Alma fled Honduras so she wouldn’t end up dead like her neighbor and her neighbor’s son. A few years ago as she was leaving for work, she stumbled onto two street gangs settling a score. “I opened my front door and saw four guys holding another kid down. Now every time I look at my children, I see his face. He was yelling, ‘Help me, help!’ But I couldn’t do anything,” said Alma (not her real name), a 35-year-old single mother who came to Spain a year ago with her three children.
“My house is next to a wall that divides two neighborhoods. They pulled this boy to the other side of the wall where he was beaten, tortured and killed. They never found the body,” she said sadly. News of the boy’s disappearance spread like wildfire throughout Alma’s neighborhood. One night, as Alma came home from work, two guys from the Barrio 18 gang accosted her with “a gun and a pickaxe. They told me snitches get killed,” she said.
That triggered a series of events that ultimately took Alma and her three children to Spain. The mother of the boy who was murdered began “posting messages on Facebook and went on TV pleading for information. For the next six months, every time I came home from work, they were there, threatening me. One time they told my middle child that they were going to force him to join the gang.” Her son was only 15 years old at the time. One day, the Barrio 18 gang decided that they’d had enough of the mother of the boy they murdered, so “they broke into her home and stabbed her to death.”
Street gangs have been a long-running problem in Honduras. Barrio 18 (or 18th Street) started as a Mexican American street gang in Los Angeles, California, and expanded dramatically by recruiting Central American immigrants and seizing new territory to control. While the Barrio 18 and rival MS-13 gangs have a strong presence in the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), they are also active in Europe and North America, which is why Alma didn’t want to use her real name. Back in Alma’s Tegucigalpa neighborhood, Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs are constantly engaged in turf battles. “It was chaotic at one point. The gangs openly strutted through the streets, supposedly protecting the neighborhood. At the slightest provocation, they would break into homes and beat people up. Sometimes they would even kick people out of their own homes so they could live there,” said Alma.
Tensions between the two gangs seemed to ease after the mother of the murdered boy was also killed. Alma thought the worst was behind her, but she was wrong. About a year ago, she says, one gangster became obsessed with her eldest daughter, Daniela (not her real name), who was only 17 years old.
He harassed her for weeks, and Alma’s usually cheerful daughter changed dramatically. “I didn’t find out that my daughter had been raped at gunpoint until we arrived in Spain,” said Alma. Back in Honduras, Daniela had seen a doctor and learned that she had an ectopic pregnancy (a fertilized egg outside the uterus). The doctor advised her not to fly, but she kept her secret and left with her mother anyway. Daniela had decided not to say anything about the rape because she was afraid her mother would confront the gangster and end up dead, like her neighbor. Once she was in Barcelona, Daniela went for emergency treatment at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital. Alma says Daniela has always been “a rock” for her, taking care of her younger siblings while Alma worked from dawn to dusk. “She’s like a second mom to my youngest son, who is now five.”
The ongoing journey
Alma and her children first went to Panama and took a flight from there to Madrid, later ending up in Barcelona. “At the airport in Panama, I could see something was wrong with my daughter, but she told me it was just her period. But she was changing her sanitary napkin every hour.” Alma began to suspect that it was something more serious. Daniela’s condition worsened In Barcelona, so the mother and daughter went to the emergency room at Vall d’Hebron. “Thank God the egg came out before it burst,” sighed the relieved mother.
Alma first thought of fleeing to the United States, the preferred destination for thousands of migrants who travel by land to the US-Mexico border. This scared Alma because she had heard many stories of people getting abused, raped and killed on the journey. She also couldn’t afford the cost of hiring a “coyote,” the often treacherous guides who lead groups of irregular migrants on the way to the United States. The cost of a coyote for Alma and her children was $40,000, an exorbitant sum for a self-employed hairdresser. An ex-wife of Alma’s father who lives in Madrid offered help, so Alma made the decision to flee to Spain. “The day after my daughter saw the doctor in Tegucigalpa, we climbed over the wall with our suitcases, and we left without anyone noticing.”
During their first few weeks in Spain, the daughter of one of Alma’s clients in Honduras helped out. “She let us stay in one of her rooms, but it was too small for all four of us, and I couldn’t pay her, which bothered me a lot,” said Alma. She later met someone who said he could get them a bigger room, but it was a scam – a room in a house that he didn’t own. “A very angry couple came and banged on the front door, yelling for us to open up. They grabbed us as soon as the door opened, and my son got in the way. They were insulting and pushing us around even though I had the keys to the house.”
Alma has spent much of this year healing from the trauma experienced by so many Hondurans. Patricia Jirón is a psychologist at EXIL, a non-profit, nongovernmental organization that provides therapeutic, psychological and social care for victims of human rights violations. Jirón says she only agreed to the video interview with EL PAÍS because Alma “is a very strong and resilient person who is making good progress in her recovery.” Although life in Spain hasn’t been easy, Alma is very grateful to be in Barcelona and at EXIL. “It has helped me grow as a mother and as a woman. It has given me confidence and self-esteem, and there have even been some physical changes in me,” she said.
Unlike thousands of her compatriots, Alma and her family didn’t want to leave Honduras. She has fond memories of growing up in her Tegucigalpa neighborhood, and despite the deep-rooted gang problem, she was happy with her life and work as a hairdresser. But she had to leave. “They [the gangs] control the police and the government. Even though the government sometimes tries to get rid of them, the gangs are always around. People like me also empower the gangs because we now go to them for help when we have a problem.”
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