Thousands of Homeless Children in Honduras Now Have a Place to Call Home
Casa Alianza tries to shelter and protect the helpless in a place that seems designed, at almost every social level, to obstruct them.
Image via Covenant House Facebook
This is part of an going series in support of the release of the new VICE Documentary Films documentary Shelter and part of VICE Impact's commitment to addressing teen homelessness.
Jose Guadalupe Ruelas has a daunting mission as executive director of Casa Alianza Honduras. Casa Alianza (the name of the Latin American affiliate of Covenant House, America’s largest non-profit shelter for homeless youth) has chapters in other Latin American states, but the goal of the NGO—the protection, care, and edification of homeless youth—is abstract in a country where not only the poverty but the violence against children is almost unimaginable. It is Ruelas’s responsibility to shelter and protect the helpless in a place that seems designed, at almost every social level, to obstruct him.
“He’s had some of the hardest work of any of our executive directors,” Pamela Sandonato, VP of Covenant House’s Peer 2 Peer Outreach & Events, told VICE Impact. “Here [in the USA], people are thrilled to know that if they invest in us and our kids then they are creating assets for our society. In Honduras, he does not get that support externally. For him, it’s all about the belief that these kids deserve a chance. He feels that his work is of value, but he also feels in danger.”
Honduras is probably one of the most violent countries in the world that is not currently a war zone, though it is at the frontline of the drug war. In the past decade, government corruption has proven to be so grave that the U.S. has sided with murderous drug lords to root it out. The maras and pandillas, gangs with both international and local reach respectively, recruit kids and murder them in bids for territory, so often that families send their children—alone—to escape to Mexico and, ultimately, the United States. In 2014, per the New York Times, “more than half of the top 50 Central American cities from which children [were] leaving for the United States [were] in Honduras.”
That year was also when Ruelas ran afoul of his government.
On May 8, 2014, after Casa Alianza published a report detailing the number of child murders in Honduras—conflicting and surpassing the official estimate—he was driving in front of the Presidential Palace when military police stopped him. An official motorbike then ran into the side of his vehicle, which was all the pretext needed for the police to beat Ruelas, before detaining and charging him with driving under the influence (he passed six alcohol tests after the beating).
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Since then the relationship has remained tense. This past July, Casa Alianza employees were expelled from the center that receives those children who have been deported back from Mexico and the U.S --the very overnight center that the Honduran government built in response to international coverage of the child-migrant problem, in part brought on by Casa Alianza’s reports and advocacy. Right now they are in dialogue with the current administration to return to the center.
The 2016 recipient of the Washington Office of Latin America’s Human Rights award, Ruelas recently spoke with VICE Impact through a translator about his work, his struggles with his government, and his hope for Honduras:
VICE Impact: What’s your method of outreach to the children of Honduras?
Jose Guadalupe Ruelas: We have a team that every day goes out in Tegucigalpa and other cities and meets the kids on the streets.The first thing they do is try to gain the trust of the children through music and sports or play. We take them to health centers; we learn about their family situation. If there is any way that they can return directly from the streets and back to their families, we offer that possibility. If that’s not possible, we offer them to come to our residence center.
In recent years, families have come to us so that their children can stay with us, because they’ve been victims of violence or their lives have been threatened in their communities. We also have family reintegration, where we work directly with children and their families in their own houses. These are families that we visit on a weekly basis, we encourage them to adopt healthy behaviors, non-violent conflict resolution, business consulting.
Are there government-run shelters that are able to protect children and youths?
In May of 2014, the government decided to close all of their shelters and delegate the responsibility to the churches and NGOs. Even though they decided to close the shelters, what they maintain is the jails for kids. They have four, and about 520 youths imprisoned.
They don’t call them jails; they call them youth internment centers.
What was the government’s reasoning behind closing the shelters?
In 1998, the government created an organization called the Honduran Institute For Children and Family. This institution was in charge of overseeing the shelters. But little by little the government started filling these centers with political appointees. It got to the point to where 90 percent of the budget went to paying salaries. This was their foundation to close the shelters. However, a few of us think that that is also a way for the government to abstain from the responsibility of taking care of the kids.
So there’s no push from the government to address youth displacement?
Generally not. There’s a debate about it. There are public statements, but no clear policies that indicate that the government is willing to take a position.
With the problems with the gangs, it’s still an issue that they wish to pass off?
Since we’ve started reporting that there was a high murder rate of children and youth in Honduras, the first reaction by the government was to deny it. But once the numbers were corroborated and we were able to prove that there were 70 children and youth murders in one month, we were accused of attacking the government. So in 2014, the tension started to rise, and ended up with a threat and defamation campaign against myself, and Casa Alianza as well.
The problem with the gangs is a serious issue, but we don’t even know how many gang members there are. We do know that there are 12,000 police, 15,000 members of the military, and there are about 80,000 private security guards that work for companies that are owned by ex-military and ex-police. The propaganda is that we are at the mercy of the gangs, because it is profitable. However, the members of the police and military who are not able to protect us then go on to start private services to members in their communities, to sell cameras and guards.
So it is a big business. [Because of this] the government needs to balance various statements. On the one hand, they say that the issue of gangs and drug trafficking is so big that they need to invest even more in security and technology to combat it. But on the other hand they say that crime is down.
Do you ever fear for your life? What measures are taken to protect yourself and the kids?
The ones who run the highest risk are the ones who go out on the street and work directly with the youth. We have been threatened. We notify the government and make them aware. We tell the outreach teams to change their routines, to understand which areas are the most dangerous, when to leave and when to come back. But the staff of Casa Alianza also have gained the respect of the youths on the streets, and in many cases they’re the ones that warn us so that we can get out of a dangerous situation.
How can VICE readers stateside help your mission?
Becoming aware. Once the U.S. understands that it is better to invest in youth and schools than in weapons, we’re going to have better results.
In the next 10 years what would you like to see with Casa Alianza Honduras?
My hope would be that in years to come, we can say that there is no need for us anymore, because the communities, the families and their government have resumed their responsibility towards the children. Unfortunately, that does not seem likely.
We have all the resources to open these schools so that children are able to stay and go until at least eleventh grade, but we’ve decided to spend those resources on weapons, and also on military strategy that has proven not to be effective. That’s why we believe that what we do in terms of protection and support of the children is very important. It’s important because it is the signal, the evidence, that it is possible to help a kid leave the streets.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
**Updated November 24, 2017 3:02 pm EST: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the number of military personnel in Honduras at 50,000 when the more accurate number is 15,000. Jose Guadalupe Ruelas was beaten by police, but was not robbed. Casa Alianza has been publishing a report detailing the number of child murders in Honduras for decades.