EspañolOn Monday at 6:00 am, Carlos Alberto (39) will take a bus to escape Honduras, his home country, and the one with the highest murder rate in the world (90.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants).
His mission is to arrive safely in the United States, a country where he hopes for a better future. He is already struggling with the anxiety and sadness of leaving his family behind, but he is happy to take off towards a land where he will at least be able to stay alive. He doesn’t know whether he will find work or whether he will be alone, but he will be alive.
“Carlos Alberto” is a fictional name he chose to use when telling his story. If we were to use his real name, he might not make it to that bus on Monday. So far this year, 60 taxi drivers have been murdered in Tegucigalpa. They were his coworkers, “fellow travelers,” as he calls them.
Just this week, three more were killed. The criminal gangs that run the city force the taxi drivers to pay every day in exchange for letting them work on the streets. They have to give up half of their salary to comply with the gangs’ demands.
That is why Carlos Alberto is leaving his country. He leaves behind his wife and six children, who he wants to bring to the United States as well as soon as he finds a job there. But first he has to make it there alive — not an easy task, bearing in mind that he will have to rely on a coyote to cross the border from Mexico.
Having already been attacked with guns, kidnapped for several hours, beaten, and extorted by gangs in his city, Carlos Alberto is thankful for the opportunity to tell his story. He wants the world to know.
Carlos, what is your daily routine and how is it affected by the gangs of Tegucigalpa?
I get up in the morning; I shower; I pray to God to take care of me throughout the day; and I go to work. Clients call me on the phone to tell me where I have to pick them up, it is safer to work that way. I always have to keep my car’s doors locked, because gangs are always on the lookout to point their guns at us and ask for money.
I’ve always liked to earn an honest living, but gangs don’t allow us to live in peace. I am a welder by trade, and was going to open my own business, but the gangs told me I had to pay over US$2,500 to set up shop, and a monthly contribution of US$1,000 if the business went well. What’s the use of learning a trade if they don’t let you work in peace?
Which kind of people are in these gangs?
They are supposedly linked to drug trafficking. They are boys, minors, but managed by big shots. They recruit young people, because here you are not criminally liable until you are 18 years old, so they use kids to commit murders, extortion, and kidnapping, among other crimes.
How do they conduct their blackmail operation?
Well, we never see the leaders. But the ones who charge us to let us work live in poor areas near the city. They come down to the city in motorcycle or bicycle, fully armed, and go around asking the people who work in the area for money.
They know where one lives, where our children go to school. I guess they keep a record of our license plates. The risk of not paying them is not only losing our work, but that they can go after our children.
How much money do they take from you, Carlos?
Half of my salary, nearly $800 a month, among all the gangs that I stumble upon at work. They do not care if you paid someone else already, they don’t even keep records of who pays what to whom.
Can you live with the money that’s left after you pay them?
It is definitely very hard. I rent a small annex to a house. The car is mine, but I pay a monthly fee for the taxi registration number. I support all the four children of my previous home, I am responsible for them and will never leave them behind. And in my current home I have to twins. All my children are of school age, and I always tell them they have to study hard to accomplish big things in life.
Have you feared for your life often while at work?
The last time I was robbed, three months ago, they almost killed me. I was dropping a client and a couple of gangsters tried to stop me, as if they wanted to hire me for a ride. I didn’t stop, so they got on their motorcycles and chased me. One of them pointed at me with a 9 mm gun, so I had to stop. Several of them got in the car, and one said to the other: “This guy got lucky today.” They told me they were going to kill me, so I launched my car off the road, down the hill, so that at least they would die with me as well. But somehow we all survived.
So we kept driving towards a neighborhood I didn’t know, and all of a sudden the low-fuel light turned on. One of them said “this thing has no gas, we can’t use it.” I guess they wanted to use the car for committing some sort of crime. They all left in their motorcycles except one who stayed with me after they told him, “you know what you have to do with this guy.” So when they left, this guy pointed the gun at me, but luckily I managed to take it away from him and beat him up unconscious. I threw him out of the car and left.
Shortly after, I ran out of gas, and had to push the car to the nearest service station, where they helped me out.
That night, when I arrived home, my daughter was waiting for me. “Were you attacked, daddy?” she said. She had a hunch. I was all beaten up.
I guess it is useless to report this to the police in Honduras. Did you?
I have been robbed five or six times, but reporting it to the police is a joke, it can actually make things worse. You can’t generalize and say that all cops are “rogues.” There are good cops, but they are very few; most of them are criminals who have infiltrated the police forces. You don’t want to report anything, because you have to give them all your data, where you live, your phone number, everything in the hands of these gangsters. It would get you even closer to death.
But I did the right thing. I reported this last incident, and I also reported that I keep getting extortion calls.
Who called you? What do they want from you?
I stopped working in the area I used to, so they wanted me to pay around $1,500 for every day that I hadn’t worked, and then a gangster from another area asked me for $1,000 more. To pay that I would have to sell the taxi, and if I do that, I have no means to survive.
My only option is to lock up my car, migrate, and then sell it so my family can live off the proceeds while I fix my situation and ask asylum in a country that respects human rights. I put everything in the hands of God.
How will you explain your situation in whichever country you arrive in order to obtain asylum?
I would explain that my country is run by extortion gangs, that they actually run the police forces. I have newspaper clippings that prove it. This week alone, three taxi drivers were killed. About 60 so far this year. All dead because they refused to pay the gangs. Because it comes to a point where if I pay them, I’ll have to let my children starve. And I know I will choose to feed my children.
The only option I have left is to emigrate, because this is definitely collapsing. I love my country, and I am proud of it, but it is extremely insecure. I simply feel forced to leave.
Where do you want to go?
I have thought about going to the United States. So far, it is the only place I have considered. I know the trip is quite dangerous, but it’s worth it because I am a good welder. I know I can get ahead in a country where there are employment opportunities.
Almost 14 years ago, I tried to emigrate, but it was a personal decision, I didn’t feel forced to do it. The idea was to cross by land from Mexico. I didn’t make it in the end, because I got too many sores on my feet, so I had to turn myself in to the army in Oaxaca. I still had a long way to go; I was all alone; and I just didn’t want to lose my legs trying to arrive there. I surrendered because, of course, I was also illegal in Mexico.
I tried to get a tourist visa for the United States, and they rejected me. But now I will do it because I have no choice, to protect my life and my family.
How are you setting up your trip?
I’m leaving with a friend of mine. He has a Mexican work permit, so we’ll have to put together some money for the bus fare, and then we’ll see what we do. He will take me to the border, near Monterrey, and once there we will contact a coyote to see how much they charge me. Then we have to get the money and see if he can take me to the other side.
The important thing is to be on the other side. It doesn’t matter if the border patrol gets me, because I have proof that I am an asylum seeker. I have newspaper clippings, documents that show that I have been shot, that I have been beaten up. I have my transport association ID and the records that show that I reported what happened to me to the police.
What will happen to your family?
It’s very hard for me to take them out of the country right now. I just don’t have enough money to take them with me at the moment.
How much do you plan to spend?
Thanks to my friend’s connections, I think it will come to around $1,200. That’s a good price; they can charge up to $3,000 just to cross the border.
And wouldn’t that kind of money be enough to buy a plane ticket and ask for international protection at the airport?
I cannot buy the ticket without the tourist visa. I went to the US embassy and they wouldn’t give it to me. What I’ll do is that I’ll mortgage the taxi to pay for everything. If I make it to the United States, I will pay the mortgage. If I don’t cross the border, I lose my livelihood. But I definitely have to mortgage the taxi.
What would you say to people who live in the United States and oppose immigration?
First, that they should respect the lives of other people, because my case is not the case of the typical immigrant. Do not close the door on us, because as human beings we need each other. And I would ask Latinos who live there to lend us a hand. We should not go against each other.
I want to take all my children with me. Actually, my two daughters have also been threatened with kidnapping. If I get a job, I’ll take them all. I want them to have a future and a better life.