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Witness Protection Program In Honduras Aims To Stem Mass Migration To U.S. Border

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Biden administration has pledged to pump $4 billion into Central America to address the root causes that are driving immigrants to the U.S. border, but that's a tall order. NPR's John Burnett visited Honduras recently and examined one struggling program that's trying to lower the homicide rate and convince people to stay.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Rivera Hernandez is one of the most violent neighborhoods in one of the most violent countries in the Americas. It's here that a Christian-based nonprofit with the high-sounding name the Association For A More Just Society, is helping to solve unsolved murders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

BURNETT: A young Honduran sits in the living room that he shares with a banty rooster and agrees to tell his story if his family is not identified. He still fears the street gang that murdered his little brother in cold blood three years ago for taking a shortcut through a colonia claimed by the gang.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) For them, controlling territory is everything, and anyone who trespasses on their turf - the solution is to kill him. I think this is what happened to my brother.

BURNETT: The crime went unsolved, like so many others in Rivera Hernandez, where warring crime gangs control the muddy streets and terrorize residents with impunity. Enter the Association for a More Just Society, known by its Spanish acronym ASJ. They send in teams of psychologists and investigators to help the family and solve murders the police cannot or will not solve, crimes like this one where the brother says there was an eyewitness.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) He told me everything that happened. He said at first, they bashed my brother in the head with a pistol. He thought it would only be a beating, not a shooting. But when they got to the corner, another guy took the pistol and shot him in the head.

BURNETT: Typically, eyewitnesses are afraid to report crimes because of gang retaliation and a lack of trust in the police and the courts. In this case, ASJ employed a retired police homicide detective named Jose - we're not using his family name to protect him - who convinced the witness to testify under extraordinary protection.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) So that the witnesses cannot be identified, we disguised their voice. They wear a black garment, gloves and boots, a hat and ski mask. When we're done with them, you can't tell if it's a man or a woman, a boy or a girl.

BURNETT: The cloaked witness sits inside of a wooden windowed booth that is rolled into the courtroom so they can identify the killer before a judge. This U.S.-funded witness protection program has been a solid success, according to an independent academic study conducted four years ago. In Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, where ASJ works, as arrests and convictions of gang assassins increased, homicides fell sharply.

KURT ALAN VERBEEK: It's a pilot and says this is possible in Honduras. Even in the poorest, most violent neighborhoods, you can catch these guys, and you can prevent them from killing more people.

BURNETT: Kurt Alan VerBeek is co-founder and board president of ASJ. He's a lanky sociologist from Chicago who's lived in Honduras for three decades. The question for the Biden administration is whether programs like this can improve conditions enough to convince people to stop fleeing Honduras. VerBeek believes it can.

VERBEEK: Most of the cases we work, the people don't leave. A lot of them stay in their same neighborhood because they're not that afraid. We're trying to show that it is possible and that it could be scaled up and that there are good cops and good prosecutors and good judges and that the system could work.

BURNETT: The U.S. goal to improve conditions in Central America got a major setback in 2019 when former President Trump slashed millions of dollars in foreign aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. He said they weren't doing enough to support his immigration agenda. ASJ's witness protection program was forced to pull out of five communities. Today, they only work in two.

VERBEEK: And in the end, like, seeing - some of the neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa that we withdrew from are now among the most violent neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa.

BURNETT: His organization must now reapply for grants and, if they win them, hope they can rehire laid-off staff. ASJ also has other programs that try to strengthen good governance in Honduras, such as purging corrupt police officers, improving public education and blowing the whistle on crooked bureaucrats. But solving these entrenched structural problems is an enormous challenge. Even ASJ has been criticized for working too closely with the corrupt Honduran state. And the gangs are only one push factor driving Hondurans to the U.S. border. Many migrants lost everything in two major hurricanes that struck last year, and they don't have enough to eat.

ERSY JOSUE OLIVA: (Speaking non-English language)

BURNETT: A police investigator, Ersy Josue Oliva (ph), works with ASJ to bring murderers to justice, but he says life is hard in Honduras because there's no work. "How can I say this program will reduce migration?" he concludes. "I can't say that." Whether Biden's crusade to somehow rescue Central America will work is anybody's guess. What is undeniable is that the witness protection program achieved justice for this family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking non-English language).

BURNETT: "They didn't all get convicted, but the triggerman is in jail," says the older brother in Rivera Hernandez. "To a certain degree, that gives me peace." John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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