SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – Honduran National Guard Capt. Marco Trochez said that those who question the hellish stories of children from San Pedro Sula should come visit, so that they can see for themselves that they are telling the true.
Trochez recently patrolled the south-side neighborhood of Chamelecón. About 130,000 people live in the area's 66 colonies, he said. The poverty-stricken slums are known as "bordos." The lines of ramshackle homes lack infrastructure and gained worldwide notoriety after gang massacres.
Standing on a desolated street in a "bordo" named Palmira, Trochez turned to point at some roofless, abandoned houses. He said children and their families had to run for their lives. Trochez said that the environment prevents children from getting an education or aiming for a better future.
"Those who haven't lived in this sector don't know the reality," Trochez said.
Honduras is one of Latin America's poorest nations. About 56 percent of the country's population of 8.5 million is younger than 24-years-old. San Pedro Sula is the country's business capital. Santana Quijada lives there and said she thinks that hope is elsewhere for the neighborhood's youth. Jobs are scarce, she said.
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The unemployment rate is close to 5 percent. About one-third of the population was under employed in 2013. "Campesinos," farmers from smaller towns, have moved to the "bordos" to look for work in the city, but have had very little luck.
In the agricultural area near San Pedro Sula, the once-thriving banana industry never fully regained its force after Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the economy and killed about 5,000 in 1998. The manufacturing sector also hasn't recovered from the 2009 military coup that also sent the economy into a tailspin.
More recently, a fungus epidemic affected about 25 percent of the coffee crop. Honduras also produces citrus, corn, African palm, beef, timber, shrimp, tilapia and lobster. Official estimates report that agriculture makes only 14 percent of Honduras' Gross Domestic Product. Services make up about 58 percent. Industrial production, which includes sugar, woven and knit apparel, wood products and cigars, make up about 28 percent.
U.S. conglomerates Dole and Chiquita control banana exports. Hondura's top trade partners are the U.S. and China. Others include Germany, Belgium, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The country has four airports, a modern highway system and deep-water ports on both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
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A handful of wealthy families dominate Hondura's economy. And as the number of people living in extreme poverty continues to skyrocket, the country's economic inequality has continued to increase dramatically for the last four years. The country is not immune to corrupt political cronyism.
While some Hondurans travel to the U.S. regularly to buy luxury handbags and shoes, some destitute single moms in Chamelecón end up working as prostitutes to make ends meet. Some save enough money to travel to Costa Rica or Belize for refuge.
Others make money out of collecting and washing plastics and cans from garbage and reselling them. Other make a living out of hauling vegetables to the market. Gang extortion fees and the violence that comes when you can't pay them make it difficult for people to dream of owning a small business.
"Sometimes you don't have anything to eat," Quijada, 65, said.
Trochez, of the military police, recently said that he has seen improvements in the ghost towns. Due to increased security, some brave families have returned, he said.
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Many parents have traveled to the U.S. to find work. Some have left their children behind in hopes of making plans to see them again. Sadly a few have lost their kids to the elusive sense of family that the gangs provide. Remittances to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were about $12 billion last year.
Those who can afford to pay $5,000 to $10,000 per person, have been hiring human trafficking rings to help them get to the U.S. illegally. Smugglers usually ask for half in Honduras and the other half in the U.S.
Quijada gets financial assistance from family in the U.S. And so do many families in San Pedro Sula. Quijada's family plans to pay $4,000 to send her 12-year-old grandson Christian to the U.S.
"There is nothing here," Quijada said. "That is why the kids want to leave."