We speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sonia Nazario, who has closely detailed why migrants from Central America are fleeing their homes in an attempt to seek asylum in the United States. Earlier this year, Nazario spent a month in Honduras documenting how corruption and gang violence are forcing many people to flee. Her piece, “Pay or Die,” ran in The New York Times, where she is a contributing opinion writer.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Sonia, I wanted to get to your amazing piece that appeared in The New York Times recently, “Pay or Die.” And here in the United States, we hear a lot about gang violence fueling some of the migration or much of the migration coming from Central America, but people don’t really understand what that means. And you’ve done a remarkable effort here —
SONIA NAZARIO: Thank you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — to actually go into what actually is happening. You mention that since 2010, 1,500 Hondurans who work in transportation have been murdered, shot, strangled, cuffed to their steering wheels or burned alive by these gangs, because they did not pay the bribes that they were supposed to pay to be able to keep operating and transporting people. Could you talk about this whole issue of how transportation, especially, in Honduras has become this gold mine for the street gangs?
SONIA NAZARIO: That’s right. I was focusing, Juan, on the role of corruption in these countries, like Honduras, and that that’s really the swamp that we have to clean up if we want to help clean up in an attempt to slow this influx of people who are coming to our southern border. The corruption is what allows all the other bad things to happen, including gangs imposing this reign of terror in these neighborhoods and charging this war tax, this extortion tax, from anything with wheels — buses, taxis, motorcycle taxis — and from businesses. In the neighborhood where I spent time, one in four businesses was paying a war tax to the gang. And one in four businesses had shut down completely because they could no longer pay the war tax. So this is paralyzing the economy.
So I wanted to show what this was like for these bus owners, who are basically told by the gangs, “You have to pay up on Monday morning.” Every Monday morning, thousands of bus owners are going out and delivering these chunks, these bricks of cash to these gangs, or they are murdered if they say no. And along a bus route, if any driver refuses to pay, they’ll just kill a driver randomly. And so, this is what I saw, that in just the capital of Honduras, these gangs are receiving, are being paid an estimated $23 million a year in these war taxes.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to hear your description. I mean, this month you spent in Honduras, not only are you covering people risking their own lives or people who were murdered, but you, yourself, risked your life. We’re talking to Sonia Nazario, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of Enrique’s Journey. She just did a piece in The New York Times about her trip to Honduras, called “Pay or Die.” Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Absence of You” by Villalobos Brothers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Why do people come to this country? We’re talking to Sonia Nazario, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. She just wrote a New York Times op-ed piece, the cover story for The New York Times, “Pay or Die: MS-13 and 18th Street gangsters want to run Honduras. Cutting off American aid isn’t going to stop them.”
Sonia, you describe hunching down behind a bus driver as he’s about to make one of these payments. Just take us on that journey. What happened? Why were you hiding?
SONIA NAZARIO: I wanted to see what it was like to make one of these payments by these bus owners, and so I went along — one of them offered for me to go along as he made the cash drop. So we hopped into his small black car, and he drove to a place where he picked up a brick of cash, basically, $650. And he was paying for his three buses, in a total of 55 buses, just for that week, to one gang, the 18th Street gang, one of the two largest gangs in Honduras, in Central America.
And we hop in his car. We get the brick of cash from the bus dispatcher, and then we start driving up this hill into this neighborhood called Las Pavas, which is an 18th Street stronghold. And as we’re going up this hill, there are these gang lookouts, heavily armed with AK-47s, watching. And as we reach the top, these two gangsters appear out of nowhere. And I’m crouching in the backseat wheel well trying to tape this on my iPhone, with my hand up to the window with my iPhone. But the driver rolls down the window two inches, shoves this brick of cash through the window, and these two gangsters disappear. And this cash will go through many hands until it reaches the gang leader. But this type of transaction is happening with thousands of bus owners every Monday morning. Monday morning is the day to pay the gangs. And many of these bus drivers pay one, three, even six gangs to not be killed.
And this is what’s driving a lot of the despair in a place like Honduras, that because the police are paid off by the gangs, because the politicians are paid off by the gangs, because 30 to 40% of all the revenues of the government are estimated to be siphoned off in corruption by all of these players, that the whole system is rotten and that there’s no hope that things will change in a place like Honduras.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Sonia, you mentioned the corruption at the highest levels of the government that allow this to continue. And you document in your story some of the outright theft that occurred by some of the current president’s families, that nonprofit groups in Honduras have revealed. But around the same time came this new filing in the court case of the president of Honduras’s brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, who is under indictment right now and in jail for drug trafficking. And one of the amazing —
AMY GOODMAN: In Florida.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the amazing things about this new filing by the FBI is that they specifically name as two co-conspirators not only the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, but the previous president, Porfirio Lobo. And they are actually named as having been participants in discussions with drug dealers, inreceiving campaign contributions and promising to protect, to protect the drug operations. So, if this indictment is accurate, Honduras has become a narco state, in effect, at the top, while at the bottom of society, all of these gangs are terrorizing the people with government consent. I’m wondering your reaction to this latest filing by the federal government?
SONIA NAZARIO: A narco state supported by the United States. So, there’s two ways to steal money in Honduras. You either take money from the narco cartels, or you steal from the public coffers. And the system for doing that in recent years has been to set up these real or fake nonprofits where you send government business, but in reality you’re not doing anything for that, or you’re doing less than you should be doing, in terms of providing services for the poor in Honduras. And it’s alleged that members of the president’s — and the president — are involved in both of these.
So you have the president’s brother being arrested last year in November for moving, according to the allegations in the U.S., tons of cocaine over more than a decade to the United States and labeling it, brazenly, “TH,” Tony Hernández, with — the bricks of cocaine with his initials. And you have allegations that the president’s sister, Hilda Hernández — she died in a helicopter accident in 2017, but that she had siphoned off $12 million from the Ministry of Agriculture into two nonprofits that basically did no work. They were supposed to train people to produce more crops in the countryside, but instead that she used that money for the president’s campaign in 2013 to become president, Juan Orlando, and she used it for personal reasons.
And now this bombshell allegation that the president basically took money from the narcos for his [ 2013 ] presidential campaign. So, the president was in Washington, D.C., yesterday, and there were a lot of tongues wagging in Honduras, wondering what he was doing there.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you have the very questionable election that just took place, with massive protests throughout Honduras that went on for week after week, when he supposedly won against Nasralla. And this goes back to 2009 with the U.S.-backed coup against the democratically elected President Zelaya. Democracy Now! followed him back into Honduras when he finally returned. I want to turn to the ousted President Zelaya, coordinator of the Honduran opposition party, Libre. We spoke to him last month.
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] They’re going to look for some solution to the system that is provoking the migrants, because everyone talks about migration, but the causes of migration are the U.S. policies, the IMF policies, the policies of the Southern Command for this region, are provoking more and more migrants with each passing day. So, militarizing Central America, militarizing Honduras means that that escape valve that the Honduran people have had, which is to be able to get work in the United States — and the Honduran people haven’t even looked for jobs in the United States. It is the U.S. businesses. U.S. businesses, for example, have large crops and cannot pay a U.S. person to work in the countryside. They give the travel expenses to the family members of those who are their employees, and that is why there’s massive migration to work in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s ousted Honduran President Zelaya, just recently speaking to us. Sonia Nazario, if you could comment on that? And in your piece, what happens when people refuse to pay? You talk about the murders. And also, if you can talk about the issue of really what you describe as femicide, when you go to the third-largest city in Honduras, that has the highest number of femicides, the murders of women?
SONIA NAZARIO: Well, when people refuse to pay — I’ve centered my reporting on corruption in a neighborhood called Nueva Suyapa in the capital of Honduras, which I’ve been going to for 20 years. And there was a woman at the top of the hill in a neighborhood dominated by 18th Street. They demand payments from all these mom-and-pop stores every week. You have to fork over half of your earnings every day to the gang. And she had said, “I’m not going to pay anymore. Go earn some money on your own.” And they had sent a sicario, a killer, from another part of town, so she wouldn’t recognize this man. And he came up to her storefront and ordered some orange juice, and as she came back with his change, he shot her in the face. And she stumbled back towards the back bedroom, towards her 4-year-old daughter, who was sleeping in the bedroom. She died short of reaching her daughter. That’s what happens. And people know that this is what happens to people who refuse to pay the gangs.
And so, I also reported in a previous story this year in The New York Times about why so many women are fleeing. And increasingly, the narco cartels and the gangs are recruiting women. Some join because there are no other jobs in these neighborhoods. In the neighborhood I was in, 18-to-25-year-olds, half of them are unemployed. And so, some join willingly to sell drugs. Some are forced to sell drugs. And when they try to leave that life or leave being the girlfriend of a gang leader, they are murdered. And what I saw in Honduras was that four of 10 women, when they are killed, they are killed with a brutality that far exceeds what is needed to kill them. It’s a message. They are shot in the vagina. They are cut to bits. They are skinned alive. I was having horrible nightmares. I’m in therapy now, after returning from Honduras. The stories that I heard of what happened to these women. One woman described it as if like you’re a chicken. They strip you of all of your parts. And the government and the police don’t take the claims of domestic violence seriously. They say, “Well, just go resolve it between the sheets. Maybe you didn’t give him last night what he needed. Maybe you fed him something he didn’t like last night for dinner.” And so, most of these crimes get no conviction. Nine out of 10 of these murders of women get no conviction. And so, the gangs, the narco cartels know that they can get away with this.
To address your previous point, you know, the U.S. has a sordid history in Latin America. And we can go back a hundred years with United Fruit and dominance of these countries by U.S. companies and replacing presidents that weren’t going to be good for U.S. businesses, and more recently, in 2009, with a coup, where many countries in Latin America and international organizations said, “Let’s have — let’s not allow this to happen.” In 2017, when the current president was re-elected in very, very dubious circumstances, other countries called for a re-election, and the United States said, basically, “We’re good with this.” And so, I think the U.S. needs to take a hard look at its support of Juan Orlando Hernández, given the fact that the rot is starting at the top, and given the fact that people will keep surging out of Honduras until this corruption is addressed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sonia, one other point about these gangs that many here in the United States don’t really grasp, when especially the president is constantly talking about MS-13, is that these gangs started in the United States. They started in the streets of Los Angeles and Sacramento and in the prisons of California, from young people who actually were living a large part of their lives here in the U.S., and they were convicted of crimes and then were deported back to Central America and reformed their gangs. Could you talk about this connection between the origins of these gangs and what’s going on there now, the violence? It’s now the most violent place in the world, Central America.
SONIA NAZARIO: Absolutely. I live in Los Angeles, Juan. And, you know, first you had the 18th Street gang, Mexicans. During the wars in Central America in the 1980s, many Central Americans came to the U.S. They got picked on by the Mexicans, so they started their own gang to defend themselves, the MS-13 gang.
In 1996, when the U.S. toughened laws towards permanent residents who had committed certain offenses — DUIs, drug offenses — we started deporting permanent legal residents. And we have deported more than 300,000 criminals to Central America. In many of these neighborhoods in Honduras, they say, well, before this, you know, there were gangs, but they were basically controlling turf and arguing over girls, but they were not highly violent. They were not armed in the way that they are now. But once these deportations occurred and you took these gang members and put them into countries where they knew no one and they had to survive, the level of violence ramped up massively.
And so, this, together with the U.S. use of drugs — we are the biggest consumer of illegal drugs on Earth, and many of these drugs, that originate in Colombia, were coming through Honduras. The drug flights were landing in Honduras. And the narcos and the gangs were trying to control this turf to move these drugs north to us, the consumers in the United States. This really fueled a lot of this violence.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sonia Nazario, we want to thank you very much for being with us, and just end by asking — you have covered this. You have been in Honduras many times. What most shocked you this time, and especially as we look at President Trump’s rhetoric about migrants coming into this country, about what he calls the “invaders”?
SONIA NAZARIO: Well, I think, Amy, the level of rot, that starts at the top and goes to the bottom. It affects people having medicines that basically don’t work, because people get kickbacks to buy bad medicines. It affects the lack of teachers in schools. One in four teachers don’t exist — they’re ghost teachers — because of corruption. It affects people’s daily lives.
And I think what I’d want to say is that we need to have more compassion towards these people who are running from these very violent circumstances. And I believe that we should not cut off U.S. aid to Central America. I know that this is a controversial point of view, but I think some of this aid, I have seen, especially humanitarian aid — not military, not police aid — humanitarian aid has been used by the U.S. to lower violence, to lower impunity, to lower corruption. This is a 10-to-20-year effort, but it is more humane. It is more effective. It is better to find a way to allow people to stay in these countries and improve conditions there. And it’s way cheaper than to lock up all these people in these horrible prisons in the United States, which is costing us billions and billions of dollars.
AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Nazario, we want to thank you for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. Sonia is a New York Times contributing op-ed writer. Her recent cover story for The New York Times Sunday Review is headlined “Pay or Die: MS-13 and 18th Street gangsters want to run Honduras. Cutting off American aid isn’t going to stop them.”
When we come back, the Trump administration plans to restore the federal death penalty. We’ll speak with Sister Helen Prejean, leading anti-death-penalty activist. Stay with us.