“They became furious.”
To say that “they became furious” falls far short of foreshadowing what the Mara-18 gang did to Don Ramón and his family.
But let me introduce you to Don Ramón, because he’s a wonderful man. Don Ramón was born 58 years ago in a small town in Honduras. His father passed away when he was a young boy, but he and his siblings supported the family by selling produce and goods on the street. They sold oranges, mangoes, whatever people would buy.
Don Ramón learned to work hard. He never turned to drugs or drinking to alleviate his hardship – he always relied on honesty and persistence. Slowly but surely his efforts afforded him modest gains, and eventually he was able to start his own family. It hadn’t been easy, and Don Ramón thought a lot about why things were so difficult in his country. He knew that things shouldn’t be the way they were, and he even gave speeches in his community about local political issues. But his main focus was always on supporting his family and improving their wellbeing, little by little. By the time he had several grandchildren, they were able to open their own little convenience store.
In June of 2009, democratically elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup. The country became extremely unstable, and gangs from El Salvador that Don Ramón tells me had been virtually nonexistent in Honduras began to pop up like weeds. “Mara” gangs like MS-13 actually originated in the USA, mostly in Los Angeles, where many El Salvadoran refugees had fled the Salvadoran civil war. US law enforcement deported them, essentially exporting the gang problem to El Salvador.
Over the last three years the power vacuum left by an ineffective government has been filled by gangs. Law enforcement by gangs is ugly. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Honduras had the highest rate of intentional homicide in the world. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported 91.6 intentional homicides per 100,000 residents in 2011.
But back to Don Ramón’s new convenience store. Earlier this year, after their grand opening, they woke up one morning to find a message under their door. It was from the M-18 gang, which controls their neighborhood. In Don Ramón’s town, he tells me, there are more gang members than policemen, and they are better armed. Every night you hear gunshots. Every so often, a few more people are dead when the sun comes up. The M-18 gang demanded that Don Ramón pay 500 lempiras (about 25 US dollars) per week in protection money for his business, as their impuesto de guerra. War tax. “If you don’t pay,” the message informed him, “we’ll kill you.”
Well, their convenience store barely even earned them 500 lempiras per week, and certainly not in addition to the living costs of a family. So they went to the police with the message to file a report. The police told them they couldn’t do anything about it, because they didn’t have enough personnel. Apparently, though, they could do something about it. When he left their offices, the police called M-18 members and informed them that Don Ramón had reported them.
That’s when, as Don Ramón says, the persecution started.
That’s when “they became furious.”
He fled the town for a different one, accompanied by two sons, a nephew, his daughter-in-law and a 7-year old grandson. Gang members in the other town were already aware of their transgression. At 4 am they got up and went further north. They weren’t safe there, either, so they crossed the border into Guatemala. After difficult deliberation, they decided they couldn’t go back to Honduras and they couldn’t stay in Guatemala. That’s how this Don Ramón’s family ended up on la bestia, the murderous system of train routes through Mexico that thousands upon thousands of Central Americans ride north towards the USA every year.
Their voyage, like that of all migrants through Mexico, was plagued by terror and abuse. They found no information in the migrant shelter of Tenosique near the border, only danger. At Palenque they encountered gangs again, charging a tribute they couldn’t afford to board the cargo train. They hid from gangs, state and federal police, immigration officers, and soldiers, all of whom carry the threat of extortion, theft, kidnapping, murder, or just as bad for this family, deportation. They hopped off the moving train before it entered train stations and walked around towns to avoid threats in Chontalpa. Again in Coatzacoalcos. Again in Tierra Blanca. At one point they had to run from someone who had seen them, Don Ramón’s daughter-in-law and grandson crying, terrified.
Eventually they met a human rights worker at a migrant shelter who could help them. After 2 months of bureaucratic transactions, during which they were not allowed to leave the premises of the shelter in San Luis Potosí, they were granted refugee status and sent to a longer-term shelter. That is where I met Don Ramón. That is where he still is, with his family.
“We don’t want to be a government burden,” he tells me, almost begging for me to understand this. “I have no choice. If I had the possibility of meeting my own needs right now, I wouldn’t be here.” He is worried about five family members still in hiding in Honduras, and he has no money to bring them to Mexico. Their current documentation does not allow them to work. Don Ramón feels helpless, and useless besides.
I am sitting with him in a small room, where we have been speaking. He is silent for a while. “I’m more and more worried every day.” Don Ramón looks down and says, softly, “I think this is going to be the last sacrifice I make.” He hopes, he says, speaking more to the walls or the sky or the earth than to me, that he has taught his children and grandchildren to work hard and persevere. “It makes me sad,” Don Ramón pauses, “because I’m going to die so far away from my home and my family.”
I get up from behind my desk and put my hand on Don Ramón’s shoulder as he sobs.
Don Ramón is 58 years old and he is from Honduras. He has several grandchildren. He always worked hard. He loves to dance.
Don Ramón is not Don Ramón’s real name.
Don Ramón is not the only Don Ramón.