PROGRESO, Honduras — Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno has watched
migrants leave this crossroads in northern Honduras for decades,
starting with his own brother, who left for the United States in 1989.
In recent months, he has watched people close to him leave: a colleague
at Radio Progreso — a station giving voice to social causes — the
daughter of the radio station’s cleaner and his sister’s caretaker.
departures have come despite rhetoric toward migrants and attempts by
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to discourage
asylum-seekers and turn the countries to the south of the U.S.-Mexico
border into filters for impeding the path of migrants.
build all the walls he wants, can put the entire army along the length
of the U.S.-Mexico border, can move the border south to Guatemala, can
increase the dangers (of migrating), but it’s not going to diminish
migration,” the priest said in the offices of Radio Progreso.
“Migration is sustained here by an internal wall of accumulation, exclusion and violence.”
has marked the northern triangle countries of Central America for
decades. But the outflow from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has
accelerated in recent years, taking the form of caravans at times and
causing detentions to soar along the U.S. border.
Father Moreno —
better known as Padre Melo in Honduras — has forcefully spoken out in
support of migrants, who risk kidnap, robbery and rape along the route
north through Mexico.
But as one of Honduras’ better-known social
activists, he has long directed his criticism toward the internal issues
prompting migrants to flee: inequality, corruption and a lack of
opportunities in a country considered among the poorest and most violent
in the hemisphere.
Father Moreno also points to political
problems, including accusations of graft and embezzlement against senior
politicians, for provoking mass outward migration a decade after a coup
threw the country into chaos.
Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has
“been managed by a political and business mafia … which has turned the
state into their business, and elections have become a factor for
strengthening their authoritarian project,” he said.
Father Melo and other sources consulted say suspicions of drug cartels funding political campaigns are common in Honduras.
The president already was controversial for having won reelection in 2017 in a vote marred by a suspicious vote count — and then cracking down on dissenters.
year, protesters also have taken issue with proposed privatizations in
the health sector. Critics such as Father Moreno say this idea is
controversial because past privatizations have put public enterprises in
the hands of politically connected people, who raise prices for
consumers without improving quality.
While politicians in Honduras
pay lip service to migrant issues, Father Moreno says the country’s
elites need migrants to make their economic model work. When people
leave the country, it reduces social pressure in poor areas — where the
government does not invest — and the remittances sent home maintain
households and float the economy.
“Remittances give economic stability,” the priest said. “This government and businessmen couldn’t live without remittances.”
divisions in Honduras have affected the Catholic Church, according to
Father Moreno and other Catholics consulted for this story. The current
president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has appeared to find allies in
“Enough now,” the Honduran bishops’
conference said in a June statement that criticized the political and
business classes. “We worry deeply about the moral decadence our country
is falling into. It is never legal to commit evil in order to obtain
Father Moreno’s outspokenness has brought threats.
Progreso and the Jesuit-run Reflection, Research and Communications
Team — both of which he directs — are heavily protected and assigned
police protection. He was close with Berta Caceres, an indigenous Lenca
activist, who was murdered in 2016 for her work against hydroelectric
Father Moreno said the murder sent a message that no
opponent — even those who are beloved by large swaths of the population
— was untouchable.
“It’s a bit complicated because what they do
is create an environment of stigmatization,” he said. “It’s not that
people put a pistol to your head and say, ‘We’re going to kill you.’ But
an environment is created in which you appear as an enemy of
development, someone promoting public unrest or a promoter of violence.”
added that members of Honduras’ military intelligence visited him after
Caceres’ murder and told him a team there had done an analysis on
“‘Your profile is higher than Berta Caceres had
when they killed her,’” he said they told him. “‘So the cost of killing
you is more than creating a smear campaign.’ That’s what they’re doing.”