Sonia Nazario knew she wanted to be a journalist when she was a teenager. Growing up in Argentina in the 1970s, she witnessed the country’s “dirty war,” during which a terrorist military tortured and murdered 30,000 citizens. Nazario remembers asking her mother why the dead included reporters.
“My mom said these reporters were trying to tell the truth of what was happening,” says Nazario. “I saw then the importance of journalists. The military was getting away with what they were doing because people didn’t understand the magnitude of the war. In a democracy, journalists hold people accountable.”
That desire to hold people accountable has driven Nazario’s career in investigative journalism. It led her to spend months in one of the world’s most violent, gang-controlled territories and retrace the treacherous journey from Honduras to the United States taken by a 16-year-old boy searching for his mother. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Enrique’s Journey, Nazario recounts the young man’s struggle following his mother’s own immigration 12 years prior—a story perhaps similar to those of the 20,000-plus unaccompanied children detained by border patrol officials in the first three months of 2019.
“It’s a story anyone can understand no matter your feelings about immigration. It’s what many Salvadorans in Virginia have lived through: mothers and fathers separated, and children wanting to be with their mothers,” says Nazario. “There are more kids traveling alone to the U.S. than ever before. I’ve been writing about this for 20 years and it’s more relevant now than ever.”
El Paso, for example, has experienced a 221 percent increase year-over-year in unaccompanied children apprehended at the U.S.-Mex-
ico border so far in fiscal year 2019, and the number of Honduran children detained while trying to cross the border has nearly tripled in the past year, U.S. Customs reports. In a July opinion piece for The New York Times, “Pay or Die,” Nazario wrote a firsthand account of covering the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs in Honduras. She delved into the four systems infiltrated and corrupted by gangs, which, together, have largely contributed to the increase in Honduran immigration—President Juan Orlando Hernández, the country’s schools, health system, and police.
“In the last 10 years, there has been a huge growth in violence in Honduran neighborhoods. Narco-cartels have brought in an amount of money greater than the country’s GDP,” Nazario says. “It’s increasingly controlled by a level of a gangs we don’t understand in the U.S. There are things I’ve seen that would astound people in the U.S.”
Nazario will discuss her decades of immersive reporting during a September 18 event at Northside Library, and again at The Haven, as part of Welcoming Week, an annual events series that unites refugees, immigrants, and residents to highlight the importance and benefits of creating welcoming communities.
“The solutions I’m going to discuss are solutions most people aren’t talking about,” says Nazario. She proposes some that are bipartisan, too. “A good discussion is an open discussion…the only way you advance is through a frank, open discussion.”
She recently spent a month reporting on the murders of hundreds of women in Honduras in an April 2019 opinion piece for the Times, “Someone is Always Trying to Kill You.”
“Unlike in much of the world, where most murdered women are killed by their husbands, partners, or family members, half in Honduras are killed by drug cartels and gangs,” Nazario writes. “And the ways they are being killed—shot in the vagina, cut to bits with their parts distributed among various public places, strangled in front of their children, skinned alive—have women running for the border.”
While in Honduras, Nazario witnessed someone being shot in the head a block from where she stood. Experiences like these re-triggered the post-traumatic stress Nazario developed while compiling Enrique’s Journey. She has horrific nightmares.
The right to voice one’s opinions and experiences without fear of retribution isn’t afforded to many in Honduras. In 2016, Nazario examined Rivera Hernández, the most dangerous neighborhood in the world’s most dangerous city, San Pedro Sula, the Honduran capital and home to the highest murder rates until 2016. In recent years, 96 percent of homicides in the neighborhood failed to end in convictions.
“Everyone in Rivera Hernández knew what happened to witnesses who stepped forward: Their bodies were dumped with a dead frog next to them,” she writes. “The message: Frogs talk too much.”
Enter the Association for a More Just Society, one of Nazario’s favorite U.S. nonprofits striving for justice in Honduras. Nazario speaks to the nonprofit’s witness protection program, where teams of lawyers, psychologists, and investigators spend months building the trust of murder witnesses. If they convince witnesses to testify, they are brought to court dressed in a burqa-like garment and hidden in a wheeled box with a two-way mirror.
Initiatives like this have made a difference: in the program’s pilot neighborhoods, more than half of completed homicide cases now end in a guilty verdict. By January, though, due to the Trump Administration’s cuts to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras foreign aid, AJS will likely have to cut its staff from 140 to 40.
“People don’t understand how difficult things are in Central America,” says Nazario. “These programs are a fraction of the cost to build a wall and more detention centers. We have to be more human.”