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The perfect excuse: Mesoamerican authorities take advantage of COVID-19 to curb migration

May 25, 2021

Upon arrival in Amatillo, an unassuming town on the border between Honduras and El Salvador, several people quickly clustered around the cars. They offered all kinds of services – to guard the car, clean the windows, carry bags, exchange money, provide drugs, immigration forms, help us cross the river without immigration papers – and a new service: a negative PCR test for COVID-19. It’s the most convincing document on the illicit market. It has stamps, signatures and a coloured letterhead, with no need to put a swab up your nostrils. All at an affordable price and much cheaper than the actual test.

“This is the border,” one of the vendors said, “you can get whatever you need here”.

For years, people fleeing violence, repression, economic inequality and the effects of the climate crisis in Central America have faced terrifying obstacles in their way. They have risked extortion, kidnapping and sexual violence, among other dangers, in their attempts to reach a safe place where they can rebuild their lives. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, their journey is even more complicated. Not only must they avoid catching the virus, but they also have to deal with the prohibitive costs of testing, and extorsion by corrupt officials regardless of whether or not they have the tests, all while navigating complex terrain where governments are taking steps to deter migration.

PCR tests: a lucrative border business

A photojournalist working with the Inclusive Mobility in the Pandemic Alliance – a coalition of more than 30 civil society organizations in Mexico and Central America demanding protection for migrants in the context of the pandemic – approaches the border crossing in Amatillo by car. After filling in the exit form and getting her passport stamped, she drives onto the international bridge, leaving Honduras behind.

In the middle of the bridge over the Goascorán River that divides the two countries, a Salvadoran border official makes her get out of the car and asks if she has had a PCR test. “Yes,” the reporter replies and shows him the original certificate.

“This is useless,” he tells her and takes the document away to check it with one of the doctors in the immigration building. When he returns, he confirms that the test is effectively invalid, as it is not a “real-time PCR”, but an “antigen PCR”. Unable to pass, the photojournalist is forced to return to Honduras.

In the middle of the bridge, someone approaches and offers to solve the “problem” by providing her with one of those fake copies “with the original stamp” for US$70, nearly half the price of the real test. All this happens in front of the immigration authorities of both countries. None of them seem bothered.

One of the people working on the Amatillo border is called Pablo. “Here we work in whatever we can, helping people, tourists,” he said. Before the pandemic, Pablo earned enough money to support his family, but after the border closed for five months because of the COVID-19 outbreak he was forced to live on remittances from relatives living in the United States. That’s why he decided to diversify his business: “Before you just went through with your passport or ID, now you have to have your passport and a COVID test, and if you don’t have it, you can’t enter El Salvador or Honduras.”

Pablo and his colleagues “help” people who don’t have these documents. He explains: “there are some guys who deal with this paperwork, we don’t know where they get the documents, and the tourist can enter. They don’t test you, they just give you the document you want; it costs 20 or 30 dollars.”

Pablo says he provides tests for about six people a day. But it is only 8am and he has already “helped” three people, thanks to the immigration official who works in the office and regularly passes clients to him, in exchange for financial compensation. According to Pablo, approximately 20% of people crossing the border do not have the proper COVID-19 test.

Juan Manuel Martínez is the physician in charge of the El Buen Samaritano laboratory in the Honduran city of Choluteca. “The patients who come here are en route to El Salvador, as well as to Nicaragua and Guatemala. Lots of people travel for work and a smaller number to visit relatives who they haven’t seen for many months because of COVID,” he says. “With the test results that we give them, people who have returned from both the Guasave and Amatillo crossings and come here to be tested have no problem crossing the border.”

According to Martínez, El Buen Samaritano charges half of what most laboratories in Honduras do: “We’re concerned about the wallets of those who are going to travel and those who want to know whether they have the virus or not.” He says he knows nothing about people at the border offering fake PCR test certificates. “I hope the authorities are getting a handle on this because it’s not right, deceiving people and risking having someone who is positive entering the country and spreading the infection.”

The cost of a PCR test in Honduras ranges from US$125 to US$145, depending on the type of test. This is equivalent to approximately the minimum wage for one or two weeks of labor in the country. Hardly anyone who migrates can afford a PCR test to cross the border legally, and much less if they travel with their family.

The pandemic as a tool to curtail immigration

Between 1998 and 2017, Honduras was the second country in the world most affected by extreme weather events, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019. This trend continues to plague the country. In November, in the midst of the pandemic, Honduras was devastated by two consecutive tropical storms: Eta and Iota. According to a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, storms damaged 62,000 homes, affecting more than 4 million people and leaving 92,000 people living in shelters. Following the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and the estimated US$1,879 million damage caused by Eta and Iota, Honduras’ economy shrank by 10.5% in 2020.

By mid-January, more than 9,000 people, most of them affected by Eta and Iota, formed the first migrant caravan of 2021. They tried to cross Guatemala to reach Mexico and eventually the United States.

Guatemala is party to the Central America-4 Free Mobility Agreement, a treaty establishing free movement for Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Honduran and Nicaraguan nationals, with only their ID and without the need for a passport or visa. Yet Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has stigmatized migrants who try to enter the country, declaring last October that “these people who are breaking the law will be blocked from entering, especially because they are using unaccompanied children, they are using women and the elderly as human shields, and they are putting us Guatemalans at risk”.

In response to this situation, Father Mauro Verezeletti, director of the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, laments that “more and more countries” are blocking the passage of migrants and refugees. “They are turning their policies towards racism, xenophobia and discrimination against migrants.”

The caravan that left Honduras did not get beyond Chiquimula, a small town in southeastern Guatemala. There, on 17 and 18 January, the Guatemalan army and police detained several people and used batons and tear gas against members of the caravan. Many people were returned to the border and the caravan dispersed. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the excessive use of force by the Guatemalan police and army during these operations. It also urged states in the region to “take measures to address the structural problems that trigger displacement and to coordinate their efforts to effectively protect the human rights of individuals in the caravan (particularly their rights to health and personal integrity, to seek and obtain asylum, and to non-refoulement).”

In Mexico, the authorities have also taken measures to restrict migration. In October, the National Migration Institute (INM) warned that foreign nationals who enter without complying with the health protection measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 could face up to 10 years in prison. Then, in March 2021, the government announced the installation of new checkpoints on the border with Guatemala, equipped with drones and night vision devices, and a ban on land crossings for non-essential purposes for at least 30 days. It also authorized the use of force to disperse unauthorized groups, such as caravans. The day after the announcement, hundreds of members of the National Guard and the INM marched through the streets of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the southern state of Chiapas, in an unusual and symbolic parade.

The Mexican government has denied any link between the measures against COVID-19 on its southern border and immigration operations, but both came together following reports of increased migration from Central America and pressure from the US government to clamp down on it. Moreover, the Security Report presented by the Mexican government on 22 March revealed that, since 19 February 2021, it had deployed 8,715 military personnel assigned to the “Development and Migration Plan” at its borders – more than the number of personnel assigned to any other activity, including security operations, the eradication of illicit crops and the fight against the illicit fuel market.

On 29 March, a Mexican soldier shot and killed a Guatemalan man at the border, highlighting the dangers of entrusting public security and immigration enforcement to the military. The army admitted that it had been “an erroneous reaction on the part of the soldier, because there was no aggression” against him.

Days later, on 12 April, the Joe Biden administration announced that it had reached a deal with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras for all three countries to deploy troops to their respective frontiers “to make it more difficult to make the journey, and make crossing the borders more difficult”.

Fleeing during the coronavirus pandemic

When Luis Pineda left Nicaragua, he never thought about taking a PCR test in order to cross the border. Like many people in need of protection, he packed his ID, some money, clothes and a toothbrush in a backpack and set off.

Pineda says he was a truck driver in Nicaragua, so he had friends who were drivers and he asked them to take him to the border between Guatemala and Mexico. As he had not had his passport stamped when he left Nicaragua and had not taken a PCR test, he was forced to hire the services of a guide to cross the border between El Salvador and Guatemala, where a truck driver friend was waiting for him.

He was walking across the bridge when a border police official stopped him and asked for his documents and COVID-19 test result. Pineda told him: “I’ve had to flee Nicaragua and I couldn’t get a COVID test there, because that’s run by the government. As I’m politically persecuted, I can’t go to government clinics. That’s why I had to leave like this, with nothing.”

Pineda says the policeman suggested “sorting it out” to allow him to continue on his way and threatened to deport him. Seeing no alternative, he agreed to pay in order to continue his journey. “The official said: ‘There are seven of us here, I think about 250 is good’ and so I had to give them 250 dollars, because it was that or they would send me back,” Pineda says.

Rubén Figueroa, south-southeast coordinator of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, affirms that corruption related to COVID-19 tests has become yet another factor pushing migrants from Central America to cross borders irregularly.

“These people are victims of corrupt authorities because they are migrants,” Figueroa says. “The COVID-19 health emergency has been turned into a weapon in the hands of authorities to repress, detain and deport migrants, and for corrupt officials, who have always been there, to extort and smuggle migrants. The pandemic is another opportunity to increase the ‘fee’ they demand from migrants using threats in return for letting them continue their journey.”

In Pineda’s case, once he had paid the agents, he crossed the bridge, following their instructions, and arrived in Guatemala. He went to the parking lot and had a snack while waiting for his friend to get his passport stamped. “When the immigration officials arrived and saw me eating, they started asking me what truck I was driving, and I told them that I was being politically persecuted. They still asked me for my passport stamp and COVID test,” Pineda says. “But hey, there they were a little more conscientious and only took 150 dollars from me, for a soda to quench their thirst.”

I cowrote this feature with the photojournalist Encarni Pindado. It was published in the May 2021 edition of Newsweek México

Human rights are the medicine Mexico needs to heal itself

January 17, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the deep inequality that has long existed in Mexico . Decades of violence, corruption, impunity, structural discrimination and economic inequality have submerged the nation in a human rights crisis, now compounded by a grave health emergency.

The state has the obligation to protect and guarantee the rights of everyone in Mexico, without discrimination. It must urgently strengthen the precarious and underfunded public health system, and ensure adequate safeguards with respect to social security and employment. But beyond this, the government has an opportunity to make the radical changes needed to transform society and stop trampling on the most marginalised groups of the population.

The pandemic affects all of us, but it does not affect us all in the same ways. The Mexican authorities must listen to those whose voices have historically been silenced or ignored, such as indigenous peoples, women, LGBTIQ+ people, people living in poverty, and migrants and refugees.

They must treat people with compassion and empathy, rather than abandoning, stigmatising, or re-victimising those who need state support. They must also protect the journalists and human rights defenders who risk their lives fighting for a better tomorrow, instead of further endangering them. Human rights are the medicine that Mexico needs to heal itself.

This article was published in Spanish by La Lista, as part of a series of 22 recommendations by different figures on how to heal the nation

When it rains it pours: The devastating impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota in Honduras

December 15, 2020

Juana Tabora knew she had to help her neighbours when the water began to flood the streets, blocking the exits in La Lima, her city in northwestern Honduras.

“We were surrounded by water, people started saying ‘help us, we want to come in’, so we opened the door downstairs so that people could get in,” says Tabora, the owner of a two-storey funeral home that she turned into an improvised shelter. Around 30 families took refuge there after losing their homes to the hurricanes Eta and Iota, which devastated large swathes of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua in the first weeks of November.

When it rains it pours in Honduras, a country that had already suffered multiple crisis in recent years: state repression, gang violence, economic problems, environmental destruction, mass emigration and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The two hurricanes left at least 94 dead affecting almost 4 million people across the nation, and analysts say they could cause the level of poverty to rise by 10%, surpassing 70% of the population. While the arrival of two such powerful storms just two weeks apart was an almost unprecedented natural disaster in Honduras, many of the affected believe the authorities have abandoned them to their fate.

‘The worst thing we’ve ever been through’

The impact of the hurricanes was so severe that it made many people forget, at least momentarily, about the pandemic that has changed the world. Tabora had already buried many COVID-19 victims and even had to close her business for a while because of the pandemic, but she immediately put her concerns to one side to shelter those who needed her help.

“I understand that there are people who came with small children, saving their babies, and they didn’t remember their masks because of the anguish,” she says. “When we saw the distress people were in we didn’t even think about these things… [I thought] come on, maybe they could be saved here, even if there’s not much room.”

Many of those affected have suffered post-traumatic stress due to everything they’ve been through since Eta, the first hurricane, approached. “You feel a nervousness, a tension among us,” Tabora reflects. “Worry at knowing what’s coming, as the media says it’s something huge and super dangerous.”

With the water up to his chest, Sergio Donaire, a 35-year-old upholsterer, arrived at the funeral home with his wife and three daughters after fleeing their house, which was practically destroyed. Two weeks later, it’s still raining hard and the family remains in the funeral home, without any support from the state. “There’s no food, nowhere to bathe, no electricity,” Donaire says. “My daughters have fallen ill. They’ve had a cough and the flu. Even I had a fever for two days. We’re all scared… it’s the worst thing we’ve ever been through.”

San Pedro Sula, the nation’s second biggest city, was devastated. The stench of mud and dead animals lingers everywhere. Surreal scenes abound, like in the Chamelecón neighbourhood to the south of the city,

where the river overflowed and flooded the cemetery, forcing open graves and leaving coffins floating in the water.

Two weeks after Eta struck, about 60 families were still living beneath a bridge on a highway to the southeast of San Pedro Sula. Alberto López Ocampo, a farmer from the Asentamientos Humanos neighbourhood, has been sleeping on a mattress there for 15 days, beside the 11 geese, 25 hens and 40 ducks he was able to save from the roof of his house. Another 25 sheep of his drowned when the property flooded.

“I came racing out with my four children when the water started to rise at eight in the evening,” says López, who had to later to separate from his family to look after their livestock. “I arrived at the shelter but they told me to set [the animals] free. How can I set them free when they’re all I have? I have nothing, I lost everything. My house is still flooded, it flooded again when Iota struck. It’s going to need repairing because it’s sinking, it’s full of mud and it has dead animals inside.”

The families sheltered beneath the bridge bathe in the rainwater that falls on the highway and relieve themselves in the sewers. “Some of the churches and other people who are helping out donate toilet paper but there’s no government aid here,” López explains. “They don’t want to help in any way… they could easily give us umbrellas, at least with an umbrella we could get by, but the way things are right now, look, more rain is coming and there’s nothing we can do.”

The state response

Two days before the first hurricane arrived, the Honduran government was still promoting a tourism fair to revive the economy, instead of warning the population to take preventive measures. Since then, it has faced accusations of not doing enough to protect the health and dignity of those affected and to guarantee their access to humanitarian assistance.

The national authorities say they saved 34 people stranded on rooftops using military and civilian helicopters, as well as carrying out two aquatic rescues. The Colombian Air Force has also offered its support, evacuating 97 people in a Black Hawk helicopter. Marlon Matute, of representative of the San Pedro Sula mayor’s office, affirms that the local government has opened 100 municipal shelter across the city and is providing financial support, food and hygiene products to those affected. President Juan Orlando Hernández has visited affected families to deliver humanitarian aid and has declared the construction of dams a national priority. “The Honduran people must know that Operation ‘You Are Not Alone’ will reach every last corner affected by the storms to give us back the dignity that was muddied, but has not been lost,” he wrote on Twitter. On 26 November, he announced that he had sent the Free Vaccine for All Against COVID-19 law to the National Congress, to “ensure that everyone has access, voluntarily and without cost”.

Dinorah Nolasco, director of health in the Cortés region where San Pedro Sula is located, says the area has suffered constant crises in the last two years: “First we had a dengue emergency, then a COVID emergency and now we have this tragedy. It’s a disaster we’re living through, but we’re trying to get back on our feet.”

With clouds of mosquitos, large bodies of water and animal corpses everywhere, plus the lack of sanitation due to the storm damage, Nolasco is on the alert for possible outbreaks of malaria and leptospirosis. But the main concern remains the pandemic that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and brought more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 to a nation of 9.5 million people.

“All the shelters are conducting daily medical evaluations and testing every patient suspected of having COVID, both with rapid antigen tests and real-time PCR tests,” Nolasco says. “We try to give them advice, we try to isolate them and we try to give them as much psychological counselling as we can, because obviously right now there has not only been material damage and human loss, but the population has also suffered a lot of psychological damage.”

Solidarity within the LGBT community

In a phone interview from Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital, Erick Martínez Salgado, a defender of the rights of the LGBT community, affirms that the government response to the hurricanes and the pandemic has been weakened by a lack of planning and the historic corruption of state institutions. Martínez laments that the government has not taken differentiated measures that take into account the needs of LGBT people, as well as those of other marginalized populations, such as indigenous peoples and people with disabilities.

The defender explains that the pandemic and the hurricanes have exacerbated the poverty experienced by many members of the LGBT population in Honduras, which has historically suffered high levels of discrimination, exclusion and violence – particularly transgender people who are disproportionately dependent on the informal economy and sex work. He also warns that “in the temporary shelters they are not applying differentiated protocols for transgender women… They should not put them in places where there are only men… this could lead to discriminatory actions or violence against the LGBT community.”

Martinez speaks with pride of the solidarity the LGBT community has shown with trans women in the coastal areas worst affected by the hurricanes. He says the Movimiento de Diversidad en Resistencia group raised a thousand dollars to buy them food, clothing and shoes, while transgender refugees in US cities such as Washington DC and Miami have sent them money to buy supplies. However, Martínez questions why “citizens are replacing the government’s role in providing humanitarian aid.”

A new wave of migration

The destruction in Honduras, combined with the effects of climate change that have made subsistence agriculture difficult in recent years, plus a possible change in the immigration policy of President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration in the United States, could drive a new wave of migration.

Sandro Mejía has been living in San Pedro Sula for 20 years, but now sees no other option than to seek a better life in the United States. He says he almost drowned when the water first began to rise. Now his only roof is a bridge.

“Yesterday was my 58th birthday and I couldn’t even celebrate with a Coca-Cola,” Mejia says. “I have nothing, I’m broke now. First I lost money due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then these two storms hit. You can’t live in this country anymore… I’ve been out of work since the pandemic, when everything shut down. I haven’t worked for almost a year now because there are no jobs in this country. We’ve lost everything… we’re being buried alive here.”

Mejía accuses the government of having abandoned those affected by the hurricanes. “The people have no rights, no health, no work, no nothing,” he adds, as he savours a baleada donated by a passer-by. “The only option I have left is to emigrate to the United States. I couldn’t get in when Donald Trump was in charge…

he didn’t give anybody a chance to work there, but now things are going to change with Joe Biden.”

Sat on a red sofa beneath the bridge, Zaida Ramos, a single mother of two, agrees: “The government hasn’t given us a bite to eat around here, it’s just the people helping the people. Honduras is lost.” She too would like to seek asylum in the United States, which she considers “a land of opportunities”.

Victims of the lack of environmental protection

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of the environmental defender Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016 because of her opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, believes the destruction caused by the hurricanes was exacerbated by recent Honduran government policies. The native Lenca activist, who succeeded her mother as general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, has pointed out that the proliferation of mining and monoculture in recent years has damaged the natural barriers that used to protect the country against extreme weather.

“The weather conditions that we’ve experienced in recent weeks in our country are linked to the mismanagement of natural resources, which are seen as commodities to be excessively consumed for the benefit of certain economic groups,” Zúñiga says in a voice message. “It’s a clear sign of imbalance and an urgent warning to seek a more harmonious and respectful relationship with nature. It’s a prompt to take action against this and listen to what indigenous peoples and the organizations fighting for climate justice have been saying.”

In Honduras, opposing the exploitation of the land, and the violation of the rights of its inhabitants, means risking one’s life. According to Global Witness, 14 environmental defenders were murdered there last year, the highest per capita rate in the world. However, the government has so far refused to sign the Escazú Agreement, a regional treaty on environmental rights and the protection of environmental activists, which has been ratified by 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries since its adoption in 2018. Citing the scientists who have linked climate change to the extreme force of the hurricanes that have hurt Central America so badly in recent months, Zúñiga affirms that “we must hold accountable the large countries and economic powers who have produced these results, as well as the process of so-called ‘modernization’, so that the people who have contributed most to the defence of the earth stop suffering the effects of the pollution caused by those who shirk their responsibility.”

Zúñiga concludes by warning that “as long as the pollution continues, as long as the depredation continues, as long as the rights of those who continue defending the earth are not recognized, our prospects will remain bleak. That’s why we intend to continue raising awareness among the people who live in [larger ad wealthier] countries so that they make more serious and genuine efforts to mitigate the environmental destruction that the whole world is suffering. Solidarity and the embrace between peoples will always be the way to reach the world we dream of.”

I cowrote this feature with the photojournalist Encarni Pindado, who was in Honduras. It was published in the December 2020 edition of Newsweek México