Nelson Espinal grew up in a leaky and crowded shack on the violent outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Espinal turned 28 last summer, but still lived at home with his parents, four sisters and 7-year old son, Yojan.
Like many other young men in his decaying neighborhood, Nelson had struggled for years to find steady work, making him especially vulnerable to recruitment into one of the slum’s brutal “maras,” the youth gangs that patrol the streets of Tegucigalpa and control much of the drug trade across Honduras. Few men of Espinal’s age and state of economic deprivation have the fortitude to resist the lure of gang-life. One study of Epsinal’s José Ángel Ulloa neighborhood estimates that as many as 20 percent of the men his age joined the Barrio-18 gang. But that wasn’t the future Nelson wanted for himself or his young son.
Espinal repeatedly rejected the increasingly ominous invitations to join the ranks of the gang, well aware the consequences of saying no could prove lethal, not just for him, but his family as well. Epsinal’s sister, Patricia, told the Guardian that Nelson’s rejection of Barrio-18 made him a target. “When they get their eye on someone, they search them out again and again,” Patricia recalled.
So with no prospects for work and fearing retaliation from the gang, Nelson decided to join a group of other desperate Hondurans he’d heard about who were gathering in the northern Honduran town of San Pedro Sula in preparation for traveling 3000 arduous miles to the US border. Espinal slipped out of Tegucigalpa with two friends. The young men believed, with good reason, that if they were ever going to break out of their wretched conditions, the safest way to escape was in a large group. This assemblage of destitute women, children and young men searching for a better life became the notorious “Migrant Caravan” that Donald Trump used to villainize immigrants in a cynical ploy to sway the 2018 congressional elections.
Espinal told his family that when he arrived at the border was going to ask for asylum. He hoped to get a job in the US, send money back to his family and eventually become reunited with his son. Nelson didn’t know the odds of his winning an asylum claim or even making it to the border. But he knew there was no future for him in Honduras. It was time to walk and not look back.
Nelson Espinal had every legal right to request asylum at the US border. Under normal circumstances, he would have had a good case to make to an immigration judge. But to grant figures like Nelson asylum would require the US government to assume a measure of moral responsibility for conniving in the political repression that has led to Honduras’ current state of violence and destitution.
American interventions in Honduras date back more than a century to the 1911 coup, largely engineered by the American mercenary, General Lee Christmas, which toppled the government of Miguel Dávila, and opened Honduras to predation by American corporations, most notably the United Fruit Company and Dole Food. In a matter of a few years, these two corporations came to acquire more than a million acres of land and a labor force of indigenous workers paid slave wages. Any troublesome eruption of discontent was vigorously suppressed by death squads armed with weapons provided by the US military.
The immediate crisis in Honduras can be traced to the 2009 coup, when the mildly leftist President, Manuel Zelaya, was seized from his bedroom in an after midnight raid by soldiers, shackled and put on a plane to Costa Rica, while still in his pajamas. The plot was orchestrated by General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who did his post-grad working in coup planning at the School of the Americas. And darkness soon descended on Honduras again, as political killings, murders and gang violence soared and desperate families began to flee the killing fields.
It would be two months before his family would hear from Nelson again, when he called home from inside a detention prison in the US. Epsinal had been arrested shortly after he crossed the border in Arizona. “Tell Mom not to worry, I’m applying for asylum,” he told his sister. “We must pray to God that they give it to me. I told them I can’t go back to Honduras because if I go back, they’re going to kill me.”
What Nelson didn’t know was that Trump administration had already foreclosed any possibility of him being granted asylum under a cruel order crafted in June 2018 by Jeff Sessions and Trump’s homunculus Stephen Miller that instructed immigration judges to deny asylum claims from migrants who allege they are victims of domestic abuse and gang violence.
Nelson didn’t linger for long in one of ICE’s suffocating desert detention camps. He was booted back to Honduras. Two weeks after he arrived home, he was dead, shot down in the street by members of the gang he refused to join. The fifteen bullets that killed Nelson Espinal may have fired by another wretched kid in the Barrio-18 gang, but the policy that aimed the gun was written by a remorseless political syndicate in Washington.
The Ice Caps Are Melting
What I’m reading this week…
Irrationality: a History of the Dark side of Reason by Justin E.H. Smith (Princeton)
Neogrophobia: an Urban Parable by Darius James (NYRB Books)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispecter (New Directions)
What I’m listening to this week…
Green Balloon by Tank and the Bangas (Verve)
Remembering Miles (Solo Piano) by Denny Zeitlin (Sunnyside)
Un Autre Blanc by Salif Keita (Believe/Naive)
Not the Nameless Horror!
Thomas Pynchon: “Ten million dead. Gas. Passchendaele. Let that be now a large figure, now a chemical formula, now an historical account. But dear lord, not the Nameless Horror, the sudden prodigy sprung on a world unaware. We all saw it. There was no innovation, no special breach of nature, or suspension of familiar principles. If it came as any surprise to the public then their own blindness is the Great Tragedy, hardly the war itself.” (V.)