Joining the exodus of Hondurans fleeing their benighted homeland, Luis Alberto Enrique and his family search for the unmarked footpath into Guatemala to begin their dangerous, 1,500-mile journey to the Texas border.
As they walk through the border town of Corinto on a humid morning last month, his two young daughters tote pink Disney backpacks and their favorite stuffed animals. Enrique says he heard the United States is no longer turning migrants back.
"I heard on the news there is chaos on the U.S.-Mexico border, but I understand they're not deporting families," Enrique said. "We're putting ourselves in the hands of U.S. law. Here, life is very hard."
Hondurans represent the largest nationality crossing the southern U.S. border asking for asylum — more than 200 families a day, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Many are still expelled under the pandemic public health order, but increasingly, families are being allowed in to begin the asylum process.
"I'm a farmer — corn, coffee, beans. But I can't make enough to feed my family," Enrique said. "We have droughts and then we have floods. And there's the lawlessness. Maras [gangs] extort the smallest businesses. We're headed to Houston, asking God to guide us and protect us."
The surge of migrants has created a crisis for the Biden administration and prompted a scramble for solutions to cure deep social ills in Central America. President Biden has named Vice President Harris as the point person to address the waves of Central Americans showing up at the U.S. border.
Last week, Harris told the Washington Conference on the Americas that the administration intends to focus on addressing catastrophes in the region — hurricane damage, the coronavirus pandemic, drought and food insecurity — as well as the "root causes" of migration, such as corruption, violence, poverty, joblessness and the lack of climate adaptation. The White House plans to spend $4 billion over four years in the region.
"That's why they leave home and come to the United States," Harris said. "They are suffering. They are in pain. Many are experiencing unimaginable anguish."
The lives of many Hondurans had already been stretched to the breaking point. For many, it was hurricanes Eta and Iota that finally made life unlivable. The back-to-back major storms struck the same regions of Central America last November.
As further evidence of climate change, these were the largest, strongest late-season storms in recorded history. And it was the first time anyone in the region could remember all five rivers overflowing and turning the Sula Valley, on Honduras' Atlantic lowlands, into one vast lake.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recently reported 247,000 internally displaced persons in Honduras, with up to 2.5 million people in need of emergency food assistance.
Blanca Marisa Balegas, a 41-year-old mother and tortilla-maker, still can't return to her colonia of Santa Isabel, on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. Five months after the hurricanes, locals don't call the disaster by the storm name — like they do in the Gulf South — they call it by what it was: la llena, the fill.
"Everything is buried in mud. We lost everything," Balegas said, mashing a ball of masa into tortillas. "We thought it was a flood like something out the Bible. It was terrible. Dead chickens, dogs, pigs floating in the water."
She motions to the nearly deserted streets of the neighborhood where she and her three children are living with her mother-in-law.
"After la llena, they went away to the U.S. to earn more money. They say it's easy to cross now," Balegas said. "All that's left here is misery."
She said she's thinking about taking her children to Mexico or the U.S., perhaps to join her sister in Alabama. She earns only $7 to $8 a day from tortilla sales, and there's not near enough to pay a coyote, or human smuggler.
Nearby, a bulldozer scoops up dried, rank mud from streets and yards. Residents say it is the only thing their government has done to help them, and that all the food aid that's keeping them alive is coming from international donors.
"Our president is a scoundrel. Where is our help!?" asks Maria Jimenez, a 50-year-old shop owner in Ciudad Planeta whose home and livelihood were ruined by the storm.
The government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been accused of theft of public funds. U.S. federal prosecutors also have implicated Hernandez as a "co-conspirator" in the crimes of his brother, Tony, who was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year for cocaine trafficking. The president denies any wrongdoing or that Honduras has descended into a "narco-state."
"Our institutions are at the service of corruption, impunity and the violation of human rights," says Father Ismael Moreno Coto, a Jesuit priest and longtime government critic. "Every day, hundreds of people are leaving, and this is one of the reasons."
Kurt Alan Ver Beek, whose nonprofit, Association for a More Just Society, has been working in Honduras for 20 years, says: "It does feel like how much more can people take?"
"Maybe it was the two hurricanes. I know people who lost their jobs because the restaurant where they worked was underwater. I know people who lost jobs because the owner of the restaurant died of Covid," he continued. "Your kids aren't in school, you don't have money to pay internet to have your kids in school. The gangs are threatening your kids. All of those things combined."
Central Americans asking for protection at the U.S. border often say they're fleeing ruthless criminal gangs back home. In many places, every type of business — from the ubiquitous corner shops called pulperias, to Super Chicken takeout joints, to the three-wheel tuk tuk taxis — are expected to pay weekly extortion to gangs as "protection" from rival thugs.
One of the gangsters who collects weekly shakedowns is a slight 25-year-old with hoop earrings, a bright red T-shirt, and a child's bunny-ear backpack. She works for MS-13, one of the largest, deadliest mafias in the Americas. Her nickname is La China; she won't give her real name or have her picture taken.
"My job is to collect extortion," she said. "I've done this for four years. They have a fixed time to pay. If they delay too long, we kill the person. There are people who refuse to pay the extortion — they say, 'Oh, we haven't sold enough!' — but it's obligatory. They have to pay, or else.
In a flat, impassive voice, she describes her work in a gritty section of San Pedro Sula called Sector Satelite. She sits in the backseat of a vehicle during the interview, constantly looking out the window for police in the darkened streets of her neighborhood.
A Honduran National Police homicide investigator said in an interview that it would be unusual for a public-facing extorsionista to also be una sicaria, an assassin, who's usually a more shadowy figure. But in a follow-up query to her boss in MS-13, he texted back, "She is a devil. She shoots very well."
China said: "I'm accustomed to my work. Anyway, if I didn't kill, my jefe will kill me, so we have to do it."
She well understands that extortion and murder are driving migration to the United States.
"We've had lots of people who, after we gave them 24 hours to pay up, we found their houses empty. They had to leave because they say they don't have enough money to pay the extortion."
She says if fleeing Hondurans are turned away by U.S. authorities and deported, and they return to their neighborhood, they do so under a death sentence from MS-13.
But going north may be an escape for her own family. She says she plans to send her 8-year-old son with her mother to the United States later this year. "I want him to study. I don't want him to get mixed up in the mara."
When someone is ready to run for whatever reason — they can't pay the weekly cuota to the gang, they can't find work, they're tired of eating nothing but rice and beans — if they can get the money, they reach out to a person like Juan. He asked not to use his full name because his livelihood is illegal.
He's a coyote, and he's proud of his nickname — Speedy Gonzales. He takes his clients all the way from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Reynosa, Mexico, usually in under a week. He prefers the easterly coastal route through Mexico, staying off major highways and away from hotels, putting his clients up in modest private homes whose owners are compensated. Once they get to the Mexico-U.S. border, they're expected to pay a local smuggler to ferry them across the Rio Grande into Texas.
"What we're interested in is our clients arrive at the destination safe and sound. That's it," he said. "For this we charge $1,000 to $1,500 a person. Now we have a new service — the VIP trip — where we only take only three or four people and the truck is more comfortable. For this we charge $2,000."
Speedy's face is whiskered and fleshy, with the eager smile of a salesman. Like La China, he asks to be interviewed inside the car out of sight. It's daytime and beastly humid. He squeegees his brow with his thumb and flings the sweat out the open car window.
Speedy said he's been a coyote for 10 years, through three U.S. presidents, and he's seen how U.S. immigration policy affects his business.
"With Trump, we had lots of problems. Things were stricter," he said. "But with Biden, his people seem more accepting. There's more opportunity for the migrant to get work up there, and for the coyote, too, because there's more people to move."
But Speedy is the face of the enemy as far as the Biden administration is concerned. On April 27, officials launched Operation Sentinel to target criminal smuggling organizations and "help save the lives of those who are preyed upon by these unscrupulous criminals."
The Department of Homeland Security reports the numbers of Central American families and children currently crossing the border is nearing a 20-year high.
Speedy laments the reputational damage done by fellow coyotes who rape their clients, rob them, extort them, and abandon them. He also denies pressuring anyone to go north.
"We don't go out looking for clients; they look for us. What we tell them is that they'll have security. Sadly, all the compañeros who do this kind of work are not benevolent. Lots of coyotes abandon their clients. This happens all the time, way too often. They're not coyotes, they're vultures."
When a Honduran goes missing on the trek to the Texas border, Edita Maldonado may step in to help. She's the founder of a group called the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared.
The animated woman, in her 70s, sits in a plastic chair outside her house in the town of Progreso surrounded by flowers and birds. She agrees that migration has picked up, primarily because of the hurricanes.
"People were left without houses, without work. They see no other option than to leave," she said. "Next, the reason is the criminal gangs. These hoodlums have killed whole families. People realize they can't live here anymore because they're being extorted. So they leave their homes and their jobs, and they hit the road."
For two decades, Maldonado has hosted a program on Radio Progreso called Opening Borders that broadcasts the names of the newly disappeared. She says, currently, more than 600 families have reported lost loved ones on the journey. From experience, she said most disappear in Mexico — they're either kidnapped or killed, or they decide to stay there and work.
She said Hondurans are so desperate to get out that they are leaving unprepared for the trip.
"Now the majority leave with no money!" she exclaimed. "They beg; they ask for rides, they depend on handouts."
When asked if she has a message for the Biden administration, Maldonado was quick with a response: "Help the migrants who are fleeing our country. They're not criminals. They're just hungry."