For young Hondurans, a 'collective despair' pervades life

An increasing number of younger Hondurans are battling depression, suicide attempts and the desire to flee, experts say.

Junior Montes and his son Gerardo look toward the capital city of Tegucigalpa from their home in the Ciudad Guzman neighborhood. The neighborhood is among several on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa where a growing number of Hondurans have resettled after fleeing poverty in the countryside as a result of failing crops, or violence from other cities. The continuing cycle of poverty, hunger and violence in these neighborhoods often leads to migration to other countries, including the United States.

Fifteen-year-old Helen Rivera barely dreams these days. Instead, she floats in a mindless state as she sleeps, sometimes induced by pills prescribed by a psychiatrist.

In this thoughtless slumber, she doesn’t remember that her father’s bedroom down the hall is empty since he disappeared in March. Or that her grandmother often sobs at the mention of his name. Or that both she and her grandmother have been threatened with death for reporting his disappearance to authorities. In this bustling city in northern Honduras, gang members, criminal groups, and corrupt authorities are not hesitant to follow through on such threats.

About 60 miles away in the beach town of Triunfo de la Cruz, local community leader César Benedit, 35, has the opposite problem. He often lies awake remembering that night in July 2020 when his best friend and four other men were dragged from their homes and forced into unmarked cars by a group of masked, armed men. It’s one of many acts of violence against Black Hondurans from the Garifuna Afro Indigenous population, who have been systematically discriminated against and violently pushed off their lands. No one has seen the five Garifuna men since.

Meanwhile, about 250 miles south in a subsistence farming community called Azacualpita, Yosselin Ávila González, 25, hasn’t felt the comfort of her husband sleeping next to her since he migrated to the United States in January. They had lost yet another harvest to the drought sweeping the so-called Dry Corridor, a region prone to prolonged dry spells. “It’s difficult to live here with kids,” Yosselin recalls her husband telling her before leaving. “Your kids suffer.” 

Helen, César, and Yosselin share what one psychologist from Doctors Without Borders refers to as “collective despair” among the younger generation in a country with high rates of violence, unemployment, and climate change-induced disasters. To live in Honduras, they say, is to suffer.

Many are choosing to migrate. Others are battling against tough odds to make life better at home. And an increasing number are falling into depression. It’s a trend largely affecting the younger generation and creating concern among experts who are seeing an uptick in the number of cases among those suffering from depression who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and attempts to harm themselves.

Missing dad

With her mother out of her life and a father struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, Helen grew up with her grandmother, Ana Marlén Castellanos. She was just starting to feel close to her dad Josué Emanuel Rívera Castellanos, 32, after he finally got clean and became a steadier presence in her life. Josué split his time between Helen and two younger children from another marriage. Some days he slept at the home Helen shares with her grandmother, others at his house with his current wife and Helen’s half-siblings, ages 6 and 11 months old.

Josué’s mother didn’t always approve of the friends he hung out with, particularly when he was drinking. But she doesn’t think he was involved in any gang or other criminal group. Ana says he was hard-working and well-respected within his profession as an informatics engineer. Recently, he had become a more attentive father, spending more time with his oldest daughter Helen.  

Then, one day this past April, Josué went to the local auto shop to get his car fixed. He called around 3 p.m. to let Helen know that he was going on a ride with a friend but didn’t say where they were headed. He promised his daughter he would bring back that special drawing paper she likes to use for sketches.

When Josué wasn’t home by dark, his mother started getting worried. When he didn’t show up after three full days, she called the police to report his disappearance. Since then, Helen and her grandmother call the investigator’s office almost every day to find out if there are any updates on Josué’s case. But they always get the same answer: nothing new.

Disappearances are not uncommon in Honduras. At least 2,400 Hondurans have been reported missing since 2019, according to local media. Other forms of violence, including sexual violence and extortion, also run rampant. Homicides also increased in the first months of 2021, after a slight decrease during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With her father gone, Helen says she doesn’t feel safe even walking to the corner store by herself. She recently heard of three girls her age who were kidnapped while strolling through the neighborhood. “You think of everything and you think that something could happen to you,” she says.

Before the pandemic, Helen might have confided in a friend during lunch or after classes about how she’s feeling, lightening her burden a little. But San Pedro Sula has continued to be a hotspot of COVID cases in Honduras. With in-person classes at her school suspended since March 2020, Helen doesn’t see her friends in person much. Sleep is her escape.

“I sleep so I don’t think too much,” Helen says, adding that sometimes she wishes she would not wake up. “I’m too young for all this.”

Seeking a way out

Helen is not alone in thinking about suicide. Official data from the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras reported more than 200 suicides in the first six months of 2021. Psychologists from NGOs, public hospitals, and private clinics all say they’ve noticed an increase in suicide attempts by young people in Honduras in recent months though they suspect official data underreports cases. Many genetic and cultural factors influence a person’s risk for suicide, including family history, lack of access to mental health care, exposure to violence, or a recent loss, according to Pedronel González, a psychologist at the Hospital del Valle in San Pedro Sula who has studied suicides. But he has identified two major factors that have the most impact: “Desperation, and a lack of hope.”

Those two things drove two best friends to make a pact in April.

Willians Castillo, 19, and Victor Quintero, 20, had planned to leave behind all the violence in the crowded town of Cofradía, southwest of San Pedro Sula, and migrate. The friends had become inseparable since they met at a community event two years earlier, bonding over shared experiences—including absent fathers and an aching desire to build a new life for themselves in the U.S.

Billy, as Willians was known by his friends, was desperate to get away. His oldest brother had been gunned down in the streets, hit by a stray bullet in a gang shootout nine years before. Then about two years ago, his brother Junior was killed in a prison riot. Billy told his friend that leaving Honduras was the only way to avoid the same fate.

Victor wanted to migrate too, but he didn’t have enough money to leave right away. The friends got into an argument and didn’t speak for a few days. On April 10, Billy didn’t come down from his room for breakfast with his mom and sister as he usually did. He didn’t join them for lunch either. When his sister Marleny went to check on him, he didn’t answer or open the locked door. When she kicked it down, Billy was hanging from a rope.

“Why didn’t I see it coming?” Marleny says, still struggling to make sense of her brother’s death.

In July, three months after Billy’s death, Victor was finally able to leave Honduras for the U.S.  But he remains haunted by that last conversation with his best friend. He wonders if Billy would still be alive if the two had fled together that day they argued. “You know why it hurts?” Quintero said as he prepared to travel north. “Because it’s where we wanted to go, the two of us. It’s the plan that we both had to cope with life and improve ourselves.”

Deadly activism

Along Honduras’ Caribbean coast, the soothing sound of waves lapping the pristine beaches of Triunfo de la Cruz—home to the Afro Indigenous Garifuna community—hides a sinister reality. César Benedit says he often receives threats from people tied to powerful business interests because of his work as head of the local Comité de Defensa de Tierras Triunfenas (Committee for the Defense of Land), which battles development projects deemed exploitive.

Fighting to preserve and stay on ancestral land can be dangerous. The disappearance of César’s closest friend, Sneider Centeno, in July of last year was a reminder of that.

When César was growing up, his family and their neighbors all tended a communal plot of land where they grew yucca, plantains, and other produce. When he was around eight years old, a group of businessmen wanted to build a luxury hotel complex near the beach. They set their sights on land that belongs to members of the Garifuna community. But the locals didn’t want to sell.

So began the violent, coercive tactics, César recalls. Those who didn’t want to let go of their land were harassed and bullied until they agreed to sell. The businessmen used tactics such as blocking work opportunities to apply pressure, César says. At the time, his older brother Victor organized a group of youth to oppose the project, bringing them together for town halls and coordinating protests.

Watching his older brother taught César an important lesson: that he had a voice, and that it was stronger when he joined his voice with those of other community members. A few years later, Victor died of natural causes unrelated to his work as a land rights defender. “But his legacy stayed with us,” César says.

“He used to always say to me, ‘If you don’t defend this territory, if you are not protective of this territory, there’s going to be a moment when this community is going to fill up, and in the end, you are all going to have to leave here.’”

Since Victor’s death, Honduras has become more dangerous for land rights defenders. More than 160 of them have been murdered since 2009, according to Global Witness, an international human rights organization.

But the resistance in Triunfo de la Cruz and other Garifuna communities has persisted. And they’ve had some success having their struggle recognized in the international arena. In 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that the Honduran government violated the American Convention on Human Rights by failing to protect Garifuna community’s ancestral lands from urban development and tourism projects.

César’s friend Sneider, who was kidnapped last July, was involved in bringing the action to the international court, for which César served as a witness. He and other Garifuna leaders suspect Sneider’s disappearance is related to his activism. But without a government investigation, no one is sure what happened that night, sending a chilling effect throughout the community.

Even now, a year after his friend went missing, César walks down the unpaved streets of his beach town on alert. Anonymous threats warning him to back off from opposition to development come in text messages and phone calls, and unrecognized vehicles park outside his house for extended periods—intimidation by surveillance. Such threats began even before his friend disappeared, and they continue today.

“I’m thinking of traveling,” he says, sitting on the beach just a few steps from his home, constantly looking over his shoulder as shiny SUVs and sedans pull up. He relaxes only after the car doors open and tourists hop out.

“If they don’t kill me first,” he adds.

When César does manage to fall into a deep sleep, his missing friend often appears in his dreams. “Don’t give up,” César says Sneider told him in one dream. “You have to keep fighting. If you don’t keep fighting, this will all go downhill, and we’re going to lose our community.”

‘Here we can’t live well’

Outside her small, adobe home with a tin roof, Yosselin Ávila González lathers her two-year-old daughter Angely Maholi with soap and water in a ceramic basin set outdoors as the toddler whines and squirms. She gently instructs her two older daughters, Gaby Dilenia, 8, and Yosselin Abigail, 6, to wash up as well, but they don’t listen until she scolds them. Finally, she lays Angely Maholi down in a hammock to rock her to sleep and sits down in a plastic chair to catch her breathe.

The young mother looks out at the family’s yucca and vegetable garden growing in the plot outside her home. Normally, she would have planted maize by this time of year, but not this year. “We wait for the rain in May usually, but it didn’t start raining until June,” she says. “For the people who planted in May, the maize hasn’t grown, or the animals uprooted it.” 

The erratic rain patterns are the main reason her husband Emilio Núñez Medina left for Atlanta in January. Before he migrated, the family lived on less than $5.50 a day, as does half of Honduras’ population of 9.7 million people, according to the World Bank. The family’s situation has improved minimally since her husband started sending back remittances—$50 or $100 when he can. Now, they can eat spaghetti with sauce a few days a week instead of just beans and tortillas.

But receiving money from the U.S. isn’t the secure lifeline that some imagine. “If your husband doesn’t give it to you, you’re not going to eat,” Yosselin says. She wants her daughters to study, become professionals, and not rely on a husband to provide for them. But that seems unlikely in a country where the poor have limited access to education. Her oldest—now in second grade—still can’t read and only receives classes one day a week.

Sometimes Yosselin feels that following Emilio is the only way she and her daughters can leave behind their desperate situation. “Here you can’t live well,” she says.

Yosselin wants her family to be together again, but when she thinks about spending weeks trekking through Mexico with her daughters, she has second thoughts. “I start to think and to consider the reality,” she says. “I have three daughters. And imagine, the route is difficult. Think about it, one is not that big. She’s still so little.”

So, she’s stuck in this mental tug of war, wondering how long she can bear their poverty before she’s driven to make a decision she knows is risky.

Taking a chance

Back in San Pedro Sula, a group of mostly young Hondurans have decided they can’t wait any longer for things to get better. They gather outside a gas station across from the bus terminal, where they’ll board buses to Guatemala, the first step in their 1,400-mile journey to the U.S.

Among them is 20-year-old Samantha, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of security concerns. She sits at a picnic table with her four-year-old son, her hands resting on her pregnant belly. With her slim frame and big, doe eyes, she looks too young to be expecting her second child.

About eight months prior, her home in the Rivera Hernández area of San Pedro Sula was flooded by back-to-back hurricanes. Then, a few months later, the father of her children was murdered. Without a high school degree, low-paying factory work is all she could get, which provides barely enough to put food on the table, she says. So, she and her older sister, whose husband was also murdered nearly a decade ago, decided to migrate to the U.S. with their kids, who range in age from 4 to 11.

As Samantha prepared to embark on her journey, she admitted she was scared about what could happen along the way—rape, kidnapping, or worse. But her mind was made up. “I’m doing this for his future,” Samantha said, nodding toward her son. “Because my future is already lost.”

Photojournalist Tomás Ayuso contributed to the reporting for this story.

Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist who has covered Central America since 2015. She is a 2021 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow reporting on mental health in El Salvador and Honduras. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaCat_Brigida.

Tomás Ayuso is a Honduran photographer, writer and National Geographic Explorer who focuses on conflict and displacement in Latin America. Follow him on Instagram @tomas_ayuso

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