SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — By now, the young couple thought they’d be in the United States. Somewhere, anywhere, in the United States. They thought they’d have jobs — he’d work construction, maybe she’d be a waitress. They thought they’d be safe. They thought they’d have asylum.
Instead, an American judge swiftly denied their asylum requests. The Trump administration, in making asylum an increasingly remote possibility for everyone, had closed the door on them.
In early August, immigration officials escorted the couple onto a chartered airliner packed with deportees that flew them back to this industrial city in one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
They were home, back in a two-room apartment in the dusty San Pedro Sula neighborhood of Rivera Hernandez.
There was nowhere more frightening.
“They own Rivera Hernandez. The gangs own it,” said the wife, a driven, barely educated daughter of farmworkers who had promised herself as a little girl that she would escape the drudgery of itinerant field work. She, like most migrants living underground in Honduras, spoke on condition that her and her husband’s names not be used, fearing retribution by gangs. “They own the whole place. They walk around freely.”
MS-13. Mara 18. Los Vatos Locos — The Crazy Guys. The gangs’ shifting lines of control dodge and weave through Rivera Hernandez, a place where even the police are afraid. Here, nearly every business pays “el impuesto de guerra” — the war tax — extortion payouts that can range from a couple dollars a week for a sidewalk vendor to thousands of dollars a month for a large company.
Everyone knows what happens to people who don’t pay. They know about the men shot in the back of the head in broad daylight, the kidnapped daughters of business owners raped and tortured before being killed. They know about the bloody bags found alongside San Pedro Sula’s roads, spilling out with corpses and body parts.
The gangs want people to know these stories. Fear is profitable.
Before they left for United States, the young couple had opened a tiny grocery store near a Rivera Hernandez intersection. After a few months, they were forced to start paying war tax to Mara 18. The amounts rose and rose until they couldn’t pay anymore. Fearing for their lives, they fled to the U.S, the safest place they could think of.
Then, after being denied asylum, they came back.
“Why did you leave?” a Mara 18 member demanded angrily of them after they returned. “Why did you leave your business? Why aren’t you making any money for us anymore?”
Their pleas of poverty went unheard.
“I thought we would cross over” to the United States, she would recall. “Our plan was to work until we could come back and build a house, and a new business. But not in that neighborhood. In a different place where it might be less controlled by gangs and criminals.”
Then she began to weep.
While asylum has always been a long shot for migrants, with most claims denied, it has become even harder in the Trump administration, which has focused on making asylum increasingly difficult — some would say nearly impossible — to get.
U.S. pressure on Mexico has forced tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to survive an immigration limbo in shelters and ever-growing tent camps in Mexican border cities, waiting for their cases to wind through U.S. immigration courts. Pressure on Central American governments, meanwhile, has led to bilateral agreements aimed at sending migrants to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to seek asylum there.
Many have been deported back to the dangerous places where their journeys started. Among them was a soft-spoken factory worker, sitting in a TGI Fridays in San Pedro Sula in late November.
It had been nearly a year since he’d applied for U.S. asylum, claiming he feared being killed by criminals hunting him in Honduras. It had been four months since he’d been deported and flown home.
And it had been three days since he was walking on a crowded downtown street two blocks from San Pedro Sula’s city hall, where the policemen outside carry assault rifles and wear body armor.
Suddenly, a man stepped toward him, fired one shot from a pistol, and fled.
The worker slumped against a wall, disoriented, a sensation of warmth rippling through him before the pain hit. But he’d been lucky. The bullet had grazed him just below his belt line, leaving a bloody welt about 3 inches long. He was discharged from the hospital after a few hours and returned to his tiny rental apartment and to a life in hiding.
He says he and his relatives have been hunted for more than 20 years by a powerful criminal family from his small hometown, ever since an attack left his stepmother and stepbrother dead. The other family, he said, fears the men of his family will seek revenge.
He ticks off the years of carnage: his father shot, three cousins killed as they approached adulthood, including one tortured by having his left eye ripped out. As a child, he had been grabbed off the streets as a warning, his attackers using a switchblade to cut some of his ankle tendons before shoving him out of the car.
“I’ve spent my whole life running,” he said in his soft mumble, looking down at a half-eaten cheeseburger as he talked about life underground. “One day they are going to get me.”
No one was surprised when the young couple fell in love.
She was smart and pretty and ambitious. He was charismatic and handsome — “a catch,” said the women in their small Honduran town, who would swoon over his cinnamon-colored skin and carefully trimmed beard.
For generations, both their families have marked the time of year by the work they can find: the cantaloupe harvest, the watermelon harvest, the months when the shrimp farms need help. It’s a hard life. Neither went to school past ninth grade.
When they met, in a town outside the little city of Nacaome, they quickly realized that they shared a dream.
“I don’t want this,” he told her. “I want something more.”
“I’m not one of those people who will get stuck in the village,” she said. “That has never been how I thought.”
They moved in together and began planning their escape, saving as much money as they could. Two years later, with a couple hundred dollars in seed money, they took a bus north to San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city, where a friend said there were opportunities for people willing to work hard.
They rented a two-room apartment in Rivera Hernandez that opened directly onto the sidewalk. They put a bed in the back, and opened a tiny grocery store in the front, selling a few staples — rice, beans, instant coffee — through an opening in a metal grill.
Business started slow. At first, Mara 18, which controls the neighborhood, left them alone. The couple spent almost nothing on themselves, putting nearly all their profits into more inventory. They expanded into Pepsi and candy and Bimbo blanco, Honduras’ ubiquitous white bread. Their earnings, the equivalent of barely $20 a day when they started, rose to $80 and then $120.
They would occasionally take time off. He’d join in neighborhood soccer matches or play FIFA video games on a friend’s TV. She’d sometimes go window shopping at the City Mall, with its sparkling floors and women’s clothing stores awash in sequins.
After about eight months they were earning more than $60 in profits on their best days. They began talking about a larger store. They dreamed of opening a real supermarket.
That was when Mara 18 — or “La 18,” as they are known — started paying attention. “They have eyes and ears everywhere,” the wife said.
One day, a man came by and waited until the other customers had left. He walked with a swagger. His voice resonated with authority.
“He looked like the devil,” said the wife. Her husband quickly motioned for her to go back into the apartment.
The man didn’t give his name or mention his gang. He didn’t show a gun or make any threats. He didn’t have to.
“I will make it easy for you,” he told them. “As long as everything goes OK, we will take care of you.”
After the man had left, the handsome grocer called to his wife to come back out.
He looked defeated: “It’s time to start paying taxes.”
The rules are clear for outsiders who enter the gang-controlled neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula: Roll your windows down so the spotters can see you’re not a threat; drive slowly; stay on main roads, leave before nightfall.
There are police stations in these neighborhoods, but everyone knows who is in charge. The gangs monitor the streets, the police patrols and rival gangs using a complex network of young boys who work in shifts around the clock and report anything suspicious.
San Pedro Sula’s criminal life is dominated by two street gangs formed decades ago in Latino enclaves of Los Angeles, spreading southward as gang members were deported. Today, MS-13 and Mara 18 are the most powerful and feared gangs in Central America, and have operations that reach from Mexico to the U.S. to Europe.
Their power is immense in Honduras, where they control many poor urban neighborhoods and have at least some influence nearly everywhere, experts say. A welter of other gangs control smaller swathes of territory.
Their earnings come from a range of businesses, from drugs to weapons to human trafficking, though they are best known by most Hondurans for the war tax.
Very little escapes their notice.
“They told us they knew where to find my son,” said a middle-class San Pedro Sula mother after she and her husband ran out of money to pay their war tax. “They told us the name of his school. His teacher’s name.”
So the family ran. The father took the 11-year-old boy to the U.S., where they applied for — and were refused — asylum. The mother took their teenage daughter into hiding in the mountains.
After the father and son were deported back home in late November, and a brief, tearful reunion, the family again split up so they’d be harder to track.
“No one knows where we are,” the mother said in a telephone interview a few days after her husband and son returned. “No one.”
Street violence remains commonplace, driving tens of thousands of people to flee the country. Just days ago, a gang of gunmen on motorcycles killed the director of the country’s maximum-security prison.
Orlin Castro, the dean of San Pedro Sula’s crime reporters, chronicles that violence.
He’s a pudgy 32-year-old who works much of the night, sleeps until noon, wields three mobile phones and often holds court at upscale coffee shops. He’s been chasing crime since he was 15 years old.
While the murder rate has dropped in recent years, he says many victims are now simply disappearing.
“Every day I get phone calls about people who are missing,” he said.
After thousands of appearances at murder scenes, and thousands of hours spent with cops and gangsters, Castro can seem like a parody of a hard-bitten reporter, a man who chuckles at grisly murder details and proudly declares that he sometimes gets tipped off in advance to killings.
There’s only one way, he said, for people to stay safe in San Pedro Sula: “There are three rules you have to follow here: You listen and you watch. But you never tell.”
And if you do speak up about what you’ve seen?
He laughed and sliced his finger along his throat.
At first, it wasn’t too bad for the young grocers in Rivera Hernandez.
The couple didn’t like that they had to pay $20 in war tax every few days, but they still made a profit. They were building something.
And they were in love. “He’d leave me a note sometimes, a flower he picked, or chocolates,” the wife said, her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail.
In a culture where many men see housework as beneath them, he was different. He’d fry the plantains, he’d mop the floor, “though I would have to do it again after him,” she said, laughing.
It wasn’t always easy. She criticized him for being too trusting of people who wanted to pay on credit. He got annoyed if she contradicted him, which she sometimes did just for fun.
She smiled: “I was a little evil.”
But as the months passed the extortion demands increased. Soon it was $20 a day. Then $40. Sometimes $80.
Eventually it was too much. They could barely keep the grocery afloat and themselves fed. Twice she suggested they go to America. Twice he said the journey was too dangerous.
Then “there came a time when we couldn’t pay,” she said, and they knew they had to leave. They’d be safe once American authorities let them in.
They left one night at midnight, spending days on a series of buses wending their way through Guatemala to the Mexican city of Hidalgo and then onward to Monterrey, where people told them how to find men who could get them across the border.
Eventually, they crossed the river on inner tubes, giving themselves up to U.S. immigration officials waiting on the other side.
It wasn’t what they expected. First came the air-conditioned holding areas that migrants call “hieleras” — ice boxes. Then they were separated and sent to different detention facilities.
Eventually, both went before judges and asked for asylum. Both were denied. And soon they were flown back to San Pedro Sula and moved back into their apartment.
Within days, La 18 was back.
There was no store anymore. There was no money. They’d spent everything they had on the trip north. But that didn’t matter to the men who came calling.
One evening, the husband argued with a gang member, insisting they had no way to pay. The wife didn’t hear the argument, but a neighbor told her about the shouting.
She asked her husband. “It’s nothing,” he said, waving her off.
The Trump administration insists that Central Americans in danger already have safe havens.
“For those of you who have legitimate asylum claims, we encourage them to go and seek assistance from the first neighboring country,” Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan recently told reporters.
But most of those neighboring countries are also deeply dangerous, with powerful gangs of their own, drug cartels, corrupt officials and police forces regularly outgunned by criminals.
While immigration advocates acknowledge some cases don’t meet the legal standard for asylum, they believe the real intention of the ever-tighter White House policies is to discourage migrants — even those with valid needs for asylum — from trying to reach the U.S.
More and more migrants are hearing that message.
Immigration apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border have plunged by more than 70 percent in the past six months, down sharply from at least 132,000 in May.
“The goal is to send a deterrent message: Don’t even try this, don’t even leave. Because you’ll be sent back,” said Yael Schacher, a specialist on U.S. asylum issues at the group Refugees International. “The U.S. wants to shift the burden, and put that responsibility on other countries.”
So Guatemala has begun accepting Honduran and El Salvadoran deportees from the U.S. with an invitation to seek asylum there instead, Mexico runs militarized highway checkpoints along migrant routes and Honduran bus companies are under pressure to ensure that Venezuelans and Cubans don’t even get on buses heading toward the United States.
At San Pedro Sula’s main bus station, which until a few months ago was crowded with migrants going north to the U.S., many buses now leave with just a few passengers. Around here, U.S. immigration policies are reduced to one person: Trump.
“That old man doesn’t want to let anyone in,” grumbled Junior Elvir, a 26-year-old Honduran car mechanic who tried to reach the U.S. in late November but was caught by Mexican authorities, who are under immense pressure from Washington.
Mexico sent him home by bus.
On the morning of Aug. 31, the grocer went out to run some errands and look for work. That afternoon he was still gone. By evening, his wife was terrified.
That night, she said, a note was slipped under her door.
The note was brief: “You have to leave and don’t look for (your husband). Because you won’t find him.”
“My world fell apart,” she said.
She fled immediately, not bothering to contact the police. That would just make things worse, she thought. La 18 would find out and she would be their next victim.
Her husband is dead. She knows that, even if she hasn’t seen a body and doesn’t like to say it out loud.
The charismatic man with cinnamon-colored skin who dreamed of a big grocery store was probably shot somewhere in Rivera Hernandez. His body was probably dumped somewhere outside the city like so many others.
The widow moved in with a friend, a small-time food wholesaler she’d met while running the store. The woman doesn’t ask for money, but the widow is proud: She cooks their food and cleans the apartment as a way to repay her friend.
“There’s not a single day where I don’t cry, thinking where he might be, what they might have done with him,” she said. “My whole world continues to be in darkness.”
She told her husband’s parents what happened. It was a hard conversation: “As parents, they blame me, because I was part of the decision-making process.”
A few days after her husband disappeared, she missed her period. A pregnancy test came back positive.
The baby, she said, will be a living memory of her husband, “something beautiful from him.”
She has a new plan now. It’s vague, and she has no idea how she’ll pay for it.
She’s going back to America, she says, but this time she’ll hire a coyote — a border smuggler — to help her sneak illegally into the U.S., where she’ll find a way to create a life. Her dreams now are for the life she can build for her child.
Talking to her, it’s easy to forget that she’s just 27 years old.
“It costs you to go through all this, to have your dreams and to try to accomplish something,” she said. “But then it all comes to nothing.”