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What Kind Of Violence Causes Some People To Flee Honduras For The U.S.?

NOEL KING, HOST:

Every day now, more than 200 families leave Honduras and head north for the U.S. They're trying to escape poverty, violence and catastrophic flooding. NPR's John Burnett has this story about three Hondurans. Before we start, just be warned, there are some graphic descriptions of violence.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Her nickname is La China (ph). She won't give her real name. She works for Mara Salvatrucha Trece - MS-13, one of the largest, deadliest mafias in the Americas. She's 25 years old, slight of build. She wears small hoop earrings, a bright-red T-shirt, and carries a backpack with rabbit ears.

LA CHINA: (Through interpreter) My job is to collect extortion. 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. But it's obligatory. They have to pay no matter what.

BURNETT: In this flat, impassive voice, she describes the reality of her work in a gritty section of San Pedro Sula called Sector Satelite. It's nighttime. We're parked across the street from a soccer field. China sits in the backseat during the interview, constantly looking out the window for the police.

LA CHINA: (Through interpreter) It's work. You get accustomed to doing these things. Anyway, if I didn't kill, my bosses would kill me. So we have to do it.

BURNETT: Honduran national police interviewed for this story say it would be unusual for a public-facing extortionist to also be the executioner, who's a more shadowy figure. But in a follow-up query to her boss in MS-13, he says China is, indeed, a trigger-puller. Desperate families asking for asylum at the U.S. border often say they're fleeing these criminal gangs. And China well understands that extortion and murder are driving migration to the United States.

LA CHINA: (Through interpreter) We've had lots of people who, after we gave them 24 hours, we found their houses empty. They had to leave because they say they don't have enough money to pay the extortion.

BURNETT: She says if fleeing Hondurans are turned away by U.S. authorities, if they're deported and they return to their neighborhood, they do so under a death sentence. But going north may also be an escape for her immediate family.

LA CHINA: (Non-English language spoken).

BURNETT: (Non-English language spoken).

LA CHINA: (Non-English language spoken).

BURNETT: China says, soon, she plans to send her 8-year-old son with her mother to cross the southern US border. She says she doesn't want to raise him around MS-13 gang culture. She wants him to go to school, not follow her trajectory. When I ask if she's thinking about joining them in the U.S., she shoots me a worried look. (Non-English language spoken)...

LA CHINA: (Non-English language spoken).

BURNETT: ...And answers, yes. Then she's out the door - a thin figure with her bunny backpack melting into the darkened streets of the colonia that she terrorizes. When someone is ready to run for whatever reason - they can't pay the weekly shakedown, they can't find work, they're tired of eating nothing but rice and beans - if they can borrow the money, they reach out to a person like Juan (ph). He asked we not give his full name for obvious reasons. He's a coyote, a human smuggler. And his nickname is Speedy Gonzales. He takes people 1,500 miles from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Reynosa, Mexico. From there, they contract with a local smuggler to cross the Rio Grande into Texas.

JUAN: (Through interpreter) What we're interested in is that our clients arrive at the destination safe and sound, that's it. For this, we charge a thousand to $1,500 a person. Now, we have a new service, the VIP trip, where we only take three or four people. And the truck is more comfortable. For this, we charge $2,000.

BURNETT: Juan's face is whiskered and fleshy with the eager smile of a salesman. Like La China, he asks to be interviewed inside the car. It's daytime and beastly humid. He squeegees his brow with his thumb and flings the sweat out the open car window. Speedy says 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.

JUAN: (Through interpreter) With Trump, we had lots of problems. Things were stricter. That's the truth. 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.

BURNETT: Speedy is the face of the enemy, as far as the Biden administration is concerned. Last week, they launched Operation Sentinel to target criminal smuggling organizations and, quote, "help save the lives of those who are preyed upon by these unscrupulous criminals." 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.

JUAN: (Through interpreter) 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 companeros 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.

BURNETT: 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 of her house in the town of Progreso surrounded by flowers and birds. She says migration has picked up, primarily because of Eta and Iota, the hurricanes that struck in November, flooding the Sula Valley and leaving many already poor communities on their knees.

EDITA MALDONADO: (Through interpreter) People were left without houses, without work. They see no other option than to leave. 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.

BURNETT: For two decades, Maldonado has hosted a program on Radio Progreso called "Opening Borders" that broadcasts the names of the newly disappeared. She says more than 600 families have reported lost loved ones on the journey. Most ended up in Mexico, kidnapped or killed. Or they decided to stay there and work. Each Sunday, the show concludes with this song that she wrote about the migrant experience.

MALDONADO: (Singing in non-English language).

BURNETT: Her sad song tells of loved ones who disappeared on the road to a better life. They weren't criminals. They were just hungry.

John Burnett, NPR News, San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

MALDONADO: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.