Pay or Die

by Sonia Nazario   on July 26, 2019   publication:

A bus owner wearing a red knit hat waits for the call he’s gotten every Monday morning for 10 years. That’s when Honduras’s gangs began charging anything with wheels — buses, taxis, motorcycle taxis — a “war tax.” Just here in the capital, the owners of these businesses pay an estimated $23 million to gangs each year.

Nonpayment equals death.

Since 2010, more than 1,500 Hondurans working in transportation have been murdered — shot, strangled, cuffed to the steering wheel and burned alive while their buses are torched. If anyone on a bus route stops paying, gangs kill a driver — any driver — to send a message.

At 10:13, the bus owner’s phone rings with the 18th Street gang’s instructions: “Can you bring it early today?” We jump into a small black car. He agrees to let me come along, on the condition that I crouch down in the back seat, and that I never reveal his name.

We stop next to a hardware store, where a bus dispatcher arrives in a white Toyota pickup and hands over an inch-thick block of cash — 16,000 lempiras, about $650.

The gang calls again. “I’m coming,” the bus owner says. “I’m arriving in a black car.”

Armed lookouts watch as the car’s engine strains up the hill into Las Pavas, a stronghold of the 18th Street gang in the north of the city. Near the top, the bus owner stops at the same spot he has for a year, a green house with a peach-colored iron railing. We tense up. Unlike the MS-13 gang, which requires you to walk toward youths holding AK-47s to pay your “taxes,” 18th Street has drive-through service — unless gangsters sense something is amiss, and order you out of your car. I huddle down in the back seat, turn my phone to record video, press it against the car’s tinted window, and pray no one sees me.

Two youths materialize. The bus owner rolls the window down two inches, and shoves through the cash.

I SPENT A MONTH REPORTING IN HONDURAS EARLIER THIS YEAR. What most pushes people to despair about the country’s future — and ultimately drives them to leave — is corruption, the sense that everything is rotten and unlikely to get better. The corruption is what allows all the other bad things to happen. It allows gangs to impose a reign of terror. It allows nine in 10 murderers to get away with their crimes. It fuels poverty: Politicians steal 30 percent to 40 percent of all government revenues, by some estimates, crippling schools, hospitals and highways.

And it is rocket fuel for migration. The number of Honduran migrants apprehended at the southern United States border has surged from 47,900 in 2017 to 205,039 in just the first nine months of this fiscal year.

I spoke to another man who owns 35 buses. He told me he pays $120,000 a year to three gangs — 30 percent to 40 percent of everything he makes. On Christmas, Mother’s Day and Easter, gangs insist on double (for vacations, they explain). They are now demanding a 34 percent increase. He considers himself lucky: Other owners pay six gangs.

He said he has asked the police for help six times in five years. He has let officers listen in on negotiations, given them gangsters’ phone numbers, taken police officers and an army colonel along on cash drops, provided them the Banco Azteca account number he used initially to pay MS-13. Surely that was traceable? But nothing changed.

Lately, anti-extortion officers have told him they just can’t touch MS-13 or 18th Street. “They know people in the government are with them,” he said. “They know this is uncontrollable.” He, like many others I spoke to, felt the corruption was getting worse.

Lt. Col. Amílcar Hernández, who heads the National Anti-Gang Task Force, disagreed. He said that his unit, which works with the attorney general’s office as well as the police and the military, prevented around $10.6 million from landing in the gangs’ hands over the past five years. He said some bus owners used to pay seven gangs and now pay only two, and two Tegucigalpa bus routes no longer pay anyone at all. “We are containing the problem,” he argued. “It’s not paradise. But it’s better.”

And yet he acknowledged that bus drivers still go to the country’s prisons to drop off extortion payments and that even a general he knows has to pay the gangs for three buses he owns. (He hastened to add that the general still clears a nice profit.)

AS A TEENAGER IN ARGENTINA, I HAD TO PAY BRIBES to get a train ticket or the gas turned on in our home. Lots of places, the United States included, have corruption. Still, Honduras makes the swamp in Washington look like a piddling puddle.

If the United States wants to slow migration from Central America, that’s the swamp we must help drain. Instead, the Trump administration failed to protest when Guatemala kicked out the head of a United-Nations-sponsored anti-corruption mission last year and ordered it closed altogether this September. Its Honduran counterpart, the Mission in Support of the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, could get booted from the country when its mandate from the Organization of American States ends in January.

The administration has slashed foreign aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to punish the countries for failing to do enough to stop the migrants. The Association for a More Just Society, the Honduran arm of Transparency International, which relies heavily on American support to fight corruption, has been told that the money will be spent only on drug enforcement and blocking migration. Barring any new resources, by January the group will have to cut its staff of 140 to 40.

This is especially frustrating because the fight against corruption in Honduras really revved up only four years ago, in response to enormousstreet protests by fed-up citizens called “indignados.” The investigations and revelations by anti-corruption groups that followed have actually driven up despair, by highlighting both how big the problem is and how few of the bad guys end up in jail.

Last year, faced with charges that at least five and as many as 60additional current and former lawmakers had stolen $55 million in public funds, the Honduran Congress passed a law shutting down all anti-corruption prosecutions for three years. It had already passed a Law of Secret Information, making it possible for lawmakers to classify just about any government information — including spending — as secret for up to 25 years. Not coincidentally, the statute of limitations to try public officials is less than 25 years. The Supreme Court even ruled unconstitutional the arm of the attorney general’s office that tackles corruption.

THE ROT STARTS AT THE TOP, WITH PRESIDENT JUAN ORLANDO HERNÁNDEZ. Back in 2015 he acknowledged that his first campaign for president, two years earlier, had taken money from companies and politicians that had illegally siphoned some $300 million from the Honduran Institute of Social Security, the agency that oversees the public health insurance program. But he denied having known where the money came from, telling reporters that “me, myself, Juan Orlando, I have nothing to do” with the scandal.

Since he was re-elected under very dubious circumstances in 2017, he has stuck to that line, even as many of his family members and associates have been implicated in scam after scam.

There are two main ways to get rich illegally in Honduras. One is to take money from drug cartels to help them move Colombian cocaine to the United States. The president’s brother, Tony, was arrested last November in Miami, accused of brazenly labeling shipments of cocaine with his initials. The brothers were protected by the same presidential guard, prompting Carlos Hernández, the executive director of the Association for a More Just Society, known as A.J.S., to ask the president incredulously: You didn’t know your brother was moving tons of drugs?

The other way is to steal from the public coffers. This is often done through the creation of nonprofits that get government contracts and either do the work at inflated prices or don’t do anything at all and simply pocket the payments.

According to a forthcoming study by A.J.S. based on public records and its reporting, two nonprofits linked to the president’s family received $87 million in no-bid government contracts between 2014 and 2017. One received almost five times as much government funding as the budget of the largest nonprofit operating in Honduras, World Vision. There has been no accounting of how the money was spent.

Fernando Josué Suárez Ramírez helped run a number of nonprofits tied to the president’s family and has since turned himself into the authorities. His lawyer, Omar Menjívar, told me in an interview that, according to his client, $9.4 million went from the government to one of these nonprofits to buy school uniforms for children. No child got a uniform. He said another called Frijoles Hay — We Have Beans — never distributed a single bean.

A unit in the attorney general’s office in Honduras has been investigating another major scam called the Pandora case. Between 2011 and 2013, nearly $12 million was stolen from the Ministry of Agriculture and paid to two nonprofits controlled by the president’s sister, Hilda. The groups were supposed to teach improved cultivation and irrigation techniques to farmers affected by climate change, but zero training sessions occurred, said Elsa Calderón, the chief of the special anticorruption prosecutor’s office.

According to a transcript of Mr. Suárez Ramírez’s testimony to the Supreme Court that was illegally recorded last year and posted online by Notibomba — a digital media website that focuses on Latin American politics — this money also went to fund the president’s 2013 campaign.

Hilda Hernández would call and ask Mr. Suárez Ramírez to bring money, and he would bring it. He carried the cash in suitcases or backpacks — there was so much of it he would often weigh it rather than count it all out, Mr. Menjívar told me. The money paid for lavish campaign events, a helicopter to transport the candidate. One day, Mr. Suárez Ramírez claims he signed checks to some 2,000 National Party activists, a $282,845 giveaway. Ms. Hernández also helped herself: She bought land, cattle, apartments in Miami, before she died in a helicopter accident in 2017.

No one has yet been convicted in the Pandora case, but 38 people have been charged. The president is not among them. However, according to a spokesman for the Mission in Support of the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity, the attorney general’s office is still investigating Mr. Suárez Ramírez’s accusations.

The president’s office said it was unable to comment in time for this article’s publication. But the president has previously cautioned reportersagainst discussing these matters in the media, saying, “If somebody has proof of something, they should present the evidence to the relevant authorities; that is the procedure — that is justice.”

“I think we will get J.O.H.,” said Ms. Calderón, using the president’s initials. “I’m not sure when.”

THE CORRUPTION TRICKLES DOWN INTO THE COUNTRY’S CLASSROOMS, where teaching salaries are handed out as political favors to “ghost teachers” who never show up at school. A decade ago, children were taught only 88 out of 200 mandated days and one in four teachers never came to class. A whole soccer team, 22 athletes, in Danlí, a city east of the capital, got paid as teachers. There were also people who did teach, but received paychecks for up to five positions. Honduras was spending a greater percentage of its budget on education than any other country in Latin America, but had the worst test scores after Haiti.

In 2011, A.J.S. put together a list of all the teachers on payrolls at the nation’s schools, and asked volunteers to see if they really existed. The government was paying 85,000 teachers. It turned out only 55,000 were real. The disclosure led the minister of education to resign and to a purge of bogus teachers.

But the reforms weren’t made permanent, and Mr. Hernández of A.J.S. believes there are already 5,000 new ghost teachers and 100 new ghost schools — some in imaginary towns. Even the real teachers are often unqualified political appointees: 70 percent of all workers employed in the Ministry of Education’s headquarters have only a primary or middle school education.

And while test scores have risen, most Honduran children still don’t make it beyond elementary school.

THE CORRUPTION OF HONDURAS’S SCHOOLS ROBS CHILDREN OF THEIR FUTURES. But the corruption of its medical system can rob them of their lives.

The first sign that something was seriously amiss was a spike in women dying in childbirth in 2011. A drug to stop uterine bleeding, oxytocin, wasn’t working. A.J.S. sent 10 medicines from three Honduran drug companies to a lab to be tested. Many were so substandard they were no better than a placebo. Later tests showed that drugs used for diabetes and hypertension didn’t work. Some were vastly diluted, containing 5 percent of the active ingredient. Some were chalk dust — fakes. Others were contaminated: IV drips contained fecal matter.

Dr. Suyapa Figueroa, the president of Honduras’s Medical University, estimates that at least 2,000 patients died between 2010 and 2014 as a result of bad medicines and a lack of available dialysis drugs.

How did this happen? During those four years, the head of the Institute of Social Security organized a ring of criminals to steal an estimated $300 million from the health care system. Officials took bribes from drug companies and ambulance suppliers to overpay for shoddy products.

James Nealon, who served as United States ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017, said about the scam, “It’s not that the criminals were subverting the system; this was the system.”

That ring was eventually brought down — the head of the program has been sentenced to 41 years in prison — but the same tactics continue. Ms. Calderón, the anti-corruption prosecutor, said 80 politicians and employees of the health department are now under investigation in a case involving a drug company that was paid more than $694,000 by the government to provide medicine and supplies to public hospitals. None of it ever arrived, she said.

“They are robbing money that should go to provide health care to people. There is nothing worse in this country than that,” Dr. Figueroa said.

As a result of all this corruption, the United Nations now oversees the purchase of most drugs in Honduras. The government makes up a list of the medications it wants to buy, and the United Nations administers the payments. But about 30 percent of drugs are still bought directly by local hospitals, and there the fraud continues.

“People say: Well, the state robs, so I can rob, too,” said the A.J.S.’s Carlos Hernández.

FINALLY, CORRUPTION HAS ROTTED THE POLICE. Officers would shut down highways so drug planes could land and even killed top government officials who got in the way of the narcos.

In 2016, President Hernández, under pressure from the United States and worried about the coming election, ordered a purge that resulted in the firing of more than 5,000 of the country’s 13,500 officers. All 40 of the highest-ranking officers were dismissed because they were suspected of being criminals, didn’t pass a polygraph or were incapable of doing the job, said Omar Rivera, one of three members of the Special Commission for the Purge and Transformation of the Honduran National Police. Before, Mr. Rivera said, all cops were paid to look the other way. Now — he hopes — only a minority are on the take.

In 2016 the commission referred 455 officers suspected of committing crimes to the attorney general for prosecution. That number has since grown to 2,100, according to a member of the commission. And yet only one has been convicted.

“This is so rotten, it is full of pus,” Mr. Rivera said.

Most disturbing, the purge found around 100 police officers and officials who were actual members of the MS-13 gang. Five were high-level officials in charge of whole regions of the country, said Carlos Hernández, who also worked as an adviser to the purge commission.

THIS KIND OF INFILTRATION IS MS-13’S NEW TRADEMARK. The gang has sent its people to school to become lawyers and accountants, to help with money laundering, and doctors, to treat gang members who have been shot. It has sent gang members to the police academy to become cops. “At the bottom and at the top of the police, there are members of MS-13,” said Jaime Varela Lagos, a gang expert who works with A.J.S. A 911 operator and a Supreme Court investigator were found to be undercover gangsters. In some neighborhoods, MS-13 has its own security cameras.

The ultimate goal is to control the police, the courts and Congress.

An official who investigates gangs and asked to remain anonymous told me MS-13 has paid off so many prosecutors, politicians and judges that he has to have three times the evidence to keep its members in jail than he does for 18th Street gangsters. In June 2016, when he took part in an MS-13 bust, he said he found nine bags of cash the gang was preparing to deliver, each individually addressed to legislators, police officers and to the mayor of one of Honduras’s largest cities.

For two years, he searched for an MS-13 leader nicknamed El Pollo. He caught him in November. El Pollo beckoned him over: “I have one million lempiras. Let me go.” The agent said no. He suspects the judge did otherwise. Charged with two murders, El Pollo was free in six days.

I get the chills when I hear Blanca Munguía, who combats corruption at A.J.S., say, “They are growing so fast that soon they will control everything.”

And my heart breaks when I see how people in one neighborhood in this city, Nueva Suyapa, have borne the brunt of all this corruption.

I HAVE BEEN REPORTING IN NUEVA SUYAPA FOR TWO DECADES, and what I have found there is a microcosm of the same kind of corruption that A.J.S. investigates on the national level.

Perched on Tegucigalpa’s eastern edge, Nueva Suyapa used to be a trash dump until people displaced by Hurricane Fifi began settling there in the 1970s. Today some 50,000 bricklayers and tortilla-makers live in humble homes that cling to the verdant hillsides above the gleaming white Basilica of Suyapa, where Hondurans arrive by the thousands to thank the Virgin of Suyapa for a miracle or — perhaps more often — to pray for one.

Residents include Blanca Velazquez, whose diabetic mother almost died from taking ineffective insulin the government supplied, and Mario Rosales, a social worker, who saw a police officer’s patrol car take cash from an MS-13 gangster just last year. At the entrance to a section of Nueva Suyapa called El Infiernito, or Little Hell, Baudilia Amaya lives with four of her five kids in an adobe hut whose walls are about to fall down; they barely step outside for fear of the gangs. She said she is planning to flee to the United States.

Since 2005, gangs have been battling for control. Today 18th Street controls part of the bottom of the hill, MS-13 the vast middle, and 18th Street the top — a neighborhood called Flores de Oriente, the most feared place to go. Living in MS territory is no picnic, but the 18th Street clique here, called Colombian Little Psycho, is particularly violent.

A local activist told me that last year, 18th Street gangsters captured a girl they thought was snitching. They killed her by cutting off her arm piece by piece. They recorded it and shared the video. People are so afraid they don’t even call the gangs by their names, referring instead to “antisocial elements.” It feels like Voldemort — he who shall not be named.

About one in four of all the businesses here pay war taxes, said Yonatan Venegas, who until recently headed a low-interest business loan program. The goal of the program was to create jobs in Nueva Suyapa, where half of those aged 18 to 25 are unemployed. But of 600 businesses Mr. Venegas tracked over the last decade, 150 closed because of the cost of extortion.

Brenda Margarita Raudales Rodríguez, a 34-year-old mother of two, decided to stop making payments to 18th Street. She ran a pulpería — a tiny grocery store — out of her house in Flores de Oriente until an assassin shot her in the face last year. He’d asked for a drink, and she had just returned with his change. Bleeding, she stumbled toward the bedroom, where her 4-year-old daughter was sleeping, but died just shy of reaching the child.

THE DEADLIEST SPOT HERE IS ON THE MAIN ROAD that winds its way to the top of the hill. Two-thirds of the way up lies the neighborhood’s main bus terminal. Buses line the street, waiting to be dispatched. Another stop is for the red three-wheeled motorcycle taxis.

Cristino Arias and his three sons were all taxi drivers here. In 2005, Mr. Arias told me, the drivers got their first extortion demand, from 18th Street. They went to the police, who did nothing. Two drivers were murdered that year. Many tried working out of different taxi stops but drivers got a note at those, too: Pay up, or there will be a massacre.

By 2007, seeing no choice, he started paying what amounted to about a third of his take-home pay. Then the taxes went up. His middle son Jimmy, 30, asked his father for a loan. His father told him, “Son, I just don’t have it.”

Tears streaked down into Mr. Arias’s salt and pepper beard when he told me about the three men with black masks and big guns who came for his son on Oct. 4, 2011. Jimmy started crying. He turned to his father: “Dad!”

“I didn’t have the money to give him,” Mr. Arias told me. So his son “paid with his life.”

The next day, they found Jimmy’s taxi, No. 908, stripped down. For five days and nights his father searched the nearby mountains, not eating or sleeping. The sixth day, someone found Jimmy’s body in a trash dump. His hands and feet were tied and he’d been shot in the head. His is one of thousands of such deaths.

Mr. Arias has since found work miles away, dispatching taxis from an appliance store. But his two surviving sons still drive taxis out of Nueva Suyapa. “There are no other jobs,” he said. “We don’t have a choice.”

At the bus terminal, “you feel the stench of death,” said Milagro Mejía. “You feel the spirit of death.” Her brother, Israel Palma Mejía, 40, was killed on Nov. 17. He was the third motorcycle taxi dispatcher to be murdered here in five years. He was shot at 6:45 a.m. by two teenage assassins for refusing to pay 18th Street. It happened in front of an evangelical school, whose gray stucco wall and black iron door are pockmarked with bullet holes.

Two dozen people witnessed it. No one saw anything.

TOO OFTEN, CHILDREN ARE CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE. On April 2, 2018, 12-year-old Rodis Eduardo Peralta Rivera told his teachers he felt sick and needed to go home early. It was 11:30, and Eduardo’s little brother, Adonis Jafeth, 5, was due out of class at noon. So Eduardo sat outside their school, Centro Básico Monseñor Jacobo Cáceres Ávila, to wait for him.

The school is next to a shack where a dispatcher sends buses down the hill. Two MS-13 gangsters were there to collect payments when three members of another gang, Los Benjamins, came up the hill. The gangsters shot at one another until one was wounded, and then retreated.

When calm returned, an MS-13 gangster noticed a boy convulsing on the ground. Eduardo had looked up at the sound of gunfire, and a Benjamin bullet had pierced one of his big brown eyes.

The gangster ordered a woman selling tortillas nearby to take Eduardo to the hospital, where he soon died.

“I felt like the earth and sky had come together and flattened me, that I had been destroyed inside,” his mother, Karol Jesenia Rivera Díaz, told me.

“Eduardo, get up. Let’s go home,” she remembers pleading with his still-warm body.

A light went out in Adonis when his brother died. For a week he had a fever. He slept and slept.

“My brother was a little serious,” he told me. “And a little funny. We were always together. I miss him.” Adonis, now 7, went on in his squeaky voice, “I have nightmares. I don’t know why.”

Their father, Jack, said that Eduardo loved to dance — merengue, salsa, punta, reggaeton. Their mother hasn’t turned the radio on since he died. “Sometimes, I talk to her, and she’s there, and sometimes she’s not,” he said.

The authorities caught the killer. But when the family returned from visiting Eduardo’s grave last Mother’s Day, they were stopped by an MS-13 gangster. “Don’t accuse people unjustly,” he said, stressing that he hadn’t been the one to kill their son. There were rumors that the family had gone to the police. There is a verb for this offense: sapiar — to talk too much, like a sapo, a frog. There was a rumor someone had contracted a hitman to kill them.

Ms. Rivera sees no safe options. She wants to escape to the United States, but the caravans are too dangerous. “I won’t risk the life of my son. He’s the only one I have left,” she said. She doesn’t want to give up a house they fought so hard for, one Eduardo helped build. She doesn’t want to leave Eduardo’s grave behind.

IF THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION WANTS TO KEEP FAMILIES LIKE THESE FROM FLEEING to the United States, it has to start acting like it cares about what’s going on in Honduras.

First we have to recognize that the United States shares some responsibility for the corruption. In 1975, in what was called “Bananagate,” an American company paid a $1.25 million bribe — promising double that — to Honduras’s president in exchange for lower taxes on banana exports. In the 1980s, the United States paid Honduras hundreds of millions of dollars with little care for who pocketed the money as long as the government agreed to host the contras battling leftist Nicaraguan Sandinistas. And of course much of the carnage today stems from cartels and gangs battling to control turf to move drugs to the biggest buyer in the world: the United States.

President Trump now says that sending money to Central America is like flushing it down the toilet. But that’s not true: I’ve seen programs funded by the United States reduce violence in the worst neighborhoods in Honduras.

If we do it right, we can use aid to reduce violence, poverty, corruption and impunity and to bolster good governance. The money should go to vetted international aid and Honduran civil society groups instead of directly to the government, but we can pressure the government by setting clear benchmarks for progress and cutting the money if they are not met. For example, on violence, we should establish targets for reducing homicides, femicides and domestic violence, and for increasing murder convictions. Doing this will take a long-term commitment — 10 or 20 years. But in the end it will be far cheaper and more humane to fund change in Honduras than to spend billions locking up asylum seekers at our borders.

For its part, Honduras must purge more than its police. It must do the same with its judges and prosecutors. Corrupt politicians need to go to jail. Undo the Law of Secret Information. Pay people in public office, especially police officers, a living wage so they don’t feel forced to steal. Churches could also play a role: In June the Honduran Episcopalian Conferencecalled for action on corruption. Ultimately, corruption is combated when people elect leaders who have the political will to make change happen.

IN THE MEANTIME, HONDURANS, BOTH STUBBORN AND BRAVE, are fighting back. Some protests are big — like recent demonstrations demanding the president’s resignation — and some are small.

At 6.45 a.m. on Feb. 4 — the first day of school after a long break — Ondina Esperanza Díaz, a wiry 52-year-old, 95-pound mother of eight who barely completed fifth grade herself, is ready to make trouble in Nueva Suyapa.

She stands sentry outside Pablo Portillo Figueroa elementary school, where her youngest, 9-year-old David Ismael, is about to start fourth grade. Every morning she comes to make sure that the seven teachers and a principal who are paid to work here actually show up. She has been trained through an A.J.S. program called Comunidades Fuertes to do this, as have 22 other volunteers at four Nueva Suyapa schools. The oldest is 86, the youngest 19.

Ms. Díaz is no shrinking violet: When her ex-husband drunkenly beat her when she was nine months pregnant with her fourth child, she snapped, lit a club on fire, and whacked him with it. “I know you are going to kill me, but I’m going to kill you, too!” she said. Now she’s turned that fury on the schools.

She has seen boatloads of corruption here: Teachers don’t show up, or arrive late and leave early, talk on their cellphones all day, even steal students’ snack money. This morning she confronts the school’s principal, Velis Velásquez: “I am watching you,” Ms. Díaz tells her. She counts the teachers as David cuddles against her in the morning chill.

“Another teacher!” she says gleefully, as the third one arrives.

She keeps her eyes peeled for her particular target — the sixth-grade teacher, José Orlando Vasquez. He has failed to come to school every Monday for years. He told her he has a nose problem, rhinitis, that flares up on Mondays. Another teacher comes eight minutes late. Mr. Problem Nose never shows, nor does her son’s fourth-grade teacher.

There are no substitutes. They are working on it. In the meantime, “the children will be taken care of” with activities, she’s told.

“We don’t want activities!” Ms. Díaz says. “We want classes.”

The way Ms. Díaz sees it, the least the government can do is get the teachers to teach. The parents do the rest. This morning dozens of mothers have showed up to clean out the classrooms, which are filthy after being chained shut for the break. They pile dusty desks in the courtyard and sweep pigeon droppings and dirt off the red tile floors. Someone removes a dead animal from the second-grade closet.

While the mothers clean, the teachers who have shown up for work line the students up outside. They have them unfurl the Honduran flag and sing the national anthem, and then tell them about the promise of a new year.

“Good morning! How much are we going to learn this year?” a teacher asks.

“Mucho!” the kids answer in unison.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/07/25/opinion/honduras-corruption-ms-13.html

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