Unraveling the Complex Problems behind the Disappearances of Migrants from Honduras

IHRC Supports Migrant Families’ Quest for Justice and Truth

by Joshua Duncan, BUSL’17

It felt like a Sunday. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Tegucigalpa, we had already been up for twelve hours, traveling from Boston to Honduras. We were already tired, and hungry, but we had a long drive ahead of us to La Paz, a country city where we were to meet members of COFAMICENH, a family collective working to organize relatives of people who had gone missing on the migrant route that runs through Mexico to the US.

Everywhere along the drive there were people. In gatherings at a cemetery, at a soccer game in the national stadium, along the highway walking. And they all had the unrushed Sunday feeling. This restfulness became palpable in La Paz, where quiet crowds of people gathered in the city center. In what is commonly referred to as the most violent country in the world, our cab driver stopped twice to ask strangers how to find the street where we had agreed to meet the representative of COFAMICENH.

Once we had found Jose Suazo, the co-founder and president of COFAMICENH, he took us to his modest home. There we were treated with the hospitality of visiting dignitaries. This modesty and formality was epitomized when we were served 7-up off a tray in a manner reserved for holiday gatherings by most Americans.

The feeling of Sunday restfulness, the modesty of our setting, and being treated like honored guests all highlighted the concern and apprehension I felt at our task. We had come to Honduras to do field work for the International Human Right Clinic. Our project was to research migrant disappearances, with the aim of writing a report that identified gaps in the legal framework built in response to the disappearances, and to recommend ways to address these gaps. As a clinic student, this project is designed to provide me an opportunity to learn while doing practical work. My inexperience and lack of knowledge were at the very front of my mind as we sat, in this calm, almost sleepy city, where the fact that we did not fit in was only emphasized by the humble and dignified treatment we were being offered.

Jose felt different from us as well. This was clear, as he began to tell us his story, when he asked how comfortable we were with criticisms of the US government. He did not know if he could say what he thought, which is that the US bears at least some responsibility for what is happening to the migrants. It was also clear that he wanted to talk to us. It did not take long for him to open up and share his story.

Jose’s brother left Honduras to come to the US, just like many others, to find opportunity. The stereotype that too many Americans assume about migrant disappearances, that the family member abandoned their home and are not in contact because they have no interest in staying in contact, simply does not apply to Jose. He had frequent contact with his brother on the migrant route, all the way up to the US/Mexico border. Then, nothing.

The last time Jose heard from his brother was May 5, 2012. On May 13, 2012, 49 migrants were mutilated and decapitated, then left on the roadside, in what is now referred to as the Cadereyta Massacre. 20 days later, Jose was informed that his brother was among them. Twenty-seven months after that, he was finally able to get his brother’s remains repatriated to Honduras.

This was not the first-time Jose had to work through this process. In 2010, his nephew also went missing on the route. The last time Jose heard from his nephew, he was told that his nephew had hired a coyote to help him cross the border. His nephew’s body was discovered in Texas, about 11 days later. The authorities concluded that the cause of death was hypothermia. When his body was repatriated, Jose found that he had badly mutilated, with scars all over it.

In having to go through the woefully inadequate processes for repatriation a second time for his brother, Jose learned of COFAMIPRO, a family collective operating in El Progreso, a city near San Pedro Sula in Honduras, which had organized caravans to search for missing migrants in Mexico. With COFAMIPRO’s support, he founded COFAMICENH, and has provided support to others in the La Paz area with missing relatives, including the “psychosocial” process of dealing with grief, support in working through the repatriation process, and documenting all the cases.

Hearing these stories made our task very real to me. Anxieties about inexperience melt away in the face of the magnitude of this problem. Faced with issues that could lead anyone to consider the risk of the migration route, people leave their homes in hope and desperation, and almost always with the goal of providing for those they leave behind, and too many are never heard from again. Responsibility for the issues that lead people to migrate has led governments to take on obligations to protect migrants. Now that those obligations should be observed, there is too much foot dragging and too much pointing blame elsewhere.

Even though it is too late to protect Jose’s brother, or his nephew, there is still important work to be done. The International Human Rights Clinic has a role to play, in reporting facts and analyzing the laws. Worry over how to do this, for me, has been replaced with a sense of purpose and concern for the rights of people, whose only wish is for a better life.

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