Missionary in Honduras: Honduras Needs Rule of Law. Letting the Caravan In Won’t Help

By Jennifer Zilly Canales Published on November 20, 2018

A few days ago, my Honduran husband returned to our rural mission property on one of our family bikes. He had made a quick trip down the long gravel road into the more populated part of our Honduran town.

As he pulled up next to me, I greeted him warmly on my way to the weekly chess class I teach for the youth in our school. His uneasy facial expression immediately caught me off guard. His face normally reflects very open, easy joy and inspires the trust of those around him. Beads of sweat covered his face. I sensed a great uneasiness within him, although he wasn’t saying anything.

He Was Visiting Our Neighbors, the Ones Who Sell Drugs

I stopped in my tracks on our dusty front lawn — a once-nice grass yard since worn down from many soccer games — and asked him what had happened. He tried to gently shoo me off to my class. I was already running a few minutes late.

I refused to leave his side until he told me what had happened. With a bit more probing and persistence he gave in and shared in a hushed, almost nervous voice, “I … was visiting our neighbors. Where they sell the drugs to the local kids. I got pretty mad, told them to leave our students alone. They just started laughing. I got really riled up …. But everything will be okay.”

“Are they going to kill you?” I asked instinctively, knowing how dangerous it can be in Honduras to become anyone’s enemy. He hesitated. Beads of sweat — probably a combination of nerves and the blistering heat — continued to populate his forehead. Then he answered reassuringly with a forced grin, “Not this time.” He knows he has to answer this way to put my own mind at ease, and he was just convincing enough to do so this time.

Already Called the Police

I knew exactly which house he was talking about and why he had taken matters into his own hands. He had already called the local police several times about. The police assured him casually that they already knew the location of the house and the illegal activity going on there. Their nonchalant tone and ensuing inaction meant one thing: They had made no move nor did they plan to do so.

“Are they going to kill you?” I asked instinctively, knowing how dangerous it can be in Honduras to become anyone’s enemy. My husband hesitated.

My husband was trying to look out for the best interests of our local students and protect them from danger. He left his conversations with the police feeling bewildered at their apathy and frustrated with their total lack of initiative, although he was not at all surprised. This has generally been the reaction (or lack thereof) that we have roused from the Honduran police in times of need.

Beaten Within an Inch of His Life

My husband — a Christian pianist who organizes youth choirs and has a passion for mentoring at-risk teens — was kidnapped by local gang members two years ago and literally beaten within an inch of his life. The organized group had mistaken him for someone from an enemy gang.

We were on a marriage retreat at the time, and he left our cabin in the early morning to go walk and pray. He was quietly walking near a remote stream when they found him — seven men against one — and violently swooped him off to their hideout up in the mountains where they beat him for several hours. With death music blasting and my husband tightly gagged, each man took turns hitting my husband with rods, shoes and the like. They repeatedly threatened him with death. He admitted that he was ready should they take his life, and miraculously, they let him go.

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Stumbling through an expansive pineapple field, hardly able to walk, he made the journey to a highway police station and was able to find help. Minutes later he showed up in the police car at the little inn we had been staying in — clothes ripped and his body bent from pain and completely dirty and bloody — with this weakened boy-like grin on his face despite all the odds.

I felt like I was trudging through a dense fog that entire day. We took him to the emergency room, accompanied by a family friend and two very kind police officers. I kept thinking: It is not the police’s job to accompany victims to hospitals. The police’s job is to investigate the crime, to seek out the perpetrators and to do justice. They’re wasting time here. They should be out on the streets enacting justice.

You are the Police!

Throughout our stay in the desperately under-supplied hospital, I stared numbly at the police officers as they helped my husband stand up and lie down on the various patient tables. I couldn’t help thinking: Thank you for your kindness and concern — which is evident and heart-warming — but please go do your job. Please go hunt those guys down so they don’t beat anyone else.

My husband has already told you exactly where they were! Please do something! You are the police!

Lying on an uncovered hospital bed next to my husband was another young man in similar shape, but with no one tending to him. He had huge bleeding wounds on his face and body. I made eye contact with him but didn’t dare ask what had happened to him.

Despite our urging, the two police officers made no promise to help. No police action was ever taken. The neighborhood where the gang beat my husband almost to death remains a very dangerous area dominated by lawlessness.

A Desperate Cry For Help

Any Honduran could tell countless other stories of corruption and lack of police response. All lead to disorder and despair on a national level. Currently an international audience is watching on television what we see played out daily. That is, large masses who have very little respect for laws, boundaries and authority. They act as they do in large part because they have not had a healthy authority to trust in. Nor do they understand that actual consequences await when one breaks a law.

It is simply untrue that the answer for a safer, more prosperous Honduras is that thousands should leave illegally.

I know that my experience is very limited and that my viewpoint is not shared by all Hondurans (or Americans). But we who live here know too many cases in which the Honduran law is not respected or upheld. Too many cases in which no real consequences are dealt to the law-breakers. The same people commit violent crimes over and over again, even as the police are fully informed but do nothing. This creates confusion, chaos and even desperation. 

I work alongside of highly educated, well-informed Hondurans everyday in the context of our mission school. I hear and agree with their diverse opinions on the various challenges Honduras faces. We understand the migrant caravan to be a desperate cry for help. We know that the caravan represents many Hondurans seeking political change and increased security for this country, which it desperately needs. But it is simply untrue that the answer for a safer, more prosperous Honduras is that thousands should leave illegally.

Lacking Justice and Healthy Authority

This is a very complex matter and I do not claim to be an expert or hold all the answers. But I do affirm that the problem largely lies in the lack of public order in Honduras. This change must be enacted from the top-down. The current lack of order leads to the formation of citizens who have very little respect for laws and for one another. They, in turn, wreak havoc on the country’s law-abiding citizens, who are powerless to stop them.

Is there room in the United States for every Honduran or third world citizen to migrate? … I believe the solution must be forged on Honduran soil.

The caravan is simply the visible result of the chaos that occurs on Honduran soil daily. Letting the immigrants pass the United States border will only cause further damage to Honduras. Does the U.S. want to validate the abounding belief that laws can be broken and authority disrespected with no unfavorable results? This will only increase the already-strong anarchy in Honduras. Honduras needs real justice, discipline and a defined set of laws and punishment that actually get fulfilled.

This would most likely require the help of an overseeing, transparent international community, as Honduras has not yet been able to foster justice and create a prosperous nation alone. Rather than receive several thousand who have arrived at the borders, help us restore the millions that remain in the country.

The solution is not a migrant caravan escaping a myriad of problems. Letting the caravan pass across the border will most likely lead to more caravans in the future. Instead, we need new, long-term solutions right here on Honduran soil.


Jennifer Zilly Canales is an American citizen who has served as a missionary in Honduras full-time since 2012. She and her husband Darwin are foster parents to seven precious Honduran children ages 10 to 18 and serve as executive directors and teachers at the Living Waters Ranch mission school for local at-risk youth. She maintains a blog at Hidden Treasures in Honduras.

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