I was an American missionary in Honduras. I witnessed firsthand the violence they endure.

In this Nov. 2, 2018 photo, 3-year-old Brithani Lizeth Cardona Orellana, bottom right center, stands with her 5-year-old sister Janeisy Nicolle and brother 9-year-old brother Kenner Alberto, flanked by their aunt and uncle at their home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

There is an armed security guard at every Dunkin’ Donuts in Honduras. When you enter a pharmacy, the guard with a shotgun slung across his chest will considerately hold your pistol while you wait for your prescription to be filled. On holidays, there are no official fireworks, only a handful of illegal firecrackers and gunshots exploding in the night air. On Christmas Eve, New Year’s, Independence Day, in every barrio across the country, shots echo in the dark like a posse galloping out of town in an old Western.

Five years ago, I left the States to volunteer alongside other Americans and Nicaraguans at a children’s home on the northern coast of Honduras that served orphans and kids who could no longer live with their families due to extreme poverty, abuse or both. We learned firsthand that paradise and hell are next-door neighbors, and you can hear the gunshots at night from both places.

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I first had a gun pointed at me while waiting for a cab before dawn in the wealthiest neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, the industrial center of the country and, at the time, the “murder capital” of the world. The security guard saw me standing outside the seminary where I had spent the night as a guest. He climbed down from his turret on the street corner and approached me with a machete in one hand and a raised revolver in the other.

Paradise and hell are next-door neighbors, and you can hear the gunshots at night from both places.

“What are you doing here?” He squinted at me, blinking back sleep.

“I’m just waiting for a taxi. I’m headed to the airport,” I said.

“Then why would you be waiting here on the street?” he asked. “Nothing good happens here this time of night.” Surrounding us were houses that were mansions even by U.S. standards. I wanted to go back inside the seminary, but the 15-foot-high gate had slid closed behind me, and I could not open it again without waking up all the priests, nuns and seminarians inside.

“I can go wait on another block,” I offered. “My cab is just five minutes away.”

“No!” he responded firmly. “You wait right there. Don’t move. Just wait.”

When my taxi finally did arrive, he holstered his gun and offered an apology, but I did not stick around long enough to acknowledge it.

•••

Before I moved to Honduras, I visited the country. For a week, I helped lead a group of high school students from all of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Dallas who wanted to offer some manual labor and supplies to our “sister diocese.” In the shadow of a massive green mountain, we worked to rebuild and paint a crowded school where Luis, our local guide, and his wife were teachers. Luis was the closest thing the small village had to a mayor. He ran the school, helped settle disputes, led the community Bible study and Sunday service, and as one of the only residents with a car, also provided ambulance service.

One morning he greeted us with bags under his bloodshot eyes. He had taken a neighbor who had stomach pains to the hospital in the middle of the night—more than an hour’s drive each way, around to the other side of the mountain. He returned in time for breakfast and prayers and to greet us in the morning at the school.

Luis and his wife stood out as towering examples of what was possible even amid extreme poverty.

Luis and his wife stood out as towering examples of what was possible even amid extreme poverty. With determination and a good heart, one could be a pillar of the community—a community worth staying for. I once asked Luis if many of the young men in his village would eventually leave for the United States. “All of them,” he told me. There was no shame in his voice; it was simply a fact. When I asked if he had ever thought of making the journey, he shook his head. He had a wife and young son, a good job, a community where he was making a difference; he could not imagine leaving.

Years later, when I moved to a town just on the other side of that mountain, I jumped on the bus to visit Luis and his family. He was thrilled to see me again but cautioned me not to take the bus next time. “It was not safe” is all he would say.

During my two years in Honduras, I learned to love those kids at our children’s home like they were my own. Our goal was to prepare them for healthy and productive lives in Honduras, despite the brutal and heartbreaking childhood they had suffered. If we could only offer them enough love and stability and peace in the midst of the tempest around them and behind them in their past, they might have a fighting chance, we believed.

Suddenly the cursed choice to flee this country that so many of our Honduran neighbors had been forced to make became my own.

Yet violence does not issue warnings, and it will not take into consideration sincerely held beliefs. I had just returned from teaching my English class for the day when I learned that one of our volunteers and our executive director, who was visiting from the States, had been attacked on the beach next to our property. Maybe 200 yards from the house, our sanctuary, they had been held with machetes to their necks, and the volunteer, one of my best friends, was raped. “We know where you are from,” their attackers had said when they let them go. “Tell anyone and we come back and kill you and all the children.”

After going to the hospital and giving her testimony to the police, my beloved friend spent the night surrounded by the rest of us on the floor, several of us with machetes by our sides and all of us unable to sleep. In the morning, she was evacuated out of the country, and the rest of us were offered the option by our board of directors to leave as well. Suddenly the cursed choice to flee this country that so many of our Honduran neighbors had been forced to make became my own. The men responsible had still not been caught, and our already limited community of volunteers was quickly dwindling as many admitted they no longer felt safe enough to continue working. The next day the rest of us left as well.

•••

A few years later I reached out to Luis via WhatsApp. It turned out he and his family had snuck away from their small town in the middle of the night. A local gang had demanded he pay for “protection,” and when Luis refused, they threatened to kill him and his family. They fled to a larger city, but he and his wife were unable to find any work as teachers and were still fearful the gang would eventually find them. He asked if I could help him claim asylum in the United States.

Poverty and violence, the causes of these caravans, are diseases we infected these countries with.

I got in touch with a few immigration lawyers, who told me Luis would have to make it to the Mexico-U.S. border and apply for asylum there. But even if he got that far, I had to tell Luis, it was very unlikely his family would be granted asylum. Luis was heartbroken. He needed to protect his family, he said, and the best way he could do that was to leave and provide some kind of living for them. Maybe you and I could get married, if only on paper, he offered sincerely. He was right that such a union was now legal here in the United States, I explained, but I could not just marry him to get him citizenship. Despite the absurdity of the suggestion, I struggled to type out my response, knowing my decision was a matter of life and death.

I still receive messages from Luis every few weeks begging me for help, though to be honest, I no longer have the courage to open them. Constant reminders that I am helpless simply became too much. I know ignoring him is wrong. I know it is my privilege to be able to log off of the violence of Honduras and pretend I do not live in the country that created Luis’s desperation, which is also the country that could help to fix it.

Being born in paradise is no reason to condemn those still stuck in hell.

For all I know, Luis may be part of the infamous caravan, waiting on the other side of the southern border to claim asylum. It is the type of thing a real friend should know. It is important to know who these people are and that what they are doing is legal. There is no way for them to claim asylum from within their country of origin. Implying that those who peacefully present themselves at ports of entry have broken any American laws is simply not truthful.

When I first met Luis, I assumed that in Honduras it was possible to get an education, work and become financially stable enough that you would never need to leave. But the image in my head of the “virtuous Honduran” proved an illusion when even Luis was forced to flee from the unyielding violence and poverty of Central America. If we want to end the cycle of families fleeing in the night for our border, it is necessary to learn why their nights became so terrifying to begin with.

The weapons that plague their streets came from us. The corruption that infests their governments is a direct result of the coups and instability our country has consistently directed or condoned for over a century. Before Banana Republic was a chic clothing store, it was a dismissive term for a country made entirely dependent on a more powerful economy outside its borders. It was merely an updated version of colonialism, and the original victim was Honduras.

Poverty and violence, the causes of these caravans, are diseases we infected these countries with. Getting mad at the migrants is like the conquistadors and white frontiersmen wondering why the Native Americans they found were always getting so sick.

Those of us who live north of the Mexican border have to learn just how intertwined our lands are and why our neighbors to the south still hear gunshots at night. I have fled from one side to the other myself and watched in vain as those I care about try to follow. But being born in paradise is no reason to condemn those still stuck in hell.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of immigration.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mark Langlois
2 weeks 3 days ago

Have the likes of president Trump the honesty and integrity to believe what you have witnessed? I find interesting and very humble of you, Patrick, to impute the blame to those who are responsible, neo-colonialists of which we are ... both Americans, AND Canadians, of which I am.

William Bannon
2 weeks 3 days ago

The essay addresses no nuances ( like the current caravan males on video throwing rocks and bottles at low paid border guards...gee we need those males in our country for sure) and the essay depends on leftist guilt tripping which only the leftist reader will buy. USA actions for a century cannot be simplistically totaled as pure evil ( the new writer’s cliche) and even if it could...why would a current usa citizen allow himself to do anything out of a guilt he had no part in. If your great great grandfather was an overcharging doctor or merchant, what bearing in the world has that on your choices right now. Should you reimburse financially all his victims? Never heard one case of it in all humankind. Be the first....but Ezekiel 18:20 seems to contradict you.
Catholic countries south of us are a disaster. The Church should be holding a Council to examine why so many Catholic countries are broke, corrupt, and violent with murder rates from Brazil to Mexico that should have made Popes demand death penalties just in those exact countries...in keeping with the catechism prior to Francis though it was defective prior to him but technically it admitted that execution can be necessary. Instead none of the past three Popes even knew that globally...a non death penalty Catholic region is worst murder rate-wise in the world with prisons that have no relationship to the perfect prisons envisaged by three Popes in their ccc dreams. China with 7 times Brazil’s population( both poor dominant)...has 11,000 murder victims a year. Non Death penalty Brazil has 55,000 a year. Three Popes can’t see the lesson in that. It was invisible to them because they sought Nobel prize image instead of truth for victims.
Let China execute justice in Central America and it will be very safe in three years...
because they are not feminized in the negative sense of that word...like the present Church and its post Catholic governments.
Today I read Mexico is going to investigate our use of tear gas...
the same Mexico who won’t investigate the thousands of unsolved murders and disappearances some by its own soldiers. The media equals ideology only. There is no neutral source anymore. A DACA dreamer last week was released from prison in NJ and ICE was not notified and he murdered in the midwest three days later..three victims.
https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/washington-secrets/illegal-alien-cha…
When I lived in Rockland County, a woman c.10 years ago ordered deck cleaning...mother of two children. A Central American male arrived, started the job, but then went inside and raped and killed her..New City, NY. Then the piece of scum took her phone...called her friends and taunted them about what he did. NY is death penalty free. It too needs executions especially for men like that one. Feminization in the bad sense rules the weakening West. China would do the Rom.13:4 thing with our deck cleaner...and they would shoot him within two years...not 10,15, 20 years of appeals....the usa slow motion disaster.

https://nypost.com/2006/05/16/handyman-gets-life-in-rape-slay-you-stole…

John Butler
2 weeks 3 days ago

The older I get,the less I seem to know.I mean I knew my entire adult life that a nation has a right to protect itself,and secure it’s borders.In the latest caravan heading to our border,I can’t miss the number of military aged young men that are in attendance.Some possibly gang members.I see all those things.I also see a family interviewed and the mother from Honduras beg the US President by name to help her family and spare them from the violence of her home country .I know that if your willing to look past the sensationalism of the left and right,you see people for what they are-fellow travelers in this thing called life.You also see ,if you look closely enough,possibly ,the face of Christ.

William Bannon
2 weeks 1 day ago

John, according to a 2014 UN report, femicide has a 95% impunity rate in Honduras. I suspect many Honduran women have seen the face of satan rather than the face of Christ in their partner. By the way...wiki has great work on Honduras...very detailed.

Gabriel Marcella
2 weeks 3 days ago

A remarkable story of human tragedy. A generation ago Honduras was a peaceful backwater. Drugs, guns, and gangs have destroyed the tranquility. We must admire the heroic people of Honduras and help them restore justice, security, and a decent existence. Thank you, Mr. Gothman for sharing your experience and insights.

James Schwarzwalder
2 weeks 3 days ago

Has anyone hypothesized how things in Central America might have turned out differently if Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico had come together like the thirteen original American (US) colonies did in 1776? It seems the Spanish government and the Catholic Church held sway before the US ever got involved in a meaningful way in Central America. Canada and the US seem to have made out a lot better by individual states forming a "more perfect union" that is sticking together. Not to minimize the US involvement, but we were not the first colonizers in Central America and Central America is fragmented to this day. And it shows.

Dionys Murphy
2 weeks 2 days ago

Has anyone hypothesized how these countries may have advanced had the US not intervened in their governments, taken part in the destruction and overthrow of their governments and installation of banana republics?

William Bannon
2 weeks 2 days ago

No....show us in detail instead of getting others to do the work.

Connie Atkinson
2 weeks 3 days ago

The first book of the Bible is Genesis. In it, the story of mankind’s dual nature and free will are fully described and disclosed. There is no excuse for evil behavior, regardless of a person’s past. If that were the case, why on earth would we need religion to teach us right from wrong and that the wages of sin is death. The Left has effectively destroyed much of humanity’s faith and trust in religion and replaced the logos of personal responsibility with victimhood. Do we give Hitler a break because he suffered trauma in his childhood? WTH has happened to all those Catholics that they are inflicting such harm on their own people? It would have been better if the Church had left them in their native state. Don’t blame this just on the US, the Church bears equal, if not greater, responsibility for not teaching these people how to act like Christ and build prosperous and educated community that reflects the Glory of God.

Steve Magnotta
2 weeks 2 days ago

Thank you for the article. But, editors of America, please start moderating comments. There is far too much that doesn't adhere to your comments policy in any way at all. Make it clear to people that blathering, breitbart-like garbage has no place here.

Phillip Stone
2 weeks 2 days ago

All daughters of Eve and sons of Adam are in their present state, living cast out from the garden in Eden because of sin.
The lack of money trees is part of the consequences.

We are all born naked and without everything except whatever resources the communities within which we are born are prepared to contribute to our survival and well being.

WE HAVE NO RIGHTS EXCEPT THE DEATH PENALTY FOR OUR OWN SIN, all else which comes our way is gift and grace.

Inequality; non-uniform distribution of stuff; plenty and scarcity; all came from the HAND OF GOD
Judeo-Christian culture is modelled on living like a domestic flock, the others are modelled more on bee-hives.

Jesus endowed sharing with sacramental glory, " done to the least of my brothers is done unto me" and He did NOT make it a LAW.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

Let's forget this discussion of Banana Republic or US colonization. Every country in Latin America was dysfunctional from the start because of Spanish and Portuguese colonization which left the social philosophy of each country and the Catholic Church on every country that emerged. If one wants to look at American influence, go no farther than Japan, Korea and Western Europe after WWII. But look at how the Philippines failed even with American governance due to its Spanish and Catholic influence. Read "The Mystery of Capital" by Hernando De Soto, a Peruvian economist.

Phillip Stone
2 weeks 2 days ago

I seem to remember there were many people living from the tip of the northern continent icy wilderness to the tail of the southern continent at Terra del Fuego and everywhere in between.
For the Maya and Aztec, human sacrifice was embedded in everyday life and widespread back to the time before Christ amongst most of their neighbours.
Bit hard to believe they were the noble savages of Romanticism and impossible to believe they could be more corrupted by colonialism.
.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 1 day ago

Besides de Soto, read Niall Ferguson's "Civilization." Essentially the Spanish and Portuguese cultures were based on the "great chain of being" advocated by the Church and never established land rights/real freedom for most of the people. There never developed a culture of getting rewarded for doing something and advancing that flowed from England and Holland. That's why Philadelphia was the most vibrant city in the Western Hemisphere in 1750. Pennsylvania absorbed 80,000 Germans immigrants before 1800 and thrived.

wendy gaham
2 weeks 1 day ago

My Broken marriage has been restored & my husband is back after he left me and the kids with the help of Dr.Lawrence the best spell caster and i highly recommends Dr.Lawrence to anyone in need of help to get in touch with him via his email drlawrencespelltemple@gmail.com or on whats-app +19142088349

Bev Ceccanti
2 weeks ago

It may not be on topic but it is delight to hear it. Thank you.

EditReply

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
2 weeks ago

Ahimsa or non-violence is the way forward.

Bev Ceccanti
2 weeks ago

This response was relocated to Wendy's statement where it belongs.

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