Central America is still reeling from Hurricane Eta, which struck the Nicaraguan coast near Bilwi on Tuesday, November 3 as a Category 4 storm. Eta did extraordinary damage to homes from wind and flooding in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and in Chiapas, Mexico. The worst damage was in Honduras and Guatemala, which also had the largest number of people who died – over 150 people perished, mostly from drowning and as the result of mudslides. Much of Honduras near the northern coast remains flooded, with roads near San Pedro Sula cut off. Emergency response efforts have been hampered by the damage to transportation routes, and so the prospect of another, even stronger storm, is daunting indeed.
In Nicaragua there were only two confirmed deaths, both men trapped in a goldmine about 80 miles west of Bilwi. Damage to homes and roads was still significant, and there was a great deal of flooding as well, especially in Rivas. See chart below (in Spanish – from Centro Humboldt).
Source: Centro Humboldt
Last week Nicaragua’s government began distribution of building supplies to provide shelter to people along the coast, and to begin the process of rebuilding homes. Those supplies may well now just be more debris in the the 160 MPH winds expected from this new storm. Nicaragua was clearly better prepared than either Honduras or Guatemala prior to Eta. The government in Nicaragua has placed a much higher priority on supporting rural communities than its neighbors and has devoted considerable resources to building a disaster response system in the years since Hurricane Mitch. That said, Nicaragua is still a country where resources are limited (and more so as it deals with sanctions from the U.S.). Another major storm will tax the limits of this system tremendously.
In Honduras, people are bracing for the worst. Still suffering from flooding and the government’s inability to get aid to people stranded by Eta, the country now faces mass evacuations. The U.S. Embassy reprinted an order from the Honduran government calling for evacuations in the following areas:
A friend whose family is evacuating said the road to Progreso looked like one huge caravan. Displacement is already a huge problem – nearly 3 million people impacted by Eta across Central America. The coming days are guaranteed to add tremendous pressure on people moving, and in receiving communities. We can only hope that the government of Honduras is better prepared – as much as possible, anyway, under the circumstances.
We will have more information as it becomes available. It may be days before we know what the impact will be and what is most needed and where. The storm is expected to come ashore over night. Things we know will need to happen from the U.S. side, is to extend Temporary Protected Status to people from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua again – TPS for Honduras and Nicaragua post-Mitch is in the process of being unraveled by the Trump administration. Minimally, Biden will need to extend those programs and add further protections beyond these original TPS designations for those here now. Guatemala’s government has already made a formal request for this.
Less than two weeks after Hurricane Eta struck Central America, leading to deaths from Panama to Guatemala, another Hurricane is expected to hit Central America, coming ashore just north of where Eta struck along the Nicaraguan coast.
Eta left extraordinary damage in its wake, especially along Honduras’ northern coast and inland, where rivers crested, entirely cutting off communities from assistance. In Guatemala, mudslides have killed scores off people. In Guatemala and Honduras, the governments did little to prepare for the storm, and have been ineffectual in delivering emergency supplies to people in need. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees writes:
Honduras has been hit hardest by extensive rains and overflowing rivers, with an estimated 1.3 million people affected, 58 dead and 88,000 evacuated. Among these are 103 people who had been previously displaced by violence and persecution.
In Guatemala, over 640,000 people have been affected, including 46 dead and 96 missing nationwide. Some are buried under landslides or remain inaccessible to first responders. At least two families of asylum seekers have had to be evacuated from their homes due to flooding. UNHCR is coordinating the delivery of aid with authorities and partners and has made refugee housing units and essential supplies available, in response to the government-led appeal for support.
Nicaragua’s government managed to evacuate thousands of people prior to Eta’s landing. There were only two confirmed deaths in Nicaragua – both miners killed in a mudslide. Over the last week the government has delivered over 30,000 sheets of metal for roofing and other supplies to to begin reconstruction efforts. Nicaragua was better prepared than other countries in the region, as it had developed a national response network in the post-Mitch era. However, like everything else these days with Nicaragua, unless you are there, it is impossible to decipher the impact of government efforts from the media as every story of success has a counter-narrative these days. That said, like the rest of Central America, this hurricane hit at a time when economic growth has slowed due to the coronavirus outbreak and government resources are strained as a result. In Nicaragua, the struggle is further exacerbated by U.S. government sanctions aimed at pressuring the Sandinistas out of power.
As of now, another tropical system is heading toward Nicaragua, and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane. It is currently estimated to come to shore along the northern Nicaragua coast on Monday morning, and cut across Honduras, with impacts felt in Guatemala, El Salvador, Southern Mexico and Belize.
It goes without saying this is about the worst thing that can happen right now. We hope that conditions have changed enough to limit the strength of the storm. For example, this system is moving faster, and is not expected to reach the devastating Category 4 that Eta did. We will update as more is known.
The tropical depression has become Tropical Storm Iota. The latest from the National Hurricane Center now shows it potentially becoming a “major” hurricane by Monday morning – winds in excess of 110 MPH.
Iota has slowed down, and is strengthening. The path has also shifted south some, currently on target to hit Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast very close to where Eta did. Honduras will get hit hard again on this path.
The Quixote Center serves as the fiscal sponsor for the Franciscan Network on Migration’s fundraising activities in the United States. We participate in the Network’s discussions on advocacy and work closely with Network coordinator Lori Winther to craft strategies concerning communications about network activities. Below are updates directly from the shelters in Mexico. If you are able to support this work you can make a secure, tax- deductible donation to the Franciscan Network on Migration here.
During the first months of the pandemic, La 72 had institutionalized various health and protection measures for migrants, staff and volunteers. Since mid-October, the shelter has coordinated a re-opening with certain precautionary measures to ensure the protection of the people inside.
With the collaborating organization Medicos Sin Fronteras, they have determined that they can have up to 150 people in the shelter at a time. They monitor the count of people entering (20-30 a day) and those leaving the shelter. In special cases, they receive more than the 150 limit but try to keep the number consistent.
Everyone has to wear masks, and there are new guidelines for grooming, hand washing, and the use of antibacterial gel. People who want to go out can only do so twice a week to go shopping, to eat, to the doctor, etc. Those who go to work can do it daily with permission. They check every person who passes through the gate for temperature. Any suspected cases are transferred to what is normally the juvenile module for quarantine and COVID testing. To date, they have had one verified COVID case and 3 suspected cases.
There are also 200-250 people living on the court next to the house. They do not want to enter the shelter due to movement restrictions. La 72 offers them support for their migration cases as refugees or for suffering human rights violations, etc. and 100-150 can enter to sleep in the chapel between 8:30 pm until 6:30 am.
One of the changes that has affected migration the most is that the train, sometimes called “La Bestia,” stopped operating since the end of August due to the conversion of the routes for the new tourist “Mayan Train.” People now come walking or hitchhike in cars. They have established new routes from Petén, through Salto de Agua and Palenque (there is more information in the Casa Betania report on this below). UNICEF is carrying out a study on the impact of the construction of the routes for the Mayan Train, and has interviewed local and indigenous communities, and the different houses and shelters. They are seeing a lack of respect for indigenous people as well as environmental and social impacts.
Other impediments: At the moment it is also impossible to go through Veracruz or Monterrey on foot. There are many INM (National Institute of Migration) checkpoints there and people are deported. They are not seeing many people traveling south either, because Mexico is deporting them. What you see is the perseverance and tenacity of the people. They need to migrate and the obstacles don’t matter. However, more people every day are seeing that Mexico will be their destination. They end up staying as refugees in the big cities of northern Mexico.
The parish of San Fernando de Guadalupe has been cared for by the Missionaries of the Divine Word (SVD) for 33 years. Currently, in the Casa Betania-Santa Martha Project, five SVDs of five different nationalities work alongside four Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary (FMM) currently from Congo, the Philippines, and Mexico. The house is in the middle of Palenque and Villahermosa; the municipal seat is Salto de Agua. Normally, the border closest to the house is called “La Técnica.” About 70% of the migrants crossed this border nearby.
Right now the train, “La Bestia”, has stopped circulating on this route, people are entering more through El Ceibo and El Naranjo. Before, people came and got on the train between these borders and Tenosique, now they have to walk the long distance between these points, and Casa Betania is on the route. As a result the shelter has experienced a huge increase in numbers. Since August it has been increasing again, and now they are receiving around 100 people a day. The majority of the population are Hondurans (85%), Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, a few Cubans and Venezuelans. Some Africans have arrived.
The pandemic caused them many challenges; they heard that many houses were closing due to the pandemic. But seeing the migrants, the faces, hearing the stories, the team decided to keep the house open. 10 or 15 people arrived a day during the first phase of the epidemic. Most are male, but a variety of groups are arriving – women, children, unaccompanied minors, whole families, single girls, etc.
People can stay for 3 days. But they always try to personalize the situation of each one, for example if they have a disease or need a procedure, they can stay longer. Right now they have a family that was robbed asking for shelter and they are also being given additional time.
The relationship between the people has been, above all, positive. At first there were comments on social networks questioning the authorities about why they kept letting the migrants stay, always blaming the migrants for any bad that happens. But there were more people supporting them. Right now there is no formal opposition blocking their passage. The health authorities set rules for them, for example, once the migrants enter the shelter, that they do not leave, that they are not entering and leaving the shelter. Migrants, above all, do not believe in COVID, or it is a denial above all the complex situation they live, their dreams, their struggles to migrate. Well, it makes them live this denial. And so there is a bit of resistance facing the requirements, the use of the mask, the hand washing, the gel. They try to disinfect cutlery, tables, surfaces very well, and there are people who do not accept the value of these measures. But it is explained to people, raising awareness, and little by little they accept that this is the new normal.
About contagion, each person who arrives takes their temperature. If they suspect a contagion, there is an area reserved for quarantine. Currently there is a person who is positive. A couple arrived, and the young man had a fever. They were immediately taken to the hospital for an exam, and the boy tested positive. The two are isolated.
One of the sisters speaks to the women about violence on the road and hospital care for migrants who have been raped on the road.
A great challenge is that in this municipality, the authorities are not very competent to help migrants. When they need paperwork, they have to move to Palenque. It implies a day of work for the transfer.
Casa Betania Needs: They critically need volunteers. With only 4 or 5 people they are serving 100+ per day. Volunteers are available to live within the limitations they have there. There is a room in the house of a woman from the town, and the women volunteers stay in this house. The men are in a space in the shelter. They have to be of legal age, willing to work with migrants, who can follow the general rules of no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.
Materially, they especially need flip-flops for the bathroom.
In the dining room that they operated in the parish before the pandemic, they still offer showers, distribute food (water, whey, fruit, tuna, etc.) in bags, and in special cases migrants can sleep there or they can serve lunches, as before, according to the health code.
The flow of migrants is increasing again to 9 to 10 migrants per day, some to the north, others deported. Most of the migrants continue north. They are a mix of Venezuelans and Central Americans, but very few Haitians and others at this time. They still cannot fully open with volunteers, for the safety of the volunteers.
The migrants stay under a bridge near the train tracks. Or they just eat, bathe, and leave. The INM sometimes asks for support from the parish or the DIF (National System for Integral Family Development), for people with physical disabilities, etc.
Pre-pandemic, a woman in the community offered to donate a house to better host the migrants. However, the house is not suitable for the men who make up the majority of the migrants who pass this route. The house is far from the parish and would be without an administrator on-site. There is not much space and everyone would be too crowded. There is no patio, it is completely enclosed. Sometimes there are arguments or problems. There is a lot of drug trafficking in the area, too, and they don’t have room for movement. People cannot be easily separated when tensions arise.
For these reasons, the friars plan to use the house to serve families or perhaps women, perhaps for two or three families at a time. Maybe use the house for medical care. In terms of legal paperwork, they already have right of use, but are awaiting deeds.
In other space, they plan to separate a section of the patio of their church, mainly to provide shade with a canopy (tin) roof and a large tree. There they could place cots, hammocks or mats for the men to sleep. There are two gates to the street. With a wall they will divide the areas between the parishioners and the migrants. This would give them more space for the migrants to relax and as Franciscans already live here, they would also be better supervised and supported.
They are presenting this plan for approval to their provincial government of the Franciscans at a meeting in Tijuana this month. If the plan is approved, a plan that involves blocking part of the entrance to the sanctuary from their worship space, they would need money to make these more basic plans. It would be better than what they have had, but not as good as what was originally proposed. The opportunity to buy the land where they hoped to build is no longer available.
The funds they obtained from the Central Mission of the Franciscans in Germany have been spent to cover food costs in recent months and they are running out of supplies. They are thinking of initiating a local campaign to collect more supplies.
The Frontera Digna shelter is an institution that welcomes vulnerable migrants, refugees, and deportees. Due to the insecure situations that migrants experience, they arrive with an immense burden of incidents and cruelty that they have had to experience on the road and this shelter offers them relief: water so they can bathe, food, clothing, medicine. They receive spiritual support and care, nutritional assistance, and other accompaniment when required. We respond to the situations that each of them have, maintaining hope and strengthening.
In early 2020, staff at Frontera Digna were preparing a new “Compartiendo Esperanza” shelter exclusively for up to 80 women and children. In April, immigration authorities requested the use of the new shelter for 160 people in deportation proceedings from Mexico. You can read more about what happened here.
As we are very close to the border, people sometimes try to cross several times. There are helicopters, drones, dogs, sensors that detect movements, migrants even believe that when they turn on their phone, the sensors can detect them. However, they can cross and walk 3-6 days until the North American migration authorities capture and detain them, sometimes until they have lost everything along the way. We always hear, “I almost made it.” They try many times.
When they arrive with us, the deportees ask for food, clothes (sometimes they arrive in their prison suit or pajamas, flip flops). They ask to bathe and come very hungry. Sometimes they arrive dehydrated, in poor health, with traumas related to encounters with criminals, kidnappings, extortion, etc.
Temporarily closed for lodging, Frontera Digna served an average of 100 migrants every day before the COVID pandemic. Currently, they are providing pantry service, food and cleaning products and soaps, and follow up with pregnant women who are living in rented rooms. They also offered migrants the right to enter, rest a few hours and shower, but the municipality ordered them to only distribute food, bring clothes to wash, prohibiting others from entering the shelter.
There are migrants who are waiting for their asylum appointments in Nuevo Laredo, and many are arriving in Piedras Negras. They rent tiny rooms, now that the shelters are closed due to COVID. The person in charge of the INM who keeps the list to request asylum, reports that in the Piedras Negras detention center, around 160 deportees, are processed daily.
About the rented rooms, the police recently raided some buildings because the owners did not have the proper permits. The migrants were taken to detention even though some were awaiting asylum and had legal status in Mexico. They deported those who did not have papers to stay. They are constantly deporting people.