SAN PEDRO SULA - The plane lands at last. After a few minutes, the 135 passengers -- including five women that day -- are freed from their handcuffs. On the tarmac, the deported, trying to regain their bearings after realizing they are back in their native country, are handed back the few possessions they'd had at the moment they were caught by American immigration agents.

For the nonchalant customs officers from the capital Tegucigalpa who are in charge of them, this is all routine: by land or by sea, about 40,000 Hondurans are sent back, kissing away their American dream. For now. 

"I'm going back as soon as I can," whispers one of the deportees as he walks into the room where volunteers offer them coffee and tortillas. When he got caught, Carlos, who did not give his real name, was trying for the second time to join his wife, who already lives illegally in the United States. Because he's a recidivist, he spent several weeks in a U.S. prison, "with the light on day and night like a chicken coop," before being deported.

In Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Americas after Haiti, 150,000 people attempt to leave each year, about 2% of the nation's population, most under 35 years of age. Since Hurricane Mitch hit the country in 1998, destroying houses and roads and leaving the economy decimated, even more people have been fleeing. Misery drives farmers to move to the cities where they encounter a vanishing industrial sector, or gangs of the maras, which transformed the capital into one of the deadliest of the continent.

So students, fathers and farmers set off. "I can't stand it anymore seeing my nephews crying because they are hungry," explains a lumberjack who decided to leave before last Christmas. In the station of San Pedro Sula, the country's second largest city, two teenagers with gang-style garb, wearing caps too big for their heads and tattooed biceps, are waiting for the night bus for Guatemala. It will be the first step of their journey. "I'm going to the States," mumbles one of them as he gets on the bus with a small bag.

A remesas-driven economy

Many of those who set off have a relative who already left years ago, and who sends back home some of the dollars he earns – these "remesas" represent 16% of the Honduran GDP.

"In Orlando, I was paid 100 dollars a day," explains Pedro, a gardener. "It was enough to pay for my mother's medication!"

Since his deportation, this young man "pilots" a makeshift raft – cobbled up with a tractor tire tube – on the Suchiate river between Guatemala and Mexico. During the day, they use these rafts to smuggle goods and clothes. At night, they smuggle illegal immigrants from Central America, many of whom are from Honduras. Thanks to his small craft, Pedro saves money and builds up his strength to leave again.

He knows he will have to climb again on the back of the Bestia, the freight train that slowly crosses Mexico. Isabel Salgado lost her two legs when she fell from the same train. Accidents are frequent : the International Committee of the Red Cross gives out prostheses to the deported Hondurans. Isabel stayed four straight days on a wagon, "barely drinking." She saw a man whose throat had been slit by an electric wire.

Other risks along the way include the Zetas, a drug cartel specialized in smuggling and prostitution. Carlos was captured by the gang with about 50 other emigrants. Only after being beaten for several hours did he manage to give them the phone number of a relative living in the United States who could wire 3,000 dollars for his freedom. At least 20,000 migrants are thought to be kidnapped like this each year. The ones who do not offer up a contact to pay the racket risk being shot, the women raped.

In August 2010, 72 illegal immigrants were murdered on a farm run by the cartel. Miguel Carcamo was one of the Honduran victims of the massacre. "Strangers had given him fake identity papers and promised to take him across the border," remembers his brother-in-law who was with him when he met the smugglers a few days before in Mexico.

Carlos is aware of all these risks. But like 40% of the deported who are brought back to Honduras, he says he will leave again.

Read the original article in French

Photo - ONE DROP Foundation