Tapachula, Mexico – Luis Jose Carbajal was 19 years old when he was shot. It was two months after the June 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras, and people all over the country were taking to the street to protest the removal and expatriation of elected President Manuel Zelaya by the military.
Carbajal was participating in a demonstration against the coup in northwestern Honduras, along a key highway between San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, and Puerto Cortes, its main port. Police and soldiers showed up and, before long, opened fire.
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“I heard the gunshots and felt something searing,” Carbajal told Al Jazeera.
Carbajal was shot in the thigh, but the bullet went straight through his leg and did not hit an artery. He does not have any documentation from the hospital, because he never went, fearing security forces would track him down there.
Those fears may well have been well-founded. Al Jazeera interviewed several people in northwestern Honduras shot and wounded by security forces during protests against the 2017 re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernandez amid widespread reports of election fraud. In some cases, people reported that security forces showed up in the hospital to intimidate them and their relatives.
Between December 2017 and January 2018, human rights groups documented six people shot dead during crackdowns on protests in the Lopez Arellano Sector alone, more than any other place in the country.
According to the organisers of Lopez Arellano Sector opposition alliance support collective who are now in Mexico, more than a dozen people shot and wounded never went to the hospital, and were instead treated by local nurses supporting the protests.
A member of the local collective, Carbajal participated in the recent protests, but military police began monitoring and intimidating him and other collective members, he said. Carbajal fled the country in October, together with thousands of Honduran migrants and refugees who left the country en masse in a highly visible group initially dubbed a caravan.
“My plan is to prosper, to move forward and create a better future for my children,” said Carbajal, a 28-year-old father of three.
Carbajal was part of a Central American exodus last year that saw thousands of migrants flee Honduras and El Salvador in highly visible groups dubbed caravans. An estimated 6,000 migrants travelling collectively for safety made it to the United States-Mexico border in Tijuana late last year.
Some remain in Tijuana, some returned home, and many have since crossed into the US, both at and between official points entry, to seek asylum in the country. Carbajal was not among them. He is still more than 1,700km away from the US border.
Carbajal stayed behind in Tapachula, in southern Mexico, with more than 3,000 participants in the Central American exodus who presented themselves to immigration authorities upon entry into Mexico, received temporary legal status, and are now in the country’s refugee status consideration process.
While many refugees from last year’s caravans await the months-long process, thousands more are beginning to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border. A new caravan of more than 1,800 Central Americans left Honduras and El Salvador earlier this week and are now beginning to arrive in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, on the border with Mexico.
My plan is to prosper, to move forward and create a better future for my children.
Central Americans are fleeing their home countries for a variety of reasons. But for some, including Carbajal, the reason was political persecution and state violence. Many people brought supporting documentation with them, and Carbajal is no exception.
Carbajal’s court documents were in surprisingly good condition after the more than 700km journey and brief stint sleeping outdoors in the Tapachula central park after being released from two weeks in immigration detention.
The court documents detail the decision of a Honduran judge to throw out a case against Carbajal several years ago. In 2014, he was on his way to a local football field when he was stopped by the police while taking a shortcut through an urban land occupation. The police asked for his identification card before letting him continue on his way, and Carbajal thought nothing of it, but it later spurred years of legal troubles.
In 2016, the military police arrived outside his house, asked for his ID, and informed him there was a warrant for his arrest on the charge of usurpation. Carbajal was taken into custody by the military police until his night-time appearance before a judge.
The judge threw the case out for lack of evidence, but coincidence or not, the arrest warrant was erroneously never quashed. Known to police and military police officers in the area for his active involvement in protest activities, Carbajal was repeatedly arrested in the years that followed.
“Wherever they found me, they would arrest me, even when I was carrying the court documents,” he said.
Now in Mexico, Carbajal still carries the court documents, but he also carries the Mexican immigration and Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) documents that grant him the right to live and work in Mexico and affirm that he is under consideration for refugee status in the country.
‘My son was decapitated’
Carla* also carries her COMAR documents with her everywhere. She fled Honduras months before the mass exodus. Bright and energetic, she helped explain the ins and outs of the process to other Central Americans waiting in line outside the COMAR office in Tapachula.
“My son was decapitated,” she said, reaching into her purse to retrieve a newspaper clipping with a photograph of grieving women hugging in front of yellow police tape blocking off the crime scene.
The gruesome murder of Keny Anderson Trochez Garcia in San Pedro Sula made the front page of Honduran newspapers last year. Trochez Garcia was killed, decapitated and his heart removed from his body in February 2018. He was 18 years old.
Trochez Garcia worked as a minibus driver’s assistant between San Pedro Sula, the regional social security institute hospital, textile factories and communities north of the city, shuttling workers and nurses between work and home. The 19-year-old minibus driver, Augusto Nery Diaz, was also murdered and decapitated alongside Trochez Garcia.
Throughout Honduras, the transportation sector is plagued by extortion by gangs and other criminal networks, but killings over non-payment are particularly frequent along the routes between San Pedro Sula, Choloma and Puerto Cortes. Extortion payments are often a burden shared between owners, drivers and helpers, but that was not the case for Trochez Garcia and Diaz.
“The owner said he was making the extortion payments. He never paid anything,” said Carla, Trochez Garcia’s mother.
Carla said neighbours warned her not to, but she filed a formal report to Honduran prosecutors when it appeared to her that no real investigation was taking place. She could not just do nothing, she told Al Jazeera. Soon after, she and her whole family began receiving threats.
Carla, her husband, and three of their children fled Honduras months before the high-profile caravan groups. The family has already been granted temporary protection by COMAR, but she was back at the commission offices to request the addition to the case of another daughter who recently made it out of Honduras to join the family in Tapachula.
The protection status is not full asylum, and the family is not entirely sure what their future holds. A US policy announced in June by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed the border personnel to “generally” deny asylum claims grounded in gang violence or domestic violence, considering them personal matters. But a federal court struck that policy down last month.
Next steps unclear
Elsa Santos is not sure what her family will do. Some of her relatives had already fled gang violence in Honduras months before the caravans. Santos and her husband left with the first wave of the public exodus in October, fleeing political violence.
Al Jazeera first met Santos on October 15, shortly after the first wave of the Honduran exodus had entered Guatemala. Santos and her husband had walked with the crowd from the border to a kilometre or two before reaching Esquipulas. Guatemalan police officers were blocking the highway to prevent the Hondurans from making it to town.
Most people had not eaten all day, and there was limited water to go around, so individuals prioritised giving it to families with babies and small children. A few people were so exhausted that they laid down in the thick, tall grass along one side of the highway.
Santos never wanted or planned to leave Honduras. She loves the country and has been involved for years in different social movement struggles in and around El Progreso, 30km southeast of San Pedro Sula. But everything changed for her last year.
“I received death threats,” she told Al Jazeera.
Santos and other residents in the Colonia Aleman neighbourhood were engaged in a conflict with the mayor of El Progreso over the title to the community’s lands. On September 23, 2017, a gunshot was fired outside Santos’s house. That same day, another woman involved in the land title dispute was killed.
“I was traumatised for quite some time,” said Santos, her voice breaking slightly.
Santos left home the next day. She and her husband hid out in another part of the country. Santos and the Colonia Aleman community council filed reports with authorities, but more than a year later, there has been no progress, she said. At one police station, officers told her others no longer there had taken the report and that the file was lost, she said.
Santos places the blame squarely at the feet of municipal government officials and Honduran President Hernandez.
“The government is the one violating our rights,” she said.
Now in Tapachula, Santos and her husband are making the best of the situation while they wait for the outcome of the refugee status consideration process.
They have been lucky, she told Al Jazeera this month, sitting on a bench in the city’s central park. Her husband found work in security at a local bar, and Santos, who worked as a seamstress in Honduras, is waiting to hear back this coming week about a job helping a local Tapachula seamstress.
Santos, Carbajal and the thousands of other Central Americans from the exodus whose refugee status is under consideration in Tapachula were set to find out the outcomes of their cases this month, but Mexican authorities extended the process by another 45 business days.
*Al Jazeera has changed the individual’s name for security reasons. She requested that only her deceased son’s real name be included.