Immigration Crisis: Photographing the Violence Behind the Honduras Exodus

Ross McDonnell for TIME
Exhaustion is the prevailing mood among departing migrants at the bus terminal in San Pedro Sula. The space is a hub for people aiming north. Honduras. July 15, 2014.

As President Barack Obama is considering offering refugee status to thousands of Honduran child migrants, photographer Ross McDonnell travelled to the Central American country on assignment for TIME to document the growing humanitarian crisis that has forced thousands of people to seek a better life in the U.S.

“To try to understand life in Honduras is to begin to understand the vast exodus from that country and the population’s strong desire to migrate North,” McDonnell tells TIME. This exodus is not only fed by a desire to find refuge with family members who successfully made it to the U.S., but also by a desire “to escape poverty, unemployment and the effects of lawlessness that pervades in Honduras,” the Irish photographer adds. “It is the desire for a better life.”

McDonnell visited Honduras’ second largest city, San Pedro Sula, also known as the “Murder Capital of the World”. “San Pedro Sula and other parts of the country are seemingly locked in a downward spiral, driven by an impunity towards violent crime and a culture where human life has ceased to be valued,” McDonnell explains. “The blame for this level of violence is laid at the feet of two warring groups of ‘Maras’, the Mara Salvatrucha and the M18, both gangs that began life among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, California and have now come to dominate swathes of Central American barrios.”

Mexico - Migratns

Ross McDonnell for TIME

Johanna Duarte, 21, at 'La 72' shelter for migrants in Tenosique, Mexico. After Johanna's father returned from the US after twelve years working in Minneapolis he started up in San Pedro Sula as a small business man. He was soon facing extortion rackets from the Maras. When he failed to meet the gang's exorbitant demands he was killed, along with Johanna's step mother and her two brothers. Johanna, fled and now 5 months pregnant has applied for a humanitarian visa in Mexico. July 24, 2014.

While McDonnell encountered Honduran immigrants who had lived a tranquil life and were just “following the well-trodden path North,” others spoke of unimaginable heartbreaks — “victims of relentless extortion, individuals forced from their homes by gangs, lives touched by crimes that would make national news were they to happen in our comfortable suburbs,” he tells TIME. “One young man I met had been robbed at gunpoint on his way to the bus station as he was leaving the country.”

For many Hondurans, the prospect of gaining refugee status in the U.S. is the only solution to a growing humanitarian crisis. “The $3.7 billion aid package that has been [proposed by President Obama] is often met with skepticism by those Hondurans who have made up their minds to flee their homeland. It is money that they will never see themselves… The only thing giving Hondurans hope just now is the chance of immigration papers and the prospect of a new life in the U.S.”

Ross McDonnell is is a photographer and filmmaker born in Dublin. LightBox has previously featured McDonnell’s work on the Ukrainian protests, the ‘Auto Defensa’ anti-criminal uprisings in MexicoIrish public housing projects and Enrique Metinides.

Olivier Laurenis the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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