23 days after her daughter and granddaughter left their home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Sandra López received a call telling her that they had been kidnapped and that she would have to pay if she wanted to see them alive again.
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His daughter Rosa was making the dangerous journey overland to the United States in search of work when she was kidnapped in Mexico. At that moment, on the morning of November 23, 2021, she and her six-year-old daughter joined the thousands of missing people on migration routes north.
“When they called me, I was terrified,” recalls Rosa’s mother. “She couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t do anything. She was heartbroken,” she says.
Rosa had been unemployed for more than a year, she had lost her job in a textile factory during the COVID-19 pandemic and her plan was to join the father of her daughter in the United States and work to support her disabled mother.
When López discovered that they had been kidnapped, she felt helpless. The kidnappers harassed her several times a day on WhatsApp asking her for $10,000 in ransom. “I told them that she was a single mother, that she lived in a house that was not mine, that I have a disability, that I am in a wheelchair. Where was she going to get the money from?” she relates.
“They told me: ‘If you can’t pay, do something. Sell your organs to pay for your family. If not, they will no longer exist in this world,’” she says.
The number of people leaving Honduras is growing, as the country grapples with the economic fallout from the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the cost-of-living crisis, as well as the more endemic problems of the gang violencepoverty and climate change.
The route to the United States is fraught with danger and migrants are “extremely vulnerable.” Some die from exposure to the elements of the desert that straddles the US-Mexico border; Others die in accidents on the road, or from horrendous deaths on the road. “the beast” (the train that crosses Mexico); some are detained by the authorities; and others, like Rosa and her daughter, are victims of criminal gangs in Mexico that see migrants as a business opportunity.
“In Honduras there are many factors that force people to migrate,” says Rolando Sierra, director of the social sciences faculty at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. “Honduras has a high percentage of its population living in poverty, without any employment opportunities. And if the levels of violence, corruption and impunity are not reduced, neither will migration”, he explains.
It is impossible to know how many people are leaving Honduras. Sierra estimates that each year between 130,000 and 150,000 people try to reach the United States. Government numbers show that between the beginning of 2022 and June, the United States returned 34,278 Hondurans, more than half of the total of those who were expelled in all of last year.
The Missing Migrants Project, from the International Organization for Migration, documented that between January 2014 and March 2022, at least 6,141 people died or disappeared on migration routes in the Americas. Between 2007 and 2021, the Jesuit Migrant Service handled 1,280 cases of missing migrants in Mexicoof which 71% were from Central America.
In Honduras alone there are 3,500 people reported as missing, according to the five committees established in the country to track down the disappeared.
In search of the truth
López, like many relatives of the disappeared, did not know where to look for help and had to face the situation alone. “In Honduras there are no policies to deal with irregular migration. There are no special services to investigate what happened to the people who disappeared, or to support their families,” says Sierra.
There is no central database of missing people, which “makes the phenomenon invisible,” says Jérémy Renaux, coordinator of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s missing persons program. Families face obstacles in reporting cases and therefore do not receive help.
There is also a lack of coordination between countries, he adds. In Mexico, where many people disappear, there is a forensic crisiswith more than 52,000 unidentified bodies in mass graves, in forensic services buildings, in universities and in forensic center deposits.
To try to find a solution to this problem, Eva Ramírez founded the Committee of relatives of missing migrants Love and Faith, a group of people with relatives of the disappeared. Over 23 years, he has built a network of activists, journalists, and civil society organizations in Central America that helps search for disappeared persons. Committees like hers also act on behalf of families and have psychologists to provide help with mental health.
Her work is unpaid and difficult, but she says that “[las personas migrantes desaparecidas] they have every right to be searched because they are human beings. We need to know what happened to them, where they are and why they disappeared. We have to know the truth and that there is justice.”
“People don’t leave the country because they want to. He leaves because he has to leave. We live in a country that expels people through extreme poverty, lack of opportunities and violence, among many other factors, ”he adds.
Ramírez was involved in negotiations with kidnappers on behalf of relatives of victims in Honduras. When López contacted her, her experience was very important. She advised López and her son-in-law, who is in the United States, to ask the kidnappers for proof of life. Later, when they managed to raise the ransom money by borrowing from friends and neighbors, Ramírez told them to ask the kidnappers to turn Rosa and her daughter over to immigration agents at the US-Mexico border.
López and his son-in-law sent the money by bank transfer and waited anxiously. “I called them and asked them to release my daughter and my granddaughter,” López says. “I begged them to hand them over to immigration. I cried. I knew they weren’t right. They were not given food and were forced to sleep on the ground in very low temperatures,” he recounts.
Three days later, on December 8, they told him they were free. On December 15, they were deported back to Honduras.
Rose is fine now. Her mother cries when she remembers everything they lived through. She has not been able to repay the money to the people she borrowed from. “I want to try going to the United States again,” says Rosa. “I know it’s dangerous, but I’ve been looking for work [en Honduras] and I can’t,” he laments.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
Translation of Patricio Orellana