangs, it was a ghost town, even at high noon, people did not let their children out into the streets, the streets were littered with bodies. The 18th Street Gang had set up a check point, and if you drove up to that check point, they asked you where you're going, where you're from, and if you didn't answer the right way, they would just shoot you on the spot. There were gangsters that would play soccer with the heads of people they had decapitated. And so in two years, what these violence prevention programs had brought is that children could be outside riding their bicycles. I saw children having a movie night out in the middle of the street, at 9, 10 p.m., people pushing babies in strollers at 9 p.m. So quite a marked shift.


On the U.S.'s role in fueling the violence in Honduras:

"In 1996, we toughened laws towards permanent residents who had committed certain offenses, DUIs, drug offenses, and we started deporting these folks. And we have deported tens of thousands of them to Honduras. And many of these gangsters who were really raised in the United States but then deported as adults started the truly violent gangs in Honduras.

"Secondly it's the fact that the U.S. uses more illegal drugs than any nation on earth, and we squeeze Colombia, so the narco-traffickers move to Mexico. We squeeze Mexico, and so they move to Honduras. Just a few years ago, four out of every five drug flights were landing in Honduras after a 2009 coup in that country. The government was weakened, and so the narco-traffickers took advantage of that. So these narcos were aligning themselves with the gangs in Honduras, and they were forcibly recruiting young children. And they still do, 9, 10-year-old children, and saying you are going to work with our gang, our cartel or we will kill you, we will kill your whole family.

"That's what's really creating this surge in children that are migrating north from Central America, that are arriving at our borders in record numbers. We are at a low in terms of illegal immigration to the United States, a 40-year low, but what has increased has been these Central American children and women that are fleeing this gang violence. And a lot of it is engendered because of our drug use."


 

The other thing that we really did was we funded groups that investigate homicides. In Honduras, 96 percent of all homicides never go to court or get a conviction. So you can shoot someone in broad daylight and totally get away with it. Most people know who killed their loved one, but they're so terrified that if they say anything, they'll be dead tomorrow, the gangs will kill them. So by funding these groups that are investigating homicides, we are lowering impunity rates and people are realizing I can't get away with murder.

RM: And people in the U.S., as you noted as well, are wary of investing millions of dollars into other countries, particularly you know when we struggle with poverty and crime at home. And as you've also noted, Congress has tried to cut funding to the program because of corruption problems. So how can people be persuaded to continue to make this investment, and not only that but to scale it up?

SN: I certainly understand the concerns. I mean I pay a lot of taxes, and I see that our schools in this country have problems and we have many things that we need to invest in in the United States. But we have been spending about $100 million a year at this in Honduras. That is a smart investment if it's going to lower violence, it's going to create a more humane environment for these children. And in the neighborhood I was in, the number of children fleeing had been cut by half in just a few years, in a couple of years. So those children are no longer arriving in the same numbers from Honduras at our border.

If you just look at the amount we spend to apprehend these children once they are detained, it's about a billion dollars. So if you add up the cost of border patrol, the cost of processing these children through our immigration courts, you're talking about billions of dollars a year. So in my mind $100 million to help reduce the violence in these hot spots in Honduras is a truly smart investment for U.S. taxpayers. That's the way I see it as a taxpayer.

RM: Sonia, thank you for your reporting and thank you so much for your time today.

SN: Thank you, Robyn.

 

Discussion

 

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