Our politicians continue to debate what to do about illegal immigration, how best to secure our southern border, and how serious the problem is. Illegal crossings have surged -- and President Trump has declared a national emergency. What's driving so many migrants to risk their lives and join caravans to enter the US? And is there reason to be concerned about the criminal elements coming with them? Jonathan Elias traveled to Honduras to find out.
It is midnight here in San Pedro Sula.. and this is where it all begins. Everyone here is heading north, and if you talk to some, they'll admit the ultimate goal is to make it to the United States.
Elias: "This is the reason I'm leaving," this man told us. He’s trying to make it to the US - he said - because low wages here make it impossible to support his young family.
Elias: This man says when local gangs see his tattoos, they assume he’s from a rival group, so his only choice to leave.
Elias: This could get him killed?
Honduras is one of the poorest and most violent countries in Central America, surrounded by Spanish-speaking nations with stronger economies. Panama and Costa Rica have had generous asylum policies and, to the north, Guatemala and Mexico have been open to migrants in recent years. Despite that, many still choose the long, grueling trek to America.
Tomas Ayuso: it's been drilled into our heads since forever. it's the best nation in the history of the world, why wouldn't anyone who's trying to save their life go to the best place.
Elias: Honduran Photojournalist Tomas Ayuso has been documenting this flight for 4 years.
Ayuso: It is an exodus. At some point, only biblical terms come to mind when you talk about it.
Elias: A project he’s entitled -- "The Right to Grow Old".
Ayuso: these are the feet of a 15 year old boy who walked through Mexico as he was trying to get away.
Elias: In flip flops?
Ayuso: that's what he had.
President Trump calls it a border crisis, and a dangerous threat to public safety. But how many crimes are committed by illegal immigrants?
The Government Accountability Office – a nonpartisan agency that works for Congress – found that between 2011 and 2016, 35 percent of inmates in federal prisoners were criminal aliens. Most coming from Central America and nearby countries. And during that time, the federal government paid about 1.5 billion dollars each year to keep them behind bars in federal and state prisons, and local jails. MS-13 got its start in Los Angeles, but is rooted today in Central America. It’s become a dangerous export to the US and the biggest target for President Trump.
President Trump: Get ‘em the hell out of here, right? Get ‘em out.
MS-13 is as violent as gangs come.. their motto, kill, steal, rape, control. The White House says there are about 10,000 MS-13 gang members in the US today. On Long Island in 2016, MS-13 members used machetes and bats to kill 16-year-old Nisa Mickens and her best friend Kayla Cuevas. In Maryland in 2017, these three MS-13 members were arrested for brutally stabbing a victim more than 100 times - cutting off his head and cutting out his heart. Nationwide, since 2012, an average of about 35 murders have been tied to MS-13 every year.
There are thousands of MS-13 here in Honduras and we arranged for a rare sit down with two young members.
Right now, we’re heading into an area that’s completely controlled by the gangs. We’re going to sit down with two members of MS-13 and we’re told that when you come into the neighborhood, you have to have your windows down so they can see who’s coming in.
We met at an abandoned home and were warned not to videotape anyone until the gang members could cover their faces.
Elias: How old are you guys? Cuantos anos?
Elias: On the left an 18 year old. On the right, he’s 20. They’ve been MS-13 members for more than 3 years - both sicarios. Spanish for hitman.
Elias: What kind of things do you have to do as a gang member?
Gang member: We start by selling drugs, and after that you become a hit man.
Elias: So you guys are both hit men?
Elias: Who do you kill though?
Gang member: Anyone who’s not part of the gang.
Elias: Who tells you who to kill?
Gang member: The boss shows a picture and says you need to do this and this and this, and we go do it.
They claim they are paid a thousand dollars for every killing.
Elias: Do you ever feel bad?
Gang member: No, in this life, there is no feeling.
Hours before this meeting and across town: the Honduran Military Police showing off the results of a 2 year investigation. 10 gang members wanted for drug sales, extortion and murder. The very same crimes they’re committing in the US. The aggressive crackdown here has helped cut homicide rates in half, but MS-13 remains as powerful as ever. Detective Cesar Ruiz told us they’re not street thugs, they’re a well-run organization.
Elias: So MS-13 is structured in such a way that they have their own doctors, their own lawyers..?
Ruiz: In some cases.
Elias: Their own nurses?
Ruiz: In some areas.
Elias: And these are their members that have trained to do this?
Ruiz: Yes, because they have the money.
Elias: MS-13 made up just over half of all gang members caught at the border in 2018. More than 400 of them. Others are known to have entered the US illegally.
Elias: have you guys ever been to the US?
Gang member: No, we cannot go. We’re part of the gangs here. If you go without permission, you get killed.
The threat of more sneaking into the US is one of the reasons President Trump wants to build his wall. Detective Ruiz understands how difficult it is to get rid of this gang.
Ruiz: I compare them as the ants. You can kill some ants but a few minutes later you will see a lot of ants coming from the bottom of the earth. It’s the same with them.
Elias: do you worry you’ll end up as one of the victims?
Gang member: We don’t have that mentality. When you’re in the gangs you know that can happen. You don’t have to feel fear about that.
Elias: What do you want people now to know about MS-13
Gang member: MS-13 is the best, and only gang out there. Once you’re in it, it’s your family, it’s your life. There’s no leaving it. We’ll put down all rivals because MS-13 is the strongest gang in the world.
The US has poured millions of tax dollars into this country to help turn things around. American Kurt Ver Beek founded an organization called the Association for a More Just Society – and he receives nearly half of his funding from the US Government. He’s been working to change things here for decades. He put together a group of investigators that is going after the killers and going after corruption. Starting here in the neighborhood where he lives.
Elias: you’ve cut murder by 80%?
Ver Beek: 80%.
J: That’s a big chunk.
Ver Beek: Yep.
His team is replicating that success in communities across the country. Something else Kurt helped change: the police. As these new recruits are gearing up to fight crime, he and his team helped purge thousands of corrupt officers and commanders.
Ver Beek: they’ve ended up firing over 5000 cops.
Elias: 5000 cops?
Ver Beek: Out of 13,000.
Elias: Nearly half of the department was fired.
Ver Beek: Almost half of the police force.
But despite the changes, despite the new opportunities, the exodus north continues.
On our visit, we met 17 year old Axel and his 14 year old girlfriend. They were leaving the day we met them. The gang was recruiting him, and he said no. An answer he says that will get him killed.
Elias: You know it's a long way to get to the United States.
Translator: Yes. it'd be better for us to make that difficult journey many times than staying here and losing our lives, he told us.
Elias: what do you worry about?
Translator: That we can die along the way, she said.
Elias: They zip up their worldly possessions into two small backpacks, say their final goodbyes, and walk off to an uncertain future.
Elias: what do you think about right now as you watch them walk away?
Translator: All of the dangers that they're going to have to face along the way, she told us.
Elias: When do you think you'll see him again?
Translator: I don't know, I don’t know, she said.
Elias: Axel told us all they have now is each other, what's in their backpacks, and God.