By: Corie Welch
On Saturday afternoon, I sat in disbelief at my kitchen table in El Progreso, as I listened to a voice message saying, “They’re going to have a flight out for us tomorrow.” After a disheartening week trapped in Honduras, trying to find a way home, I was finally getting out.
Since the borders closed on March 15, I had been working with another group of US citizens in El Progreso to find a solution to our predicament. Someone in this group of 12 citizens managed to get into contact with a woman connected to the Embassy who put us on a list to fly out of San Pedro Sula Sunday morning. We were given few instructions: arrive at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Pedro Sula, bring only one suitcase under 80 lbs, wear close-toed shoes, expect to have our temperatures checked, and pack our own snacks and water.
The nature of our flight was never communicated to us directly by any Embassy officials; we only knew that it was a non-commercial flight, which was why we should not expect to be provided food or water. After arriving in San Pedro Sula, Embassy and Consular officials checked our passports and transported us to the airport where our flight was scheduled to depart at 11 am. We were not updated nor given any information about our flight other than that it would arrive in Alexandria, Louisiana.
While we waited, I managed to strike up a conversation with the Embassy official that appeared to be in charge, Dana. I asked him if the plane arriving to pick us up was an empty commercial flight. He responded: “No, it’s not a commercial flight, but it is empty … of sorts.”
I pressed him, asking him to clarify what “of sorts” meant.
He then said, “They are passengers of the involuntary nature,” to which I replied, “So they’re deportees.” He rebutted: “We like to refer to them as returnees,” and walked away.
Deportations continue amidst the COVID-19 crisis
The Honduran government stopped accepting deportation flights from Mexico on March 10, but continued to accept deportees by land and flights from the United States. According to my communications with the US Embassy following the closure of the borders, they assured me that there would be “no in or out” of the country for the next seven days, with no exceptions. If that was the case, deportations should have stopped as the Honduran government refused to accept any flights into the country. However, as several Congressional aides communicated to me, under pressure from US representatives to bring home trapped US citizens abroad, including those in Honduras, negotiations began between the State Department and the Honduran government to find a solution to “rescue” these citizens from Honduras.
On Sunday morning, hours before the official border closure was supposed to be lifted, 99 US Citizens, including myself, flew out of San Pedro Sula headed to the United States. Personnel on our flight included ICE agents, clad in jackets reading ICE, as well as those from the Department of Homeland Security. Our particular plane was labeled Swift Airlines; Swift Airlines is a private company, now renamed iAero Airways, and is contracted out by ICE to run deportations. iAero Airways and World Atlantic Airlines are the two leading private companies that operate the majority of ICE deportation flights to San Pedro Sula.
A US Embassy official waiting in the terminal with us bragged to one of my fellow passengers, explaining the ingenuity of their decision to load this plane that “was already running up to 10 times a week” with US citizens that were trapped in Honduras. The flight conducts round trip travel between San Pedro Sula and Alexandria, Louisiana, though the return flight doesn’t hold many passengers. Specifically, these flights leave from the Alexandria Staging Facility, where a private corporation called GEO Group operates a 72 hour holding shelter that houses people prior to their deportations. GEO Group is a private company that owns prisons and detention centers, with 67 locations in the US and 6 internationally.
Whether or not restarting deportations of Hondurans from the US to Honduras was part of the negotiations with the State Department is unknown; Honduran and US officials remain tight-lipped and unwilling to disclose this information. What we do know is that the plane that returned myself and 98 other US citizens to our home country first dropped off 96 Hondurans from a detention center in Louisiana to San Pedro Sula.
Continued legacy of US hegemony and human rights violations in Honduras
Even amidst this global health crisis, the relationship between Honduras and the United States remains the same: a relationship of US domination that prioritizes capital over human life. Even before COVID-19, Honduras could not appropriately accommodate “returnees” from the US. But the current situation is far worse as there are already confirmed cases of COVID-19 in migrant detention centers in the US, meaning as deportations of people continue, the US is essentially deporting the virus along with them. As explained in my previous blog, the Honduran healthcare system is not equipped to handle the outbreak. Even as the Honduran government is scrambling to contain cases of COVID-19 with an extensive militarized lockdown, the US government continues to send deportees already infected with the virus. This will increase the spread and likelihood of a serious health crisis of COVID-19 within Honduras.
Honduras bowing down to accept deportations reflects centuries of US hegemony in the region where Honduras serves as a geopolitical pawn to be controlled in order to promote US interests. The unwavering support for current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, in the face of corruption and narco-trafficking allegations further proves the historical pattern of the United States propping up regimes in Honduras that will do as they say. For example, Embassy officials repeatedly told us over the week and in our time waiting in the airport that the, “Government of Honduras has been a tremendous friend of ours.”
The United States already has a major presence in Honduras with the Soto Cano air base, formerly known as Palmerola, outside of Comayagua. Used as a strategic point for coordinating and launching counter-revolutionary operations throughout Central America in the 1980s, the air base has been “repurposed” to launch “humanitarian missions.” So why couldn’t this massive air base be used to assist US citizens leaving Honduras? The US marines were sent to protect bananas in the 1890s, but somehow the lives of trapped US citizens could not justify the expense of using the US military to fly us out. The US continues to prove that its military presence in Honduras has nothing to do with protecting human life, Honduran or US citizens, but is instead there to promote its political and economic interests.
Exacerbation of the pandemic
After we arrived on the tarmac in Alexandria, we quickly handed in a customs form and were left alone by the US officials flying with us. Neither our temperatures nor our bags were checked upon arrival and we were left to figure out transport home as Louisiana moved into a shelter in place order, restricting all movement in the state. I had less than 24 hours to find my way out of Louisiana before I became trapped there and was given zero guidance upon arrival.
Meanwhile, in Honduras, at least 50 deportees escaped en route to the 33 calle in the El Polvorin sector in San Pedro Sula, where the Honduran government is keeping all deportees quarantined for 14 days after their return. Now, with a warrant out for their arrest, according to Honduran police, all escaped deportees will be sent to jail, furthering the criminalization of deportees and exacerbating the spread of the virus.