Gangsters killed Maria’s sister in Honduras. A note on the door told her she was next …

A day after burying her sister, Maria Rodriguez* returned home to find a handwritten note on her door. It said she and her family should leave – or be killed.

Rodriguez was living in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, in a violent neighbourhood where two of the most notorious gangs in the country – Calle 18 and MS-13 – terrorise residents and clash over territory.

“You can’t imagine how I felt,” says Rodriguez. “I knew we had to leave immediately so I burned the note and we went, without packing anything. We didn’t even enter the house.”

For 20 years, Rodriguez had avoided trouble. Then one September evening last year, she was eating soup with her family when she heard gunshots outside. It wasn’t until her 14-year-old nephew came in crying that she knew it was her sister who had been killed, shot down in the street.

A neighbour told Rodriguez that, before her sister was killed, men had been hanging around, watching and waiting. Her sister’s phone and 1,000 lempira (£33) had been stolen. Rodriguez knew it was members of Calle 18 who were responsible for her sister’s death, and who were now forcing her to leave behind the house she owned, her job and all her belongings.

She knows of no links her sister may have had with the gang, but says many unanswered questions remain about her death.

Rodriguez’s story is far from unique. Hundreds of thousands of Hondurans have been caught in the crossfire of gang violence and had to uproot their lives, often at a moment’s notice. The latest figures suggest that, between 2004 and 2018, 247,090 people in Honduras had been internally displaced by violence – equivalent to 2.7% of the population.

A 2016 report by the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons found that “gang-related murders are commonplace, while extortion puts every small business owner at risk in some neighbourhoods. Women and girls are murdered or experience threats, intimidation and sexual violence as a means of control by gang members. Families under threat are coerced into abandoning their homes with no hope of return.”

The problem isn’t limited to Honduras. Violence is a leading cause of displacement and migration to the US in neighbouring El Salvador and Guatemala. Worldwide, the number of people forced to move within their own country because of violence is on the rise. A 2020 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found that 40 million people were internally displaced in 2016.

In Honduras, a commission for the protection of people displaced by violence was set up in 2013 to explore the impact on those affected and find solutions, and in March 2019 a bill to address the issue went to the National Congress of Honduras. If passed, it would grant powers to implement a public policy on internal displacement.

But, according to Karim Khaallayoun, head of mission of the ICRC in Honduras, the bill has been stuck for three years because of lack of interest in advancing it. “The former government was proud of its record to reduce homicide rates from 100 per 100,000 to less than 40. Passing such a law would have gone against the narrative of improving the situation of violence in the country,” he says.

“Also there were concerns that they [the government] didn’t have the financial resources to support victims of internal displacement due to violence.”

The arrival of a new centre-left government led by female president Xiomara Castro has renewed hope that it may pass into law. But, at present, there is no government help; only the ICRC and Norwegian Refugee Council offer specific support and care to a tiny fraction of those affected by violence.

Meanwhile, violence continues to wreak havoc on people’s lives. The most recent figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime suggest that the country has the fourth highest murder rate in the world, with 36 homicides per 100,000 people.

According to Hugo Maldonado, president of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Honduras, this year has seen 116 femicides and 23 group murders, along with more than 1,356 violent deaths. “We are in a critical situation,” he says. “Violence – and the impunity that comes with it – is putting us all in danger.”

Migdonia Ayestas, director of the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, believes that violence has been allowed to continue unabated because of weak social policies. “Gangs have been able to grow precisely because state institutions are not capable of controlling territory, and this has served the gangs well,” she says.

More than two-thirds (67%) of the population do not trust the authorities, she adds. “When there is a crime, [authorities] don’t do the investigations, they don’t get results, cases don’t go to court. There is a high rate of impunity that leads to growing violence.”

For Rodriguez, telling the police was not an option. Instead, the family travelled south to where a relative was living, and rented a house there. They had no clothes and there was no furniture.

The next couple of months were some of the hardest. Grief washed over them in waves as they were forced to sleep on the floor and live off beans and rice, which is all they could afford. “We were all low, all with the same horrible feelings,” she says.

“The truth is I didn’t know what to do. I was in despair, and just wanted to cry.”

The mental health of Rodriguez’s nephew deteriorated. He made an attempt on his life and might have succeeded had it not been for Rodriguez and her other sister finding him.

They lived like this for two months, until someone from a church in Tegucigalpa who knew the family referred them to the ICRC. They were supported to relocate to another area of the country, and given financial and psychological help, including money to start a small businesses. Rodriguez now runs a roadside stall, cooking and selling traditional Honduran food. From the proceeds, she has built a house for the family.

This help and support has transformed her life, and that of her family. The ICRC is in discussion with the Honduran Ministry of Human Rights to expand its work. It has never been more needed. According to Khaallayoun: “Many internally displaced people, due to a lack of protection, support and possibilities, end up staying where they are and getting killed, sexually abused, threatened or continuously attacked. Or they end up taking the migration route.”

Ayestas thinks real change will take time but is hopeful. “We have a new government that is cleaning up institutions with new civil servants who aren’t linked [to criminal activity]. People have a lot of hope in the new president.”

She adds: “A new law [to help internally displaced people] would help them see they are not alone, and provide support so that they are not afraid and have adequate protection.”

* Name has been changed to protect her identity

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