They were inseparable. Then criminal gangs in Honduras forced them to flee, and the US branded them illegal immigrants. One family’s story about the desperate search for a future in unforgiving times.
They were called the Díaz 5. They were each born about a year apart and immediately formed a tight bond. They looked like their father, sturdily built. They had the same physique. They even had the same haircut. They were like quintuplets.
The five brothers weren’t just outwardly similar, though. They also led similar lives. They played soccer together in Juventus, the local club in their hometown of Potrerillos. They married their childhood sweethearts and became fathers at a young age. They built houses on the outskirts of town and, one after the other, joined their father’s business, a bus company called Susany, named after their younger sister.
In a curious way, they lived in lockstep. And in harmony, to the extent that’s possible in a country like Honduras.
Then, five years ago, two things broke into their orderly life and blew it up, piece by piece: the street gang MS-13 and United States immigration policy.
Today, one of the five brothers is dead. Another is an invalid. Another is on the run. Another was deported. And another now lives in territory controlled by the drug mafia.
The Díaz family’s fate is nothing unusual in Honduras. Everyone here has lost loved ones to the murderous gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18. And everyone here has sent relatives on the dangerous, 3,000-kilometer escape route to the USA.
What is unusual, however, is the severity with which fate delivered these blows. And how the brothers sacrificed themselves for one another. They become victims of governmental absence in one country—and victims of governmental harassment in another. They stand at the heart of today’s central question: where can people fearing for their lives go? Who will still let them in?
We followed the story of the Díaz brothers over 18 months and five locations: from their hometown of Potrerillos to beyond the Texas border. From a Latino neighborhood in New Jersey to a prison in Alabama to the remote domain of drug cartels in Honduras.
The meteoric disruption to their life can be timed down to the hour. It occurs five years ago, on November 2, 2013 at 3 p.m., when Alex Díaz, 50, patriarch of the family, is summoned to retrieve his youngest son, Oscar, from the headquarters of Mara Salvatrucha, the street gang known as MS-13. Gang leaders have kidnapped Oscar, accusing him of treating one of their drug couriers with disrespect.
MS-13 is less a gang than it is a powerful mafia, a transnationally active criminal organization with dozens of local chapters and connections to the highest offices of political and judicial systems. In places like Potrerillos, near the Caribbean, they constitute something of a state within a state—known to government and tolerated by police. They adhere to the archaic, but recently repopularized principle that the strongest, most powerful, and most brutal will reign.
Father Díaz hopes for a talk with gang leadership—after all, he is a man of influence about town. He’s a successful businessman whose family has lived in the area for generations, and he owns six minibuses that he and his five sons drive along the Potrerillos – San Pedro Sula route. He has always paid his protection money to MS-13 on time, $3,000 a month, the highest amount charged in this city of 30,000.
He finds his terrified son, Oscar, 24, at the gang’s command center in the hilly neighborhood of Clavasquín. There on the athletic field, an area visible to all residents, the leader—a man named Giancarlo—delivers the verdict after a brief hearing: death by beating. He calls upon nine mareros (gang members) to “end” the youngest Díaz, as they call it.
Oscar is the quietest of the five brothers, Mama’s favorite, a tank of a man, but with a soft heart, equipped with his father’s brawny build and his mother’s gentle soul.
“They held a gun to my head,” says father Díaz, recounting the event from his perspective. “I had to watch the whole thing. I was certain: I’m going to lose him. There’s nothing worse for a parent.”
On command, the mareros torture Oscar with blows and kicks, with the handles of their machetes and butts of their rifles. They rotate—three assailants for three minutes at a time. Following orders, Oscar, his hands behind his back, may not defend himself or even hunch over. At a certain point, he can no longer get any air, and he loses consciousness. These are minutes that his father will later recall: “I saw death. They did it to get at me.”
Oscar is saved when an older gang member, a neighbor of the Díaz family, eventually says they should stop and get back to work. They leave him half-dead in the trampled dirt, but not without threatening, “We’ll kill every last one of you.”
The photos father Díaz takes of the injuries do not show a maltreated human, but rather a mountain of swollen flesh: lacerations covering the body, the chest black and blue, the bones broken, the head so swollen that the eyes are no longer visible. Two days later, Oscar begins coughing up blood, as documented in a police report numbered 0511538-2013, which will later play a big role in the lives of the Díaz 5.
The gang only ever hints at the actual reason behind the attempted murder. It’s related to the twenty percent increase in renta which father Díaz did not immediately pay this time. For nearly ten years, the patriarch has paid this so-called protection money to the gang—5,000 lempiras per bus, per week, which amounts to ten times his government taxes.
He needs to shell out the money like every other business in town, be it a bakery, bank, or barbershop. Should someone refuse, the gang promptly murders them, a common punishment in Honduras carried out to discipline other residents. It is, in essence, a fee paid to avoid murder.
It is also an explanation behind what was, at the time, the highest murder rate in the world, 79 people killed per 100,000. By comparison, in Germany, it’s 0.8.
The morning after the attack, Alex Díaz calls together his seven children and announces a decision everyone has been expecting: You five boys are fleeing to the US. Without wives. Without children. I’ll cover the cost of smugglers, transportation, food.
On December 3, 2013, as soon as Oscar is halfway recovered, the five brothers say goodbye to their wives and children, without knowing whether they’ll ever see them again. They set out on the 3,000 kilometer journey through Guatemala and Mexico, toward Dallas, where they’ve got relatives.
Those on the trail:
Oscar, 24, the youngest, Díaz No. 5, three children, still badly injured after the attempted murder.
Angel, 25, Díaz No. 4, the second to youngest, a little smaller than his brothers, four children already.
Alex, Jr., 26, Díaz No. 3, three children, the smartest, with strong business acumen.
Miguel, 28, four children, Díaz No. 2, bus driver like the others and studying graphic design on the side.
And Luis, 29, three children, Díaz No. 1. He is actually Alex, Sr.’s youngest brother, but was raised by him like a son.
Their two younger sisters, Susany and Kimberly, stay behind. “I’ll protect them myself,” becomes father Díaz’s motto. “I have to weigh the options: here, they’re threatened by Maras. But along the escape route are smugglers out to rape them.”
From Potrerillos, the five brothers take a bus to the Guatemala border, where by day three, they already encounter their first obstacles. Border officials won’t let them pass until they pay a thousand-dollar bribe. It is a common form of corruption these days, as the flow of migrants has turned into a billion-dollar business—not just for smugglers, but for police, border patrol, and shelters as well.
Their father’s warnings come true from the very first. In a back room along the border, Alex—the middle Díaz—witnesses a migrant woman being raped by “coyotes”—smugglers, or rather, human smugglers. It’s just one of many dangers facing female refugees, dangers that often culminate in forced prostitution. Looking back, Alex utters a statement that’s hard to take: “I decided not to intervene. I couldn’t put our own aim at risk. Everyone is on their own when fleeing.”
The brothers continue their trek north from Guatemala, passing through Veracruz and Tampico, the transport route for drugs, gold, and refugees—the Silk Road of the modern era. It takes them ten days to reach the US border in Reynosa, near the Gulf of Mexico.
This is the most critical escape corridor leading to the 3,200 kilometer-long border. In 2017, 138,000 migrants were apprehended here. Mexican drug cartels—in this case, Los Zetas—charge refugees the derecho de paso, an additional toll to pass through their territory, another $1,000 per person.
“We waited for a week with 30 other people in an old bar,” Miguel recounts, a “stash house,” also used to store drugs and weapons. “The smuggler was waiting for the perfect moment to cross the Rio Grande. Spies on the US side were providing him with intel.”
Miguel remembers the unaccustomed cold, Alex the hunger, and Luis the seconds of tension once everything got going. Migrants who have developed a cold stay behind, because their coughing could alert agents along the border. In the middle of the seventh night—foggy, without a glimmer of moonlight—they paddle inflatable boats across the Rio Grande, through a section monitored by infrared cameras, and easily reach the opposite shore. They wear camouflage and wrap their shoes in fabric, to prevent leaving behind footprints. The smugglers use night-vision devices and data encryption technology to secure communications.
But the hardest part is just beginning. In order to avoid border patrol on the access roads, they must walk through the desert for three days, equipped with only five liters of water per person. It’s the coldest days of the year.
The five manage well, even Oscar with his injuries; they’re athletes, regular players for Juventus Potrerillos. Then Angel, the thinnest of the brothers, starts having problems. “Go on without me,” he gasps the third night, but his brothers give up their provisions for the journey—canned corn and cookies—and carry him part of the way.
Fellow migrants, who don’t have any help, fall away, such as two pregnant women from El Salvador, whom the brothers never see again. They presumably die in the desert, contributing to the 400 yearly deaths in the border region. This cannot be verified, however, because neither the US Department of Homeland Security nor the smugglers contacted by stern wished to comment.
“Yet again, I didn’t intervene,” Alex, Jr. says in hindsight. “You change from human to animal when you’re fleeing. Only the strongest survives.”
When they reach the outskirts of the town of Falfurrias, the five brothers are picked up in minivans, hidden under the backseats, and driven to a warehouse in Houston. After they make their second payment, though, the smugglers confront them with a new demand: “due to rising costs,” they must pay an additional $1,000 per person. Until they paid, the smugglers continued, they would be held here, without their clothing or cell phones, to prevent them from fleeing.
“That’s kidnapping,” Miguel says.
“Whatever you want to call it,” the human smugglers reply.
The brothers contact their father, who pulls the money together, borrowing some, and transfers it via Western Union, one of the biggest profiteers in the business of migrant smuggling. Then the Díaz 5 are dropped off in an industrial section of Houston.
And so, four weeks after their odyssey began, the redeeming message finally reaches their family in Honduras: “We made it. And we’re still together.”
The first few weeks in Texas without their wives and children are the worst. The brothers, each of whom owned his own house, stay with Alex, Jr.’s parents-in-law in Dallas, nine people in a two-room apartment, the five brothers sharing a room. They don’t know any English, but in the world they now inhabit, everyone speaks Spanish. They live in the knowledge that: We lost a lot, but not our lives.
The brothers are accustomed to hard work from Honduras, 14 hours a day, and they quickly find jobs that fall to “illegals” and that society can no longer do without: mowing lawns, washing cars, cleaning hotel rooms. It’s what Americans call a win-win situation: the newly arrived refugees earn what for a Central American is a decent hourly wage of $6.50. In turn, companies get eager day laborers and avoid paying any social security contributions.
They are, economically speaking, not refugees. Instead, they populate the reservoir of cheap workers, which companies are keen to draw upon.
Legally speaking, they fall into the category of “illegal immigrants,” a cynical designation for people fleeing death. They didn’t apply for asylum when they arrived, which may have been a mistake, but they feared they might already be turned away at the border.
Politically speaking, they are the challenge of the 21st century. These people are the reason fronts have formed, nationalists have rallied, governments have ruptured, and the notion of homeland has been newly secured in place. There are currently 68.5 million humans fleeing worldwide.
The American political stance toward “illegals” is clear: if captured, they are detained and deported. This was even the case under Obama, before he changed the law regarding minors fleeing the infamous Northern Triangle—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador—to grant them temporary protection.
After four weeks in the new country, the Díaz 5 make a major decision: they’re splitting up, out of fear of raids, out of fear of being easier to catch as a group. Miguel heads for the cold, joining their uncle in New Jersey. Alex, Jr. works as a hairdresser in Dallas, and Oscar sells corn in the suburbs. Luis moves to Florida, where he earns money as an itinerant laborer, and Angel goes to Houston. For the first time in their lives, the five are separated—and will never see each other in this constellation again.
Angel – Díaz No. 4
Houston seems unreal to Angel—fourth-largest city in America, streets like they were taken straight from the drafting board, cars as big as delivery trucks—but he settles in quickly. He works double shifts at a car wash and in construction, and within six months, he’s already saved enough money for his wife Suria and three of their children to make the trip: he sends $8,000 for smuggler fees, plus a $2,000 reserve to cover potential kidnapping, bribes, or extortion.
Angel is the most erratic of the brothers, wiry and constantly charged up, with the energy consumption of a teenager. He sculpts his beard into a fine line, and has turned his body into a landscape of martial tattoos.
His hard work in Houston comes at a price. Angel is constantly on the move, from one job to the other. Then the police catch him, an “illegal” without papers, during a traffic stop. In most other states, he would face no more than a fine, because police are forbidden from informing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE. But in Texas, this most conservative of states, the police alert ICE agents and take him into custody.
Angel sits in prison in Houston for two months. His brothers hire an attorney and cover the cost—$4,000. Angel applies for political asylum, arguing that his life was in danger, as evidenced by the document numbered 0511-538-2013, but he would have had to report this upon arrival. In June of 2015, still under Obama—who deported more than two million people, more than any president before him—Angel is deported back to Honduras without a trial.
He is the first Díaz to go—and not the last.
The situation in Potrerillos has continued to intensify in the nearly two years that have passed. The Díaz family no longer owes protection money to MS-13 alone, but are now forced to pay Barrio 18 as well, the gang in control of the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, the final stop on the Díaz family bus route. With any luck, those who fail to pay will get a warning—the next time, a bullet. Twelve bus drivers have already been murdered.
Those who have been in the US, like Angel, count as rich and are charged a migrant premium, an additional $300 per month.
Nevertheless, Oscar, the youngest brother, decides to come back and join Angel. “A dark hunch crept over me,” he recalls. “I was the reason we all fled. And now Angel was alone, a target for the gangs.” Besides, Oscar wants to fetch his wife and three children. He does not want them making the dangerous journey to the US on their own.
Angel starts driving for the family business again. He works constantly, in order to finance his return to his wife and children in the US, seven days a week, 14 hours a day, until July 13, a Monday, when his father tells him, “Take today off. You need it.”
“Not today,” Angel responds. “There’s a lot of money to be made during Monday rush hour.”
That evening at 7:30, Angel drives through the twilight in the neighborhood of Las Brisas, nearing the end of the route and the end of his shift. The final passenger has gotten off. Three men approach the minibus and quickly glance inside. They then shoot through the side window. Three shots hit Angel in the stomach, shoulder, and neck.
His father, who is waiting for him at the final stop, reaches the scene of the crime just three minutes later. He attempts to resuscitate him, then moves him into the passenger seat and drives to the Red Cross. Oscar joins them: “That should’ve been me. They mixed us up. Us Díaz men all look the same.”
Four weeks after his deportation, Angel dies in his father’s arms at 7:45 p.m. The first of the Díaz 5. Now only four remain.
Later on, Oscar says, “I forever have to live with the fact that my brother died for me. How do you live with that?”
A polished stone slab marks the grave. There are plastic flowers stuck in a cola bottle. Finely engraved letters on a cross read: Angel Alexander Díaz Morales, 13. 7. 2015.
It’s a hot day in early 2018. Father Alex bends over the grave and straightens out the flowers. “I miss you, my son,” he whispers.
His face is clouded. Deep furrows line his forehead. Alex Díaz is a hefty guy, equal parts muscle and fat. He’s not a man of many words—his life has been defined by work and his children, and although he’s just fifty, the end seems near. Angel’s plot is flanked by the graves of teenagers and young men, victims of murder or gang wars, the leading cause of death in Honduras. It’s a cemetery full of men, as women are rarely among the victims. “Women try to get close to the mareros,” father Díaz says in disgust. “They’re a big deal, like rock stars.”
This is an indirect reference to Angel’s widow, Suria López. After her husband was murdered, she started seeing a marero. “She got what was coming,” Alex, Sr. growls. “The marero was killed. Now she’s moved on to the next one.”
A meeting with Suria is arranged in secret. A slender woman with long, dark curls and fear written all over her face. She makes excuses at first, then admits, “I’m doing it for my children. It’s safest to get involved with those in power.”
She subscribes to a disturbing logic: her husband’s murderers are the guarantors of her life.
This is a lawless area, 30 kilometers south of San Pedro Sula, a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Potrerillos, spoiled by urbanization itself, is located on an arterial road, bounded by sugar cane fields and low-wage factories known as maquilas. Armed guards stand outside every business. Every house, however humble, is surrounded by tall fencing. Every street has been the scene of a crime. Banks are fortresses. The news coming from Honduras includes rigged elections and murdered environmentalists. It’s life on the brink of apocalypse, in a country that could be described as having fallen.
Father Díaz drives to the crime scene, an uninhabited stretch of road between cornfields and an abandoned factory. He does this every day. He reconstructs the crime, the three shots, as if still trying to understand what happened. He pulls out the photos of his slain boy, of Angel’s embalmed face, and it’s as though he were drowning in the violence visited upon his sons.
Did you never consider exacting revenge?
“Constantly. I considered hiring a hitman, but then the mareros would kill all my children.”
Why don’t the gangs kill you?
“They know it’s worse for me if they kill my children.”
Did the police investigate?
“They’re all in bed together. The police pass along information to the gangs. That’s why I never pressed charges. I made sure to say: I just want a record of the crime. No charges.”
He has no choice but to keep quiet. It’s the country’s unofficial motto: Mire y callese. Keep your eyes open and mouth shut.
And keep sending your sons north.
Oscar – Díaz No. 5
The day immediately following Angel’s murder, Oscar and his wife and three young children flee Potrerillos to a shack in the countryside, 200 kilometers away. From here, they plan their continued escape to the US. Oscar is still marked by the attempt on his life just two years ago—his back hurts constantly and his soul is traumatized. The family decides that he should also bring Steven, his brother Alex’s nine-year-old son, who could otherwise become a target for MS-13 recruitment as a teenager.
For six people to flee, they need another $24,000. His father has nothing left, but the three brothers in the US send the last of their money, and Oscar sells his house. During this period, the money the Díaz family spends on fleeing exceeds $80,000.
They are among the privileged refugees. Many other families are destitute by the time they reach the border and become stranded in Mexican camps.
In August of 2015, Oscar and his wife Julia take the four children and start heading north in the middle of the night. This time, they pass through Mexico City and Monterrey on the way to Reynosa. But they’re not as lucky as the Díaz 5 were. The US border is now more heavily secured—with 20,000 border guards and helicopters, reconnaissance drones and lookouts on horseback. Shortly after crossing the Rio Grande, they are apprehended by migra, as the border officials have been dubbed. They request asylum and document both Angel’s murder and the attempt made on Oscar’s life.
The ICE agents make use of a new practice, instead: they separate the family. A method employed sporadically at first, then systematically under Trump, it is meant to serve as a deterrent, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions describes it. Sessions calls parents who flee with their children smugglers: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you.”
For the first time in America’s 400-year history of immigration, the government has taken a stance explicitly aimed against the well-being of children.
Government officials use the Díaz family to establish a precedent. Oscar’s wife Julia and their three children are registered and allowed to stay until their application for asylum has been reviewed. As an “unaccompanied minor,” nine-year-old Steven is separated from the others and handed over, in tears, to the Office of Refugee Resettlement—like more than 2,300 other children. Three days later, he is transferred to a detention center in New York, more than 3,000 kilometers away, an act that civil rights activists have denounced as state-sponsored kidnapping. The family receives no information regarding his whereabouts.
Oscar is registered as illegal immigrant number A208376104 and transported to a prison in Miami; he’d be released if he posted $15,000 bail, but the family has run out of money.
The arrest has also had serious consequences for Steven’s father, Alex, Jr., the middle child of the Díaz 5. He drives from Dallas to the detention center for migrant children in New York, one of more than 100 in the country, and provides documentation proving he is Steven’s father. But the officials demand more forms, proof of income, his apartment lease, and a certificate of good conduct. They exchange details with the Department of Homeland Security, with the result that Alex, Jr. is now registered in the database as an “illegal alien” at his Dallas address. Any day now, ICE agents could come knocking on his door.
He fled the threat of death in Honduras. Now he faces a new crisis in this place of refuge: How do I rescue my son from the clutches of the US government?
Meanwhile, his brother Oscar is released on bail until his hearing in immigration court, but he is required to wear an electronic ankle monitor. Like some 12,500 other refugees, he is tracked at every turn, his data recorded under the identification number KROS-16-00015. He must pay off the $15,000 bail over the next two years, at an interest rate of 15 percent, plus a monthly usage fee of $420 for the ankle monitor. The final cost will exceed $28,000, ironically close to what he would have paid the gangs in Honduras.
The profiteer in this case is Libre by Nexus (200 employees, $30 million in revenue), a company that has arranged bond payments for thousands of migrants. It is one of a range of privately held companies benefiting from the United States’ draconian immigration policy; many are also active supporters of President Trump, as evidenced by tax forms. Southwest Key is another such company, which runs detention centers for children separated from their parents and has raked in government contracts valued at $955 million. So are defense corporation General Dynamics and security contractor MVM, which once equipped American troops stationed in Iraq.
It has become increasingly clear that the refugees’ desperation is a billion-dollar business. On the Mexican side, there is a flourishing industry built by human smugglers and extortionists; on the American side, it’s one of refugee hunters and administrators.
Oscar and his family live in a development on the outskirts of Dallas. The soulless, prefabricated structures are tossed up in the prairie, surrounded by arterial highways and fast food restaurants, a backdrop of somber desolation. It’s winter, ten degrees Celsius, March of 2018, and Oscar heads to the casino where he works in security.
This is America in 2018, in all its bigotry: he’s an illegal immigrant, but carries a gun and nightstick in his job as a guard.
His wife Julia comes home from her cleaning job at a Holiday Inn. She no longer takes the employee shuttle, for fear of raids. Oscar has also started avoiding main streets on his way to work, for fear of being stopped. He hides his ankle monitor under long jeans and tall socks. They hand the children off to one another and work around the clock, in order to afford their legal fees ($9,000) and the high-interest bond repayment. Immigration authorities have decided that they demonstrate a “credible fear of torture or persecution,” yet their deportation proceedings have been set for 2019. By the time they are deported, the US will have earned more than $50,000 on their flight.
This is quintessential American ingenuity: there’s always an industry to be made, even out of the hardships of the most vulnerable.
Oscar’s three children peer out at the driveway from behind yellowed drapes. They’ve been conditioned—this is the age of Trump. There are constant deportations. The boys next door have already been picked up. ICE agents, dressed in beige or blue, move from house to house. They check employers, hotels, poultry factories, and raid gas stations.
They are joined by everyday citizens who, galvanized by Trump’s rabble-rousing, report foreigners to authorities or tote weapons and binoculars and go looking for “tonks,” as then-director of ICE Tom Homan pejoratively dubbed the refugees. It’s a play on the sound it makes when his agents hit migrants over the head with a flashlight (tonk).
This xenophobic zeal is all the more astonishing, because according to analysis by US Customs and Border Protection, the number of illegal border crossings has fallen to historic lows. Apprehensions dropped from 1.6 million in 2000 to 300,000 in 2017. But facts fail to penetrate the emotion at a time when many people have adopted rage as their modus operandi.
Oscar’s children have simple rules: do not go outside. Do not open the doors. Not long ago, police came knocking. “We didn’t open the door,” little Oscar, Jr., 11, explains matter-of-factly. “They aren’t allowed to storm into the house. No one opens the doors in this neighborhood.”
Oscar, Jr. grabs a schoolbook and practices English with his sister Ashley, 8. They are both at the top of their class. They speak English without an accent. They are—in the terminology of immigration—Dreamers, or the children of migrants who hope to be granted the right to permanent residence. Trump wants to put an end to that as well, for the 800,000 migrants brought to the US as children. He has not yet secured the support of Congress for the measure.
Their new little sibling will be born in September. The baby will be an American, known as an “anchor baby” in immigration jargon, or a child conceived for migration purposes. Six people in the same family, falling into four different categories, will then live in this little home in North Dallas: Oscar is an “illegal.” His wife Julia, an asylum-seeker. The children fall under Obama’s Dreamer program. The baby will be born an American citizen, but not allowed to stay without parents.
“I’m considering fleeing again,” Oscar says, exhausted. The years have caught up with him, and he seems empty, beaten down by threats and bureaucracy. “Things are getting worse here in Texas.” In states that voted for Trump, ICE agents have clamped down, spurred on by the president’s incendiary remarks regarding “rapists,” “invaders,” and “murderers.”
But where to?
Maybe to Trenton, New Jersey, he’s been thinking, to join his brother Miguel. To a “sanctuary city” that does not actively participate in deportations. The chances of avoiding deportation are greater there.
It would be a search for refuge within this place of refuge.
Miguel – Díaz No. 2
“The Bottom,” a neighborhood in South Trenton, is a little slice of Latin America on the fringes of middle-class society. The rhythmic sound of salsa and reggaeton drifts out of the wood frame houses, and the scent of tamales and tacos wafts out of kitchens. But something has changed: life is lived indoors. Danger awaits outside. The year is 2018. A new time.
To Miguel, the second-oldest Díaz, Trenton represents the opposite of the American Dream. He lives in a drafty wooden house that costs a lot to rent—$1,200. He had to abandon his studies in Honduras and now earns his money as a day laborer, shoveling snow and doing yard work. It is the step backward associated with fleeing. But at least no one wants to kill him here.
It’s six in the morning on a gray day that never fully wakes up. A blizzard coming in from the Great Lakes is expected to bring snow. Miguel is driving his four-by-four to work. Day laborers stand on the corner like whores, waiting for someone to pick them up. All year long and without pause, Hispanic crews work their way through the nicer neighborhoods, weeding, trimming hedges, spraying herbicide. They tend gardens in summer and clear snow in winter. There’s not a lot to do in between, other than cleaning up after a storm.
“I hope for lots of snow in winter and bad drought in summer. For crazy weather,” Miguel says. Climate change is migrants’ friend.
Miguel is the most intelligent of the Díaz 5. The only one who went on to study—an anomaly in a family of workers. He looks like his father, not a year younger, a solid 100 kilos, his face worn with “traces of work and worry,” he says drily.
A lot has changed since Trump was elected. Driving is now like running the gauntlet. “See that car up there?” Miguel asks. “That’s State Police, they like checking Hispanics’ papers. They’ll bust you right off. ICE agents drive unmarked vehicles and have spies in our community—they just arrested my friend from Guatemala. Local police are the only ones that never ask about our status.”
Two hundred cities in the US, nearly all run by Democrats, have declared themselves “sanctuary cities.” They refuse to assist in deportations as an act of resistance against their Republican president. In their own way, the Díazes are living between the fronts of the two major parties. But also between the poles of society. Between progressive coasts and the conservative “heartland.” And—on a larger, worldwide scale—between globalists and nationalists. Between the liberal culture of welcoming and neo-nationalistic isolationism.
A year ago, Miguel sent for his family, his wife Jessica and two children. They were faced with a terrible decision: Jessica could only flee with two of their four children, otherwise the journey would become too expensive and dangerous.
“We decided on the youngest and the oldest,” he says.
“The youngest, because she needs us most. The oldest, because at her age, she’s at risk of being raped by the gangs. She’s 13.”
And the other two?
“They stayed behind, with relatives. We haven’t seen them again since.”
The decision eats away at him and his wife. One can sense it in their silence. Later that day, they sit silently in the living room, plates of food in their laps, family photos hanging on the walls, cold wind whistling through the cracks.
“Trump accomplished his goal,” Miguel says, unprompted. “Everyone is afraid now, even migrants who have lived here for 40 years. Afraid at home. At work. Out shopping. There’s fear everywhere.”
In May, Trump withdrew protective status for Hondurans, despite protests by 600 faith leaders. A decision humanitarian organizations interpreted as a “death sentence.” Around 90,000 Hondurans had permission to stay in the US, because of threats at home.
Miguel sees it like this: he has been fleeing constantly for five years. Whether in Honduras or America.
What if authorities rooted them out?
“Then we’ll disappear and move to a different state.”
What if authorities deported them?
“Then we’ll come back.”
What if Trump builds the wall?
“If El Chapo can build long tunnels, you’d better believe we can too. Death is waiting for us back in Honduras.”
After a pause, Miguel says, “I’m more worried about Luis. He’s facing deportation.”
Luis – Díaz No. 1
At that point in early 2018, his oldest brother, Luis, is in an Alabama prison 1,500 kilometers away. Like some 220,000 migrants every year, he is facing deportation. He shares a cell block with other refugees and with criminals, some even members of MS-13.
It’s a bizarre arrangement: in Honduras, mareros are his mortal enemies. Here, they live in neighboring cells. He fled 3,000 kilometers and is now closer to them than ever.
Luis worked in Miami and South Carolina, as a bouncer and construction worker, security guard and roofer. He and his brothers rebuilt America after the global financial crisis. They made America great again.
While driving from Florida to Texas, he was involved in a routine traffic stop in Alabama. The officers found narcotics in his vehicle that belonged to a coworker, but they didn’t believe Luis and booked him on suspicion of drug dealing. With that, he is relegated to the category of people President Trump has called “animals.” Trump often equates immigrants with criminals, although statistics show that crime rates among migrants are lower than those among US citizens.
Luis was held in custody for 20 months. His brothers covered the legal fees, but as an undocumented individual in Alabama, one of the nation’s most conservative states, he didn’t stand a chance. Whereas in states like New York, 60 percent of asylum requests are granted, in states like Alabama, the rate is just five percent. He documented the death threats made against his family, but was asked in response whether he had a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality […] or political opinion,” as outlined in the United Nations’ 1951 criteria. Categories that no longer apply to millions of refugees worldwide in 2018. His reply: “No. I’m facing the threat of death, because the gang says so. It’s a reign of terror.”
After several more weeks’ detention, Luis is finally deported. They put him and 200 other Hondurans on a plane to San Pedro Sula. Three times a week, these fully loaded US Air Force machines land in the second-largest city in Honduras. They’re returning those who failed, or rather: those who now face danger.
Father Díaz and Luis’s son meet him at the airport. It is an oppressively hot day in January of 2018, the air leaden with the humidity that precedes a tropical storm. The three shed a few tears, both of joy at seeing one another, but also of disappointment and concern. Luis looks drained, a stocky man whose skin has not seen the sun in a long time.
Things need to move quickly then. Father Díaz ushers him through the arrivals hall and out a side door to the car, so that no one sees him. The gangs position scouts at the airport, to identify enemies and those returning from the US, who become targets for extortion.
Father Díaz provides his oldest son with a job driving buses for 500 lempiras a day, or about $20. He does this on one condition: Luis must remain underground, only leaving the house after dark in his free time, avoiding bars and other public places. “We’ve got to save enough for you to go back soon. To a safer part, maybe California.”
Street sellers in Honduras have begun hawking smuggling services for $8,500. Luis could cross the border on his own, but there have been reports of smugglers killing refugees who try, in order to deter others.
Returning to the US legally is no longer an option for anyone in the family. As part of the “Zero Tolerance Policy” announced in May, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued Interim Decision #3929, which states that the threat of gang violence and rape is no longer considered a basis for being granted asylum. Furthermore, Trump has deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the border and sent ICE agents to Mexico, to warn asylum seekers: “There’s no room for you.” A move that breaks both American and international laws.
We pay Luis another visit in August of 2018. He now shares an apartment with a woman on the outskirts of town. He’s the most impulsive of the five brothers, a stout man whose work has given him a broad back, like all of the brothers. His bearing is also similar—the taciturn manner that only relaxes with time, the conditioned distrust for anyone unknown.
You’re now moving freely around town?
“I can’t take the confinement,” he says. “I’m a free man. This is my city. I’m not going to bow down to organized crime anymore.”
His father is sitting beside him. They drink sodas and eat pork chops the women serve them.
“You’re crazy. Your life is at risk,” father Díaz says.
“Everyone always says that.”
“One wrong word, and you’re dead.”
Luis looks around. He’s sitting in a dark house that has become his prison. “I can’t live like this,” he says. “I’m in my mid-30s. You can’t live your entire life in fear.”
The next day, Luis is back at work, driving a bus. It’s Friday, pay day. He hands over protection money to two teenage members of Barrio 18 at the final stop in San Pedro Sula. He hands over protection money to MS-13 at the final stop in Potrerillos. The word is out: one of the Díazes has returned. It’s as if Luis were delivering himself to their door.
“I can’t force him. He’s grown up,” his father says in despair.
“I want a normal life,” Luis says. “If I’m going to die, I want to go honorably.”
Then he leaves. He’s going out drinking. All night long.
Alex, Jr. – Díaz No. 3
If any of the Díaz 5 has found a way out, it might have to be Alex, Jr. The middle son. The most balanced. Also the smartest.
To reach him, one must leave Potrerillos and follow snaking roads into the mountains, till the asphalt gives way to a rutted dirt track, shaped by torrential downpours and delivery trucks. Coffee bushes and banana plants grow on the hillsides, the plantations endless, until San Luis appears three hours later, a small city in the mountains with only three access routes. It is the land of the cafeteros, or coffee growers.
Alex, Jr. and his family live in a house modeled after those in the American South—flat roof, American kitchen, American refrigerator, easy chair in front of the TV.
They moved back to Honduras three months ago, because the game of hide-and-seek they were playing in the US—the life of illegality—was driving them insane. “I got my son Steven back from the home in New York,” Alex says, “but by that time, he was already suffering from depression. And we were constantly afraid that agents would come knocking on the door. That they’d come for me, and the kids would be left alone.”
That’s what it really comes down to: they are at once Trump’s victims and his victories.
Alex has a perfectly clipped beard and wears a baseball cap, like all of the Díazes. His gaze is alert, his appearance slightly more urban, despite being the one brother farthest removed from city life. He has opened a barbershop in San Luis, charges 50 lempiras per haircut, or $2, and is allowed to keep it all. He is the only member of the family who does not pay any renta to gangs.
Sitting on his lap is his son Justin, who was born in the US and just turned three. “He’s got a great future,” Alex says. “All the ladies will want him, because he’s got American citizenship. There’s no better startup capital.”
Sitting beside him is his older son, Steven, 12. A skinny, shy boy, who went from one trauma (fleeing) to another (family separation), followed later by a third (deportation). Talking with Steven about what happened isn’t easy. The forced separation by US authorities felt like an abduction to him, like he was being wrenched from the protection of his family and brutally transferred to an internment camp 3,000 kilometers away. “The caretakers in New York were nice, but I felt like a criminal.”
But now, he explains, the situation was more dangerous than ever. He’s reached the age at which gangs could forcefully recruit him and train him to kill—the primary reason many teenagers flee. He would be left with one choice: cooperate and kill. Or flee. “I just want to live,” he says.
Here in San Luis, they live in relative safety. They’re in “Narcoland.” Drug cartels have carved out an ideal world for themselves in central Honduras. They launder their money here and invest it in airstrips, coffee plantations, and estates. They’re not such warped characters—they’re suits, lawyers, the sons of presidents and government ministers. They have their own private army. They’re better armed than the gangs and state put together.
The Maras tried to invade their territory, but they were captured and killed. It’s no different than a battle between nations: it’s a question of superior arms.
Alex says: “The narcos don’t kill people like us, at least. They don’t shake them down for protection money, either. They just want to do their business in peace.” He sees them as the lesser of two evils. They make their money off drugs and the Yankees’ addictions. Maras, on the other hand, make their money off terrorizing the population. “You might criticize the narcos’ business, but morality is a luxury people can’t afford in Honduras,” Alex says.
Could this be the solution for Honduras? Even a model? The drug mafia drives out the murderous gangs, while the state watches? It sounds like the makings of a dystopian film.
Father Díaz pays a visit. It’s August of 2018. The US has since closed its borders to Hondurans for good. His son Oscar has been summoned to immigration court sooner than expected. Díaz, Sr. is more worried now, than he was at our first meeting, 18 months earlier. He is searching for a safe place for the entire family, and he wonders: could he send Luis here, to join Alex? How about Miguel and Oscar, once they leave America? All four of his surviving sons?
He believes it could be the Díaz family’s temporary salvation, the fragile glimmer of hope in the midst of tragedy:
Exile in Narcoland.