SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - A road that snakes through the neighborhood where Melvin Gomez Jr. grew up serves as an invisible border between the territories of the notorious MS-13 and Mara 18 gangs.
Until recently, the city of San Pedro Sula was the world’s most violent. Yet when he left it all behind to join the first migrant caravan marching north from Honduras, it wasn’t the constant threat of violence that pushed him to migrate, but the lack of economic opportunity.
“I told him not to go,” said Melvin Gomez Sr. whose son was the first to die in the migrant caravan when he fell off the back of a pick-up truck last month in southern Mexico.
But Gomez Jr. – who died a week shy of turning 22 – had lost all hope in his homeland.
“He said to me, ‘Look Dad, I don’t have a job, neither do you. Look at how we live. I want to buy you a house, a car. I want you to get out of this place,” recalled the bereaved father as he wiped away tears outside his home, his son lying in wake inside.
Over the past decade the narrative on migration out of Honduras has centered around the shocking levels of violence that has made the country one of the world’s most dangerous. But despite all the bloodshed, it was a slew of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions that made the country particularly ripe for what began as a caravan of a couple hundred people to explode into a mass exodus.
More often than fleeing violence, Hondurans are being squeezed out by an increasingly dire economic outlook and a political climate that has suffocated any hope for change.
“Even people with jobs joined the caravan”
“In the end there are two primary conditions that lead to migration,” said Ismael Zepeda, an economist with the local thinktank FOSDEH. “The socioeconomic conditions and the conditions of violence. In this case, the socioeconomic conditions are predominant.”
And it’s no longer mostly the unemployed who are fleeing Honduras. “Even people with jobs joined the caravan,” said Zepeda, before mentioning an example of dozens of people who worked at one of Tegucigalpa’s largest factories that joined the caravan.
That’s in part because as a percentage of income, Honduras has the highest price for a basic basket of foods in all of Latin America – just over 100 percent.
“The basic basket of foods is higher than a person’s salary,” said Francis Madrid, 43, who cited that as the primary reason he chose to migrate while resting with the caravan in Tapachula, Mexico.
Housing, energy, health costs
On top of that are housing and energy costs, the latter which has skyrocketed over the past three years since the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez moved to privatize the national energy system.
“It’s estimated that the cost of energy has doubled or tripled for residential consumers,” said Zepeda.
Moreover, migrants regularly complain that the country’s public health system is in shambles. Shortages of basic medicines and supplies are commonplace and patients are forced to fill the gap.
“The Honduran who goes to the public health system has to buy even the gloves for the doctors to operate on them,” said Zepeda.
Minimum wage is between $300 and $400 a month depending upon the sector, but 80 percent of the working population doesn’t earn even that. Despite an investment of over $20 billion in strategies to reduce poverty since Hurricane Mitch ravaged the country 20 years ago and sparked the country’s first great wave of migration, 68 percent of the population falls below the poverty line.
Those who opt for the traditional route out of poverty – higher education – hardly fare any better.
“Even though a person studies, goes to the university, there is little chance of earning much more than the minimum wage,” said Eugenio Sosa, a sociologist and professor at the national university in Tegucigalpa. According to a study by FOSDEH, unemployment increases along with higher educational achievement.
Roughly 54 percent of the population is 24 years-old or younger. The majority of Hondurans grew up in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, witnessed a coup in 2009 and saw friends and family murdered as violence subsequently spiked. Last November, Hernandez won a second term as president amid allegations of fraud and despite a strict constitutional prohibition against reelection.
Since then, the government has stifled a series of high-profile corruption cases presented by an OAS-backed anti-corruption commission. Several of the cases have brushed up close to Hernández, who had promised to clean up government. The National Anti-Corruption Council estimates that around one billion dollars – nearly ten percent of public expenditures – are lost to corruption annually.
“People need to see that the justice system works,” said Sosa. “They are convinced that part of the poverty is due to everything being stolen.”
Hernández has also staked his reputation on social welfare programs, but the programs have proven most effective as vote-buying mechanisms and poverty indicators have remained stagnant. To make matters worse, the programs are financed in part by an increase in the sales tax that disproportionately affects the very people they are meant to help. The poorest tenth of the population spends 41 percent of its income on taxes while those at the top pay only 20 percent.
“The last few governments are like firefighters,” said Raf Ponce, associate coordinator at FOSDEH. Instead of employing integrated development plans that reduce poverty and prevent migration, they respond to crises with shortsighted, reactionary programs that ignore systemic problems at the root, explained Ponce.
In exemplary fashion, the government has responded to the international crisis over the caravan by rushing to approve a host of programs and incentives aimed at creating jobs. But for many like Gomez Sr., these initiatives as well as other forms of assistance are too little too late and fall far short of inspiring any hope of substantive change.
“How come before my son left the government didn’t help me or my son with a job,” said Gomez Sr. with obvious indignation. “This isn’t even help, it’s an insult.”