When neighbors come to Vilma López to say they’re thinking about migrating north, the first thing she tells them is “please, don’t risk it.” When it’s a woman, she says it twice.
Out of the roughly 183 homes in her mountainous town of La Guadalupe Cedros – made up of a handful of hilltop villages – she knows of at least 35 people who embarked on the journey to the US in the past few years who were never heard from again. Almost all of them were women.
Anyone – male or female – traveling clandestinely through Central America, Mexico, and into the United States faces a litany of dangers, from extortion to kidnapping and deadly accidents to murder. But women are particularly vulnerable: nongovernmental organizations and shelters estimate that between 60 percent and 80 percent are raped at least once while migrating north. Many are recruited or coerced into sex work in brothels and bars in Guatemala and Mexico.
“They are used as pawns,” says Ms. López.
Migrants frequently rely on coyotes, or human smugglers, to reach their destination. And they, in turn, are at the mercy of criminal gangs who control territory in the lawless badlands. To these gangs, women are currency.
“In every group of migrants traveling with a [coyote] there are at least two women, and they are there, whether they realize it or not, in case the group needs a ‘free pass’ card,” says Sister Lidia Mara Souza, coordinator for Honduras’ National Migration Pastoral Program.
Although migration from Central America has been eclipsed by Europe's immigration crises this year, it hasn't gone away. More than 92,500 Central Americans were halted at Mexico’s southern border between October 2014 and April 2015. During the same period, 70,448 non-Mexican migrants, mostly from Central America, were stopped at the US-Mexico border, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.
While numerous religious and nongovernmental organizations across Central America focus on migration, there are few here that concentrate exclusively on the needs of migrant women, either before they depart or when they come home.
An informal network of female volunteers like López – some 300, estimates Sister Lidia – has emerged in Honduras to help these women. López, who works with the Committee of Relatives of Migrants in Central Honduras based in Cedros, about 50 miles from Tegucigalpa, counsels them on alternatives to migrating, and prepares those who are determined to go for the risks that lie ahead.
They don't rely solely on scare tactics. Reina Cruz, who advocates for families of disappeared migrants in central Honduras, gives practical advice as well: memorize your key phone numbers and don’t share them with anyone. Bring cash, but not too much. And if you’re a minor, expect to pay more bribes and have a harder time crossing into Mexico, she says.
Sister Valdette Willeman, who runs a return center for migrants deported from the US, says: “Everyone knows about the rapes and the sexual abuse. It’s just that no one thinks, ‘that could be me.’”
'Honduras, my country'
A bus stamped with the words “Honduras, My Country” pulls up to the back entrance of a building outside the San Pedro Sula airport. Dozens of men and four women file into an open room and sit in long rows of plastic chairs. They’re awaiting their possessions – and their shoelaces – relinquished before being deported from Texas that morning.
This is the Reception Center for Returned Migrants (CAMR), run by the Scalabrini order of nuns and scores of volunteers. All adult migrants deported from the US arrive here first before arranging transportation to their towns or villages across the country – or simply turning around and heading back north again.
The center sees numerous cases of women who suffered physical or sexual assaults both on the migratory path and once they’d arrived at their destination in the states, says Elsy Carolina Alamain Flores, a psychologist at CAMR. But, "it's hard to touch the theme of rape in such a short period of time," Ms. Flores says, referring to the intake process. "Most are overtaken by emotions of returning," like a sense of failure, or fear of facing the violence or unemployment they left behind in Honduras, and "aren't present" mentally. They discovered one case this summer only after a woman came into the doctor's office seeking help for a headache.
Yet, CAMR is one of the few formal spaces in the country where professionals can learn where these migrants have been and what they have been through.
Back home in their community, few neighbors or friends are willing to speak openly about sexual assault, advocates say. But this means sexually transmitted diseases may go untreated, depression can become unmanageable, and women may chose to abandon a child if it’s the result of rape.
Back home, empty handed
After completing a survey with a CAMR volunteer, Belinda Caballero sits on the building’s front stoop, waiting for a friend. She bounces her legs up and down nervously, scanning the dusty road in front of her. The mother of three left two months ago for McAllen, Texas, where her brother lives. He said she could live with him while she looked for work in local beauty salons. It was almost a year since she'd had regular employment in Honduras, and she worried that her children were destined for the same future.
"I wanted my kids to have not just an education but a great education. A bilingual school, to get ahead" she says.
The decision to leave was "impossible," but ultimately she decided it was worth the risk. She left her boys with a relative and traveled seven days by car with three other migrants and someone she says she trusted at the wheel.
“I tried to compartmentalize the potential terror and the potential success that could come out of the journey,” Ms. Caballero says of her attitude before departing for the US. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” she says. “But returning empty handed is even worse. I feel wretched,” she adds, wiping back tears. "I failed."
Caballero says she doesn’t want to push her luck; she won’t try migrating north again.
But others will try, and many of them may never return, says Cruz, who works with families of disappeared migrants. "Even when you think you've made it, you're still at risk."
– Whitney Eulich reported from Honduras as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.