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Honduran refugees await papers in Mexico as new caravan arrives

Tapachula, Mexico – Luis Jose Carbajal was 19 years old when he was shot. It was two months after the June 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras, and people all over the country were continuing to take to the streets to protest the military’s ousting and expatriation of elected president Manuel Zelaya. Carbajal was participating in…

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Honduran refugees await papers in Mexico as new caravan arrives

Tapachula, Mexico – Luis Jose Carbajal was 19 years old when he was shot. It was two months after the June 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras, and people all over the country were continuing to take to the streets to protest the military’s ousting and expatriation of elected president Manuel Zelaya.

Carbajal was participating in a demonstration against the coup in northwestern Honduras, along a key highway between San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, and Puerto Cortes, its main port. Police and soldiers showed up and before long, opened fire.

“I heard the gunshots and felt something searing,” Carbajal told Al Jazeera.

Carbajal was shot in the thigh, but the bullet went straight through his leg and did not hit an artery. He does not have any documentation from the hospital, because he never went, fearing security forces would track him down there.

Those fears may well have been well-founded. Al Jazeera interviewed several people in northwestern Honduras shot and wounded by security forces during protests against the 2017 reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernandez amid widespread reports of election fraud. In some cases, people reported that security forces showed up in the hospital to intimidate them and their relatives.

Between December 2017 and January 2018, human rights groups documented six people shot dead during crackdowns on protests in the Lopez Arellano Sector alone, more than any other place in the country.

According to organisers of Lopez Arellano Sector opposition alliance support collective who are now in Mexico, more than a dozen people shot and wounded never went to the hospital, and were instead treated by local nurses supporting the protests.

A member of the local collective, Carbajal participated in the recent protests, but military police began monitoring and intimidating him and other collective members, he said. Carbajal fled the country in October, together with thousands of Honduran migrants and refugees who left the country en masse in a highly visible group initially dubbed a caravan. 

“My plan is to prosper, to move forward and create a better future for my children,” said Carbajal, a 28-year-old father of three.

Carbajal was part of a Central American exodus last year that saw thousands of migrants and refugees flee Honduras and El Salvador in highly visible groups dubbed caravans. An estimated 6,000 migrants and refugees travelling collectively for safety made it to the US border in Tijuana late last year.

Some remain in Tijuana, some returned home, and many have since crossed into the US, both at and between official points entry, to seek asylum in the US. Carbajal was not among them. He is still more than 1,700km away from the US border.

Carbajal stayed behind in Tapachula, in southern Mexico, with more than 3,000 participants in the Central American exodus who presented themselves to immigration authorities upon entry into Mexico, received temporary legal status, and are now in the country’s refugee status consideration process.

While many refugees from last year’s caravans await the months-long process, thousands more are beginning to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border. A new caravan of more than 1,800 Central Americans left Honduras and El Salvador earlier this week and are now beginning to arrive in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, on the border with Mexico.

My plan is to prosper, to move forward and create a better future for my children.
Luis Jose Carbajal, Honduran refugee

Central Americans are fleeing their home countries for a variety of reasons, but for some, including Carbajal, the reason was political persecution and state violence. Many people brought supporting documentation with them, and Carbajal is no exception.

Carbajal’s court documents were in surprisingly good condition after the more than 700km journey and brief stint sleeping outdoors in the Tapachula central park after being released from two weeks in immigration detention.

The court documents detail the decision of a Honduran judge to throw out a case against Carbajal several years ago. In 2014, he was on his way to a local football field when he was stopped by police while taking a shortcut through an urban land occupation. The police asked for his identification card before letting him continue on his way, and Carbajal thought nothing of it, but it later spurred years of legal troubles. 

In 2016, the military police arrived outside his house, asked for his ID, and informed him there was a warrant out for his arrest on the charge of usurpation. Carbajal was taken into custody by military police until his nighttime appearance before a judge.

The judge threw the case out for lack of evidence, but coincidence or not, the arrest warrant was erroneously never quashed. Known to police and military police officers in the area for his active involvement in protest activities, Carbajal was repeatedly arrested in the years that followed.

“Wherever they found me, they would arrest me, even when I was carrying the court documents,” he said.

Now in Mexico, Carbajal still carries the court documents, but he also carries the Mexican immigration and Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) documents that grant him the right to live and work in Mexico and affirm that he is under consideration for refugee status in the country.

‘My son was decapitated’

Carla* also carries her COMAR documents with her everywhere. She fled Honduras months before the mass exodus. Bright and energetic, she helped explain the ins and outs of the process to other Central Americans waiting in line outside the COMAR office in Tapachula. 

“My son was decapitated,” she said, reaching into her purse to retrieve a newspaper clipping with a photograph of grieving women hugging in front of yellow police tape blocking off the crime scene.

The grisly murder of Keny Anderson Trochez Garcia in San Pedro Sula made the front page of Honduran newspapers last year. Trochez Garcia was killed, decapitated and his heart removed from his body in February 2018. He was 18 years old.

Trochez Garcia worked as a minibus driver’s assistant between San Pedro Sula, the regional social security institute hospital, textile factories, and communities north of the city, shuttling workers and nurses between work and home. The 19-year-old minibus driver, Augusto Nery Diaz, was also murdered and decapitated alongside Trochez Garcia.

On her mobile phone, Carla carries photographs of her 18-year-old son, Keny Anderson Trochez Garcia, who was murdered and decapitated [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera] 

Throughout Honduras, the transportation sector is plagued by extortion by gangs and other criminal networks, but killings over non-payment are particularly frequent along routes between San Pedro Sula, Choloma, and Puerto Cortes. Extortion payments are often a burden shared between owners, drivers and helpers, but that was not the case for Trochez Garcia and Diaz. 

“The owner said he was making the extortion payments. He never paid anything,” said Carla, Trochez Garcia’s mother.

Carla said neighbours warned her not to, but she filed a formal report to Honduran prosecutors when it appeared to her that no real investigation was taking place. She could not just do nothing, she told Al Jazeera. Soon after, she and her whole family began receiving threats.

Carla, her husband, and three of their children fled Honduras months before the high-profile caravan groups. The family has already been granted temporary protection by COMAR, but she was back at the commission offices to request the addition to the case of another daughter who recently made it out of Honduras to join the family in Tapachula.

The protection status is not full asylum, and the family is not entirely sure what their future holds. A United States policy announced in June by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed US border personnel to “generally” deny asylum claims grounded in gang violence or domestic violence, considering them personal matters. But a federal court struck that policy down last month.

On her mobile phone, Carla carries photographs of her 18-year-old son, Keny Anderson Trochez Garcia, who was murdered and decapitated earlier last year [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera] 

Next steps unclear

Elsa Santos is not sure what her family will do either. Some of her relatives had already fled gang violence in Honduras months before the caravans. Santos and her husband left with the first wave of the public exodus in October, fleeing political violence.

Al Jazeera first met Santos on October 15, shortly after the first wave of the Honduran exodus had entered Guatemala. Santos and her husband had walked with the crowd from the border to a kilometer or two before reaching Esquipulas. Guatemalan police officers were blocking the highway to prevent the Hondurans from making it to town.

Most people had not eaten all day, and there was limited water to go around, so individuals prioritised giving it to families with babies and small children. A few people were so exhausted that they laid down in the thick, tall grass along one side of the highway. 

Santos has never wanted or planned to leave Honduras. She loves the country and has been involved for years in different social movement struggles in and around El Progreso, 30km southeast of San Pedro Sula. But everything changed for Santos last year.

“I received death threats,” she told Al Jazeera.

Santos and other residents in the Colonia Aleman neighbourhood were engaged in a conflict with the mayor of the El Progreso over the title to the community’s lands. On September 23, 2017, a gunshot was fired outside Santos’ house. That same day, another woman involved in the land title dispute was killed.

“I was traumatised for quite some time,” said Santos, her voice breaking slightly.

Santos left home the next day. She and her husband hid out in another part of the country. Santos and the Colonia Aleman community council filed reports with authorities, but more than a year later, there has been no progress, she said. At one police station, officers told her others no longer there had taken the report and that the file was lost, she said.

Santos places the blame squarely at the feet of municipal government officials and Honduran President Hernandez. 

“The government is the one violating our rights,” she said.

Now in Tapachula, Santos and her husband are making the best of the situation while they wait for the outcome of the refugee status consideration process.

They have been lucky, she told Al Jazeera this month, sitting on a bench in the city’s central park. Her husband found work in security at a local bar, and Santos, who worked as a seamstress in Honduras, is waiting to hear back this coming week about a job helping a local Tapachula seamstress.

Santos, Carbajal, and the thousands of other Central Americans from the exodus whose refugee status is under consideration in Tapachula were set to find out the outcomes of their cases this month, but Mexican authorities extended the process another 45 business days.

*Al Jazeera has changed the individual’s name for security reasons. She requested that only her deceased son’s real name be included.

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Why the Women’s Tennis Association rallied for Peng Shuai

A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress. The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of…

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Why the Women’s Tennis Association rallied for Peng Shuai

A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress.
The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last month accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct, and Meng Hongwei, the former head of Interpol, who disappeared on a trip to China in 2018 and 18 months later pleaded guilty to corruption. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Following Meng’s disappearance, Interpol largely appeared to accept his resignation letter and Secretary-General Jurgen Stock told the Associated Press news agency that the international police body was forbidden by internal rules to investigate.
Things could have turned out the same for Peng, a world-class athlete and Olympian, after a social media post about her ordeal with Zhang was deleted, except that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) immediately began to push back. Prominent tennis players also followed suit, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
The WTA has also continued to raise questions even after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN shared an email on Twitter – purportedly from Peng – saying that she was “not missing” or “unsafe” and that reports of her allegations were “not true”. She reemerged in public a few days later and spoke to the International Olympic Committee over a now heavily-criticised video call.
“[It] remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said afterwards, stressing that the organisation remained concerned about her wellbeing.
The alleged email from Peng Shuai to Steve Simon that was aired on state broadcaster CGTN last month [CGTN/Twitter via Reuters]After the WTA’s repeated expressions of concern about Peng Shuai’s wellbeing, the IOC said it had held a video call with the player and released a still photo from the call [IOC via EPA]Late on Wednesday, the WTA announced the “immediate suspension” of all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. China hosted nine WTA events in 2019 and a year earlier signed a 10-year deal to host the WTA finals in Shenzhen, according to Reuters news agency.
“It’s really crazy that the Women’s Tennis Association has more credibility right now than Interpol in pushing back on China’s gross human rights abuses, abduction of members of its organisation, and poking holes in what is just thinly-veiled coercive statements and propaganda,” said Michael Caster, co-founder of the human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, which monitors disappearances in China.
‘Not acceptable’
China’s foreign ministry has accused critics and media of “malicious hyping” and politicising Peng’s disappearance from public view.
Meanwhile, Zhang, the high-ranking party member at the centre of Peng’s allegations, has not been seen in public in several weeks, according to Caster.
He described Peng’s situation as part of the same “playbook” used by the Chinese government when concerns are raised about the wellbeing of a citizen or foreigner living in China – from human rights lawyer Wang Yu to Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin who went on to become one of the founders of Safeguard Defenders.
“These farcical public presentations from Peng Shuai are clearly scripted as part of a propaganda effort and we say that because we’ve seen this movie before,” Caster told Al Jazeera.
In announcing the suspension of tournaments, the WTA’s Simon stressed that China’s handling of Peng’s case was not acceptable and should not be allowed to become acceptable.
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep sexual assault under the rug then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Simon said in a statement. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

Game, set, and match to the @WTA in the grand slam for sports and human rights in #China! Steve Simon announces WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in China… via @WTA https://t.co/LlZ7yW86BQ @hrw @MinkysHighjinks @hrw
— Sophie Richardson (@SophieHRW) December 1, 2021

I applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.
This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports. https://t.co/PHiU0S7Prw
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) December 1, 2021
Other international sporting bodies have already been targeted by Beijing over positions taken by their players and officials.
China briefly stopped airing NBA games after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests and erased Premier League football player Mesut Ozil from the Chinese internet after he spoke out against China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs.
More recently, games involving the NBA’s Boston Celtics have been pulled from broadcast in China as Enes Kanter, their centre, continues to make criticisms about President Xi Jinping and China’s treatment of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet while also voicing support for Taiwan.
Moment of reckoning
The WTA, however, had political momentum and timing on its side allowing the organisation to take a calculated risk, says Simon Chadwick, a professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in France.
Peng’s case and allegations of sexual misconduct also come at a moment of reckoning in the sports world over #MeToo allegations and mental health following the public struggles of athletes like Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles.
“Number one for the WTA is that women and girls are their core business. It’s what the organisation is founded upon and to not be seen as supporting someone who apparently has gone missing would undermine what the WTA does,” Chadwick said.
“My feeling is that the WTA probably made a calculation and decided that it stood to lose more globally by not saying anything, then it stood to lose by essentially standing up to China.”
Chadwick says that despite considerable investments in the Chinese tennis industry, women’s tennis has not taken off there as quickly as the WTA initially anticipated.
Its deal with China has also struggled as a result of the pandemic. So far, Shenzhen has hosted only one WTA finals event in 2019. The 2020 final was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, and the 2021 event was moved to Mexico following another Covid-19 outbreak in China.
The NBA came under pressure in China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters in 2019 [File: Xihao Jiang/Reuters]That may give the WTA the kind of latitude unavailable to groups like the IOC, which is due to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February. That organisation has also suffered as a result of the pandemic with the Tokyo Olympics, pushed back a year and not attended by the usual number of spectators.
Following Peng’s disappearance, the IOC has said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China” following questions about Peng, according to the Associated Press.
Emma Terho, the IOC Athletes Commission Chair, said on Twitter that the organisation prefers a policy of “quiet diplomacy”.
Based in the Republican state of Florida, the WTA may have also felt some political pressure beyond Beijing.
Washington is mulling a boycott of the Winter Games protest against human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, notes Chadwick.
“I wonder to what extent there may have been some political pressure from within the United States put on the WTA to respond in the way that it did. I think from the perspective of the WTA, they reacted very, very quickly… unusually quickly, within a matter of two or three days, he said. “And that is extremely unusual.”
On Wednesday, Simon expressed regret at having to suspend events in China, but he said he was “greatly concerned” at the risks players and staff could face if events were held in the country in 2022.
He once again urged Beijing to prove Peng was free, and able to speak “without interference or intimidation” and to fully investigate the allegations of assault.
“I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”

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Mexico and US to launch plan to stem Central American migration

The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will…

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Mexico and US to launch plan to stem Central American migration

The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (Amexcid) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and target the three so-called Northern Triangle countries.
Migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has fuelled record numbers of people being apprehended at the US-Mexico border, as asylum seekers have tried to enter the United States after fleeing poverty, violence and political instability.
The surge in arrivals has piled political pressure on the administration of US President Joe Biden, whose Republican rivals have accused him of causing “chaos” at the border.
Mexico’s National Guard has been dispatched along the country’s southern border with Guatemala and along main roads to stem the flow of migrants [File: Daniel Becerril/Reuters]During the last fiscal year, US authorities detained some 1.7 million people along the border.
The US has been increasingly reliant on Mexico to stem the flow of migrants, as it returns to Mexico the majority of people who arrive at the border under a Trump-era border restriction enacted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The US is also in talks with the Mexican government to restart a programme that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US immigration court hearings.
Both Biden and Mexico’s leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have vowed to tackle what they call the “root causes” of migration.
They have pointed to poverty, lack of education and job opportunities, gang violence, political instability and corruption as some of the leading causes of migration, especially of young people.
The new US-Mexico collaboration will begin in Honduras, with an effort to teach job skills to more than 500,000 at-risk youth, the Mexican foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
The department did not provide details about the programme or how much funding would be allocated for the scheme.
The project will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation and the United States Agency for International Development [File: Jose Torres/Reuters]As a presidential candidate, Lopez Obrador had touted social programmes aimed at creating better lives for people in Central American countries, which he said would discourage people from leaving.
But those plans were shelved after former US President Donald Trump took office and made hardline, anti-immigration measures the main focus of his government.
In recent years, Mexico has blocked several caravans of people seeking to reach the US. It also has dispatched its National Guard to the country’s southern and northern borders to try to keep people away.

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Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks,…

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Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks, which resumed this week after a suspension of almost half a year following the election of the hardliner to the Iranian presidency.European powers are seeking to revive the nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It has been moribund since the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, prompting Tehran to ramp up nuclear activities as Washington reimposed sanctions.France’s objective is “to see Iran return to full respect for all of its commitments under the JCPOA and that the United States returns to the agreement,” the French presidency said.Macron also “underscored the need for Iran to engage constructively in this direction so that the exchanges allow a swift return to the agreement,” it added.“Iran must return without delay to compliance with all its commitments and obligations … and quickly resume cooperation that allows the (UN atomic energy) agency to fully carry out its mission,” it said.Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, adopted a hard-line approach after just one day of the resumed talks, suggesting that everything discussed during previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated.Speaking to Iranian state television, he described all that has been discussed so far as merely a “draft.”He added: “Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on.“On that basis, all discussions that took place in the (previous) six rounds (of talks) are summarized and are subject to negotiations. This was admitted by all parties in today’s meeting as well.”Bagheri’s remarks directly contradicted comments on Monday by EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who is leading the talks.“The Iranian delegation represents a new administration in Tehran with new, understandable political sensibilities, but they have accepted that the work done over the six first rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead, so no point in going back,” he said.Another state TV report highlighted Bagheri in Vienna saying that Iran demands a “guarantee by America not to impose new sanctions” or reimpose previously lifted sanctions.Mohammed Eslami, Iran’s civilian nuclear chief, reiterated this demand in comments to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.“The talks (in Vienna) are about the return of the US to the deal and they have to lift all sanctions and this should be in practice and verifiable,” he said.Raisi’s office said that he urged Macron “to strive with other parties in Vienna to conclude the negotiations and lift the sanctions against Iran.”Raisi said: “Sending a full team to the talks shows Iran’s serious will in these talks.”Referring to the US, he added: “Those who have started to violate the nuclear deal must gain the confidence of the other party for the negotiations to proceed in a real and fruitful manner.”

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