Honduran children caught in crossfire of gang warfare, drug violence

A girl, deported from the United States, walks to board a bus that will take her to the Center for Migrants Returned, upon her arrival at the airport in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Friday, July 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Eight years ago, in the city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, which has been my home for 24 years, I picked up a beautiful little girl from Social Services. She had been told by a neighbor that if she reported to a policeman that her family had never put her in school, she would be sent to a place where she could get an education.

So all by herself, at age 10, she did just that, and she eventually ended up at our children's home, "God's Littlest Lambs" where we received her with open arms. We will call this little girl "Ana."

Ana proved to be a bright child, and by the time she was 13, she had finished sixth grade. Those first three years, she was well-behaved, studious and delightful. As a teenager, however, she began to suffer from depression, much of it stemming from physical and sexual abuse suffered as a young child. By 17, she was clamoring to leave the children's home. She would not study or participate in activities, church or meals. So finally her mother was consulted, and she was taken back to the home she had escaped from seven years earlier.

This home is in one of Tegucigalpa's roughest neighborhoods, and there are plenty of rough neighborhoods in the capital city of Honduras. Gangs charge "war taxes" (protection money) to businesses large and small; they recruit children and teens to run drugs, collect taxes, and even kill people; and they select girls to be their "wives." If the girls do not agree, they are often murdered. In some cases, the entire family is murdered.

If a boy or girl is "invited" to be part of a gang, he or she has three choices: 1) join the gang and become a drug dealer, thief and/or murderer, 2) refuse to join the gang, which means certain death, or 3) flee. These same choices apply to the victims of the war tax - pay, die or run.

The son of one of our ministry workers was shot dead on the neighborhood soccer field because he was not current with the tax. Last week, gang members threw hand grenades into a small chicken restaurant familiar to me, killing the waitress. The son of another of our fellow workers was stoned to death in a turf war with other young people. These incidents often happen in broad daylight, as there is almost complete impunity. Many of the policemen are also part of the crime network, as are the judges and politicians.

Ana's sister had a job in downtown Tegucigalpa as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant and was able to get a job there for Ana. They worked seven days a week until late at night for $175 per month. They had to find their own transportation to and from work - risky business in their neighborhood.

One day Ana got off early and took a taxi in the afternoon. She soon realized that they were not going in the direction of her neighborhood. The driver was having a quiet conversation on his phone. In a few minutes, he stopped the taxi at a deserted place just outside of the city where a "client" was waiting. Despite Ana's pleas for mercy, this man raped her and threw her into a nearby ditch. After a while, Ana was able to make her way to the road to ask for help. She had been a victim of one of the many sex trafficking rings in the city. In addition to the local rings, international traffickers lurk everywhere, luring or kidnapping up to 100 children each day from Honduras alone. These children rarely return to their families.

A friend recently told me about a woman she knows whose children are being stalked by gang members. She is afraid to send them to school. She says that if they leave the neighborhood, or if they try to go to the States and are turned back, the gangs do not allow them back in their own homes. When a family leaves, the gang occupies the property, and if the family attempts to move back, they are killed.

Where can Honduran parents who live in these volatile places send their children so that they can be safe? Guatemala? El Salvador? Mexico? These places are also filled with predators, gangs and traffickers. The U.S. is the nearest place of sanctuary, and parents know they are throwing their children on the mercy of U.S. citizens, much like Moses' mother in the Old Testament story. They are not being presumptuous; they are desperate.

I am, with tremendous relief, sending my own teenaged daughter stateside soon. I would be happy to keep her here with me to live and study, but I fear for her life every time she says, "I'm going now, Mom. See you later!" Thankfully, I am able to use legal avenues, but my basic motivation is the same as the poor mom of the barrio: I want my child to live in a safe place without constant fear.

I have been praying for mercy for the child refugees. Children who are received lovingly will grow strong and become good citizens. Children who are "housed and fed" reluctantly or resentfully will probably drift toward the negative end of society. Children deported face an extremely uncertain - even terrifying - future in Honduras. My own hope has not been focused on politicians, but on the Church. We are all beggars at heaven's gate. May God lead the Church to make room at the table.

Suzy McCall is a Barnwell native and College of Charleston graduate. She has lived in Honduras since 1990 and is the founder and spiritual director of the LAMB Institute (lambinstitute.org).