Honduran migrants passing through Mexico often carry only the bare essentials: cash, some clothes and a cell phone, if they can afford one.
Gustavo Morales stands out among the migrant population here in Tequixquiac, a hot, dusty little town right outside Mexico City. The 21-year-old is traveling with an African drum that he plays during his downtime along the journey.
The drum isn’t the only reason he stands out. He’s a black migrant in a country where few people are of African descent.
Mexico is somewhat accustomed to Central American migrants, who have come in large numbers in recent years. But the mass exodus from Honduras - where people are fleeing catastrophic violence and poverty - has brought a new type of migrant, the Garifuna, an ethnically Afro-Caribbean population.
The black migrants come from the eastern shorelines of Central America and are heading to the U.S., often to New Orleans and New York.
“It’s a shame, our country, our money isn’t worth much," Morales said. "Honduras doesn’t have many resources, there is work but it’s poorly paid. Then we come through Mexico and suffer on the road. I’d love to ask our president why he hasn’t moved a single finger for this madness to stop… Honduras has become unlivable.”
He’s just one in a growing diaspora of young Garifuna men.
“I’d say about 50 percent of our young people, aged 12 to 30, are leaving their towns, or are gone,” said Edwin Alvarez, a coordinator at at the Organization of Ethnic Community Development, a nonprofit based in La Ceiba, Honduras.
It’s a shift that’s been noticed on the road. At Albergue 72, a migrant shelter in Tenosique near the Guatemalan border, human rights activist Ruben Figueroa says they’ve been seeing growing amounts of Garifuna women and children. “A year ago, we’d get maybe two Garifuna migrants in our shelter every day,” he said. “This year, we’re getting 10 or 15 Garifuna every day.”
We first encountered this group of about 30 Garifuna migrants in southern Mexico. By the time we saw them again in central Mexico, there were less than 15. Most of them had been deported back to Honduras. (Credit: Encarni Pindado)
Garifuna youth are not the only ones being pushed out of Honduras. Border authorities in southern Texas recently declared a state of emergency due to the increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors trying to cross into the U.S., many from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. On Monday, the Obama administration issued a memo tasking the Federal Emergency Management Agency with coordinating government efforts to provide housing, healthcare and other related services to help contain the “urgent humanitarian situation” caused by the influx of migrant youth.
The root cause of the migration is well known: Poverty and violence are endemic in Central America today. Honduras is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere after Haiti, with at least 60 percent of Hondurans currently living under the poverty line and 3.8 million living in extreme poverty.
It’s also one of the most violent nations in the world, with an estimated 19 murders a day on average in a country of fewer than 8 million people. Increasingly grotesque crime scenes have become reminiscent of Mexican narco wars: hacked-up corpses, bodies hanging off bridges, and the increased presence of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Honduran military.
Groups of Central American migrants walk from the southern state of Tenosique, Tabasco, to Mexico City as a protest, demanding free transit for migrants. Eventually the government issued them a 30-day transit visa. (Credit: Encarni Pindado)
As Hondurans are being forced to flee their country, Garifuna, who have historically been shunned by society, are increasingly being uprooted from their homes on the Caribbean coast.
Garifuna (“Garinagu” in the Garifuna language) are the descendants of slaves brought from Central Africa and indigenous Caribbean people, including Arawaks and Island Caribs. They speak a distinct language that mixes all three influences.
Estimates vary about how many Garifuna people there are worldwide. The largest population is in Honduras, though. According to a 2001 report by UNICEF, the Honduran government reported 46,448 Garifuna, but activists estimate the number to be much higher, at about 200,000. The Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras said in a press release that the government has failed to keep accurate statistics about the Garifuna community, saying that they’ve “been systematically made invisible.”
We reached out to the Honduran government for information from the most recent census, which took place in 2013. “Our government has not published data about the 2013 census. Lamentably, we don’t know exactly how many Garifuna are in Honduras.”
Garifuna travelers are now a fixture along the migration route through Mexico, whereas a year ago they were not. Activist Ruben Figueroa has noticed the shift on the freight trains migrants often use to ride from Mexico’s southern border toward the U.S. “You used to see maybe 15 Garifuna riding on top of the trains. Now you see 50 or 60 Garifuna, many families, young women with children on any given day.”
Migrants waiting for the freight train in the south of Mexico. This child was traveling with her mother and two brothers. They said they were trying to escape the violence in Honduras. (Credit: Encarni Pindado)
Some Garifuna say their communities, which are generally located along the Caribbean coast, are in a bad spot when it comes to attracting criminal activity. “These are key corridors for drug traffickers,” said Edwin Alvarez, the coordinator at the Ethnic Community Development Organization for Honduran Garifuna, or ODECO, as it’s known by its Spanish acronym. “The last few years, it’s become noticeable. Drug-related violence has increased.” Part of that can be attributed to the DEA’s increased presence in the region, which has led to confrontations and accusations of human rights abuses.
Garifuna have a distinct way of traveling, according to workers at migrant shelters. They generally stay with their partners and children in very tight-knit groups, and tend to keep apart from other migrants.
For many, it’s not just about the violence they’re escaping. It’s about opportunities they don’t have back home.
We met Andres, a Garifuna in his mid-twenties in Coatzacoalcos, a port city in the southeastern Mexican state of Veracruz. He was under a bridge by a set of train tracks, resting for the night with his group, which included a woman and her two toddlers. He’d never gone to the U.S. before, and was on his way to Louisiana. He’s heard about the state from other Garifuna there.
“It’s like our country, because of the agriculture and fishing, except they are more advanced, and there’s more job opportunities,” he said. He says he thinks education is the most important thing for his children, and in Honduras, “they don’t get that opportunity.”
“In some parts of Honduras we are loved, and in some parts we are hated… but we are the ones who have built the country,” he said. “Is there racism? Yes, but it plays out in academics and in work opportunities. It shows in who has the capacity to do better for themselves, and who is not prepared, academically, or in terms of job experience.”
Meanwhile, activists in the U.S. have expressed concern about the growing number of young Garifuna migrants making the dangerous journey north. “We want to discourage parents from sending their children to cross the Texas-U.S. border, due to the high risks. A booking center in the South of Texas is no place for a child,” reads a recently released statement by the Garifuna Coalition in the U.S., entitled “Crisis of Young Illegal Migrants.”
A young Garifuna girl waits for the freight trains on the tracks in central Mexico. The majority of this group were women and children, and at this point had traveled for more than 15 days, sleeping in shelters and on the street. Many were underfed and several were suffering from exhaustion. (Credit: Encarni Pindado)
But for the young men, women and children making the journey north, the risk is worthwhile. Back under the bridge in Coatzacoalcos, Andres told us they’re headed to New Orleans, where he says he has friends.
Something a lot of Garifuna migrants on the road tell us is that while they are leaving Honduras for the same reasons as everyone else, they feel a bit more confident in their ability to “pass” as Americans, and therefore avoid suspicion from immigration officials, who are on the lookout for people who look more stereotypically Mexican or Central American.
“Once you get to the U.S., people don’t know you are Latino," Andres said. "They think, ‘Just another black guy.’ As long as you keep your mouth shut, you might not get caught.”