Election Day Protests
Weather wise, it was a typical day in November, overcast with high humidity, muggy, but it was anything but typical. It was Election Day in Honduras, which is a big deal. Everything shuts down: no schools, no churches, no group activities. Everyone is expected to vote, and the political parties go through great pains to get voters to the polls. They provide transportation to and from houses to the polls for the elderly and handicapped, or for anyone who needs a ride, as long as you vote in their favor. People dress up like they’re going to the theatre and it is all a big social event. As a foreigner, I cannot vote, but am fascinated by the buzz and how important people consider their voting right. I wish we felt more pride in our country for what right we have to choose our leaders.
Voting day was great. My wife, children and I, who volunteer in Honduras, visited family and played games in the afternoon. Everything seemed normal except that the current president, Juan Orlando, had illegally changed the constitution to run for president a second term against his opponent, TV star Salvador Nasrala. Nobody seemed to care about his illegal entry into the election because Nasrala was favored to win and was winning as the country watched the votes come in on live feed. Somewhere around nine pm when we were all getting ready for bed, there was a glitch in the programming and the vote counting ceased to broadcast. When it returned a few hours later, Juan Orlando was miraculously in the lead by a fraction. That was when everything changed. The “typical”, even for Election Day was gone.
We woke up the next day to friends calling us and showing us news feeds. Riots had broken out in the capital city of Honduras. We were in Puerto Cortes, six hours away from Tegucigalpa and felt safe. The following day we picked up six friends from Maryland who had flown in as a mission team and would serve with us in the country for a week. There was an unannounced pilot strike in Mexico City and all Aero Mexico flights were grounded, trapping two other team members in the airport. They were unable to come with the other six and would arrive two days later. Two days was enough time for the rioters, later called the resistance, to formulate and start protests all over the country. In San Pedro Sula, the northern city that we and teams fly in and out of, they blocked main boulevards with burning tires, branches and debris. They vandalized chain businesses, broke gas station windows and looted major stores. It was chaotic.
The day our late team members were flying in from Mexico, I sent Luis with our pickup truck to collect them. We stayed in Puerto Cortes with the team, preparing our ministry’s bi-annual party at a water park. We had 160 people scheduled for our big event and planning was essential. The team members were arriving at five and Luis called me at three. “Brian, I am stuck in a gas station in San Pedro Sula. The alternator went out and the battery has died. I need you to come and bring me a new battery. Also, be careful! There are rioters in Choloma and they have taken the boulevard.” I dropped off the team at the hotel with my wife and jumped back in the Toyota rental van, unsure of what I would face. Wayne, a team member, jumped in with me, along with my sister-in-law Karen. “Are you sure you want to come, Wayne? “ I asked. “I’m not sure what will happen.” Wayne thought for a second then answered, “Wait, let me just say goodbye to my daughter.” Wayne jumped out, probably thinking this may be the last time he sees her, gave her a hug and climbed into the front passenger seat.
The boulevard from Puerto Cortes to San Pedro Sula was clear until just before the stop light at Lopez in Choloma. As we drove closer, traffic was thicker; cars were parked on the sides of the road. We came up behind a patrol unit going our way, and I thought, “Whatever this is, we’ll follow them and get through.” No sooner had I formed the plan, the patrol unit pulled an illegal U over the median and sped off in the opposing direction. We weaved our way through parked cars until we finally arrived at the reason they were stopped. There, about twenty feet in front of our windshield was a column of fire and smoke blocking our path, and that acrid smell of burning tires. Shirtless men with masks stood guard, whooping and hollering like wild monkeys suddenly in control. I silently prayed and moved the van to the extreme right. As I did I noticed the side was not heavily blocked. They had only scattered pieces of broken cement, but not higher than our axle. There was a protester standing in front of the line to block it while they looked for more debris. I thought, “This is my chance! That guy’s not stupid. He’ll move!” And without even giving warning to Wayne and Karen, I mashed the accelerator and the van lurched forward heading right toward the protestor who quickly jumped out of our way. We felt and heard the cement crunch under the tires and we were through! My heart was pounding and I was glad we made it.
A while later, we found Luis parked at the gas station with his mother, who accompanied him for the trip. We excitedly recounted crossing the protest line and Luis told us there were three more lines before getting to the airport. By this time the plane had already landed and we were late. when I gave my wife the news she quickly formed a plan and she called an uncle who was a taxi driver in San Pedro. He lived on the other side of the airport and could pick up the last two team members, my mom and an elderly gentleman named Steve. Without really being able to explain much, other than a taxi driver would find them, I sent them into my wife’s uncle’s hands. Sure enough, about forty minutes later they pulled into the UNO gas station where we were waiting. The taxi wobbled on misaligned tires. Every bolt and washer seemed to be rattling, and the door even stuck when Steve tried to open it. We laughed at the unlikely “team transportation” and I yanked on the door handle from the outside. Steve unraveled himself and slid out. He had a big smile on his face. Their luggage was piled on top of them and stuffed into the open trunk. We grabbed all their bags and placed them in the spacious rental van. Everyone hugged, but we needed to make good timing to get home. Who knew what more would happen? We dropped a charged battery that I had picked up at Luis’ shop on the way out of town into his Toyota truck. “It looks good.” He said, “just let me follow you and you'll be my headlights.” Not liking the idea of Luis driving without lights, but not having any other choice, we jumped into the cars and Luis followed us. Everyone in the van was talking and chattering; we talked about the riot line and the others talked about the strike in Mexico. I was trying to concentrate and prepare myself for what lay ahead. I prayed again. “Lord, you got us this far and I don’t believe we would have picked them up if you weren’t going to get us home. So, please do something and clear the way so we can make it to the hotel.”
We got to the very spot where I had crossed a line of fire earlier, to find the whole boulevard cleared. There were no parked cars on the sides except for the five giant military vehicles and the only people standing in the road were infantry soldiers waving us on! Everyone cheered and we made it back to our hotel in Tulian Rio with the rest of our team. Luis made it home.
The following night protestors appeared right outside the hotel property blocking the bridge that goes over the Tulian River and heads to Guatemala. All night we could hear them shouting and chanting, “Out with Juan Orlando! Out with JOH!” There was a lot of pressure to cancel our big end of the year event, but we held the party just the same. The students that helped decorate were all from Omoa and could not get home that night. They slept on the couches in the hotel with the team. In the morning, eighty people, half of the expected 160, showed up. Everyone from up the coast in Omoa could not make it because transportation had shut down that day. The bus drivers were afraid of the riots and took the day off. We still had a great party and the students made it home, many of them walking.
By the time the team had to return home at the end of the week, the politicians had agreed to a re-count of the votes and things had calmed down. The team made it to the airport without incident and flew home. My family and I stayed. We were scheduled to leave in two weeks on Dec. 18. We hoped that everything would hold until we could get out of the country.
December 18th was just a few days away. My kids, Angie who is six and Nathanael who is 2, were so excited! The last few weeks since the team had left, had been calm, just like we expected Honduras to be. Business was normal in Puerto Cortes, and no more horrific riots appeared on the news. The country was locked in a stand by, awaiting a re-count of the votes, headed up by the TSA, a vote counting agency owned by the president. I really didn’t care who won; I just wanted to make our flight home before the agency announced a winner, and our chances were looking good. They had already delayed the results two weeks. We only had three more days to go. My wife always packs early and this trip was no exception. We had a bunch of bags at 50 lbs. waiting for the trip home. December 17th we said goodbye to all our friends and told them we would see them next year when we returned. We called Pastor Juan, a good friend whose visa we secured a week earlier and who would be traveling with us. We arranged to meet him in the morning and then go to San Pedro Sula together to catch our flight. Then Luis called and said the winner of the votes was announced. Who do you suppose it was? The president, Juan Orlando, ready for a second term. My heart sank. Couldn’t they have waited eight more hours to announce this? By that time we would be in the air heading toward Mexico. Luis strongly suggested leaving at 3 a.m. to avoid the inevitable protests that would arise and be able to get home. We called Juan again and he came to us that night. We barely slept the few remaining hours.
Juan and I packed the luggage in the bed of the Toyota truck and secured a tarp over them. The sky was dark and it looked as if it might rain. At starless three a.m. we loaded the sleeping kids into the back seat on top of my wife, Rina, and we drove to Luis’ house. He was ready when we arrived. I jumped into the back to hold my sleeping son, and Luis took the wheel. We pulled out of the neighborhood. The sodium lights cast yellow glows that fought the dark shadows of jungle all around. We bounced down the cobbled stone road and took a right onto the boulevard leading out of town. Everything was dead. It seemed as if we drove out of a ghost town. We paid six lempiras at the toll booth and started toward San Pedro Sula. Everyone prayed, even Luis who isn’t a Christian. In Baracoa, about 20 minutes away, we rolled up on a line of parked cars. There in front of us was a barrier of burning tires and trees. I couldn’t believe it! At three in the morning? Are you kidding me? We got a flight to catch at 1 p.m. Shirtless rioters hovered around their blockade, proudly stopping traffic and commerce in the name of the resistance. Some people from another car who were nicely dressed were standing with the shirtless and tattooed rioters trying to negotiate passage. Returning to their vehicle, they walked by us. Pastor Juan called one. “Hey, what did they say?” The nicely dressed woman came close to the window. “Good morning. I have a six o clock flight that I am going to miss.” She explained. “They say they will let us through because they are from Puerto Cortes, but there are three or four more road blocks up ahead that probably won’t let us through and then we’ll be trapped between road blocks. They say to go home.” Juan thanked her for the info and they returned to their parked car. “This cannot be,” I thought. “We gotta get home. So much has happened. We got Pastor Juan a visa. Why would he get a visa if there was no trip?” I asked Luis to wait.
Luis turned off the engine and we waited to see if the police would come, or if rioters would give up. Instead they climbed a large tree on the side of the road and like ants with machetes, hacked off branches until the road was full of them. I scanned the line to see if there was a way to cross it like the last time. As if reading my mind, a large F150 twin cab, roared past us and gunned its engine at the line of burning tires. The shirtless bandits screamed and hollered at him. He rolled to the edge and seeing an opportunity, turned sharply and ran over the branches and debris to the other side. No sooner had he done so, the rioters picked up rocks and hurled them at his truck, breaking his back window. We all stared in shock. Suddenly, we felt unsafe. This was not a good situation. This was escalated more than what we saw two weeks ago. The truck drove off, only to find another roadblock and have to turn back around.
We turned around too. The plan was to sleep a few hours more and try again at six. When the sun came up, we returned to the line of scrimmage, only now there were many more cars parked on the side of the road. Delivery trucks were piling up, their drivers standing on the asphalt making urgent calls to their bosses. Again we drove up to the barrier of fire and waited. A few motorcycles passed by, and people on foot walked through, but no traffic was allowed to cross. Then a mass of people showed up on the South side of the barricade, walking toward us. They all crossed the barrier and flooded the street with parked cars. Juan recognized one of them, a neighbor. He called out to him. “Hey, Jesus!” Jesus came over and explained that they were all factory workers from Choloma. They had finished work at 3 a.m., but had no transportation to take them home. They had been walking for three hours up the boulevard and still had two hours to go. Suddenly a truck came flying past us, wildly honking the horn and parting the crowd. We thought the police were coming to aid us in our plight. Instead the truck stopped at the edge of the barrier and the rioters cheered when they saw the bed piled high with used tires to fuel their fires. Immediately they started unloading them.
A band of semi-truck drivers from the other side walked up to the protestors and tried to reason with them. They returned to their trucks all lined up on the south side of the blockade. The protestors began to clear the edge of the road for them, and as the trucks miraculously rolled through the blockade we couldn’t get through. They all dropped six-packs of beer and cigarettes out their windows as they rolled by. The shirtless monkeys went wild with their plunder. Beer cans snapped open in their greedy, grubby hands, and their party got out of hand. There seemed to be no apparent leader, and fire mixed with beer is never a good idea.
After debating, we decided to drive back to Puerto Cortes and go north. Maybe the road was open to the Guatemalan border an hour and forty minutes away. We didn’t have tickets to fly from Guatemala, but we would at least be in another country, not in this one overrun with riots. But Omoa, on the other side of Puerto Cortes, was blocked too. More rioters had commandeered the bridge on the north side of town and we were trapped. Luckily, Puerto Cortes was tranquil. We just couldn’t get out, and at that moment, that was all I wanted to do. We tried the line going to San Pedro Sula again. One last attempt before our flight took off. Again we were blocked. Defeated, we headed back home. Luis said to call him if we decided to do anything. I called the airline which said our flight was canceled and we could reschedule for another day. I listened to their options, tomorrow-December 24. Tomorrow was the only option to take because my wife and I had a flight booked on December 20 from San Diego to Chattanooga to celebrate our anniversary and I did not want to miss it. It would be our first trip alone in nine years and I already had everything reserved. I booked new flights for the 19th. Juan’s ticket was blocked for some reason and they would not let us change it. They told us to change it at the counter. I called Luis and told him the plan; we’ll try again tomorrow. “I don’t think it’s looking good.” he said. “The riots are worse on the TV. They just burned down the Diunsa mega store and the toll booth is destroyed. I don’t think we are going to San Pedro tomorrow.” We couldn’t believe what we were hearing and seeing. The country we loved to serve was being pulled apart in a matter of days.
I hung up with Luis and called my best friend Joel in the states. “Joel, you gotta help me make sense of all this. We are trapped in Puerto Cortes. We cannot even get to Guatemala. The country is upside down. There is no law or order and I don’t understand. We had these tickets for a long time. Pastor Juan got his visa. Why would God get him a visa if we were going to be stuck in a political crisis? We could have gone home with the team, but we stayed until now. What do we do?” As Joel prayed for me, I remembered a service I had just given on the Israelites when they came out of Egypt and God led them to the Red Sea. They were seemingly trapped, but God had a plan to get them through. As I thought about it, Joel prayed that very passage and I knew things would be ok. After being encouraged, I hung up the phone and checked my messages. It was almost 6 p.m. and Karen had messaged that Omoa was clear. The news reported that the blockade on the bridge had been dismantled. We had friends that lived on the other side of Omoa about ten minutes from the border with Guatemala. The border would be closed soon, but we could sleep at their house and cross early in the morning. I called them. They said they would be happy to have us. In a moment, we decided to go for it. “Ok, let’s eat fast and get on the road. This may be our only chance. We gotta make it to Jackie’s house.” I explained to Rina. My wife and I set dinner before the kids and quickly repacked our bags. “We need to take as little as possible, because we don’t know how much space we will have for luggage in Guatemala. We may need to take small taxis and we don’t want to deal with luggage not fitting.” We left most of our luggage behind, to be reclaimed next year. We packed only what was needed along with the stroller for Nathanael and jumped in the car. I called Luis. “Luis, we are headed to the border of Guatemala. You don’t need to come with us. We’ll leave the car at Jackie’s house and you can pick it up later. I don’t want you to be trapped out there if anything happens. Wish us luck!” We met Juan on the boulevard in front of his neighborhood. He climbed in and we sped toward Omoa. I prayed, “God if this is what we are supposed to do, get us through. If not, turn us around right away so we are not stuck out on the road.” In half an hour we came to the bridge where we had been blocked in the morning. It was a black charred mess, but there were no protestors. We crossed it and Juan and Rina cheered. We were texting everyone and everyone was texting us. “There is another block in Cuyamel on their bridge,” they said. Cuyamel was another village an hour further up the road. Jackie and Roger lived on the other side of it. We drove on. The tension was mounting with every dark curve of the jungle as we got closer to Cuyamel. We saw the lights from the Puma gas station that marked the entrance to the town and we slowed down. I pulled under the rain roof, close to the pumps and rolled down the window. An attendant came up to see what we needed. “Do you know if there is a blockade on the bridge?” I asked. “There was one all day, but I think it is clear now.” He said. “I don’t really know, because I have been here, but some trucks came through from that direction.” I thanked him and rolled up the dirty Toyota window. We all prayed under our breath, but no one talked. I rolled the car up to the bridge. Everyone was left to their imagination about what could happen. In the light of the sodium lamp, we could see people standing in the middle road. My body tensed. I couldn’t tell if they were friend or foe. I quickly assessed if I could gun it forward, or if we needed to make an escape. I crept closer. They looked at us, but made no threatening move. I realized they were cleaning the debris left from the protestors! They had charred materials swept into piles that I maneuvered around like an obstacle course, and before we could blink again we were through! We all let out our breath. We all had prepared for the worst and nothing happened. We started to laugh and praise God.
We arrived at Jackie’s place around 8. We had driven past them and almost arrived at the closed border because they were without electricity. We backtracked peering into the dark, and pulled into their pitch black driveway. When I killed the headlights, we couldn’t see even our noses. Luckily I had a flashlight. Roger came out to greet us and asked me to give him a hand. We went to their storage room, where I helped him unload all sorts of things they had piled up on top of a spare mattress. We pulled the mattress out and placed it on the floor in Jackie’s office. With a couple of clean sheets, it looked amazing! The kids brushed their teeth and jumped on the new bed. Pastor Juan fell asleep on the edge and was soon snoring. I asked Roger about the lights and he told me their transformer blew. It was a private transformer for their house and their restaurant. They had needed to buy cable and patch into the city supply until they could get a new transformer. Because of the riots and protests, it took two days for them to get the 1200 ft. of cable. They had been blocked by protestors at one bridge and had to cross the cable through the river below. It was a crazy story and we were seeing the tail end of it. Six guys held cell phone flashlights pointing up at a light pole, where Vicente was standing on a twenty foot ladder and connecting power for the second time in his life. In a matter of minutes he finished. The breakers were flipped and the darkness scattered. Rina checked out phone before bed and everyone was sending messages about Omoa and Tulian. They had been overrun by protestors again, but after we had safely passed through.
I felt satisfaction as I settled on the mattress next to the kids, even though I would only sleep a few hours. Tomorrow would present its own problems, but had made it. We were here and that was all that mattered.
At five, Jackie rapped on the office door. “It’s time to go.” I got up and brushed the funk out of my teeth. Then I followed her into the restaurant’s kitchen to heat up some tortillas and beans for breakfast. Rina and Pastor Juan powered down cups of strong coffee and we hit the road. Roger drove us to the border where we checked in with immigration. After they stamped our passports and Roger helped us change some money into Quetzals, we crossed into a new country. After an uneventful drive (thanks God) to Entre Rios, Roger pulled into the bus terminal, a small green roofed location with black plastic bench seats, an ATM, and a ticket counter, managed by a teenager. We bought tickets to Guatemala City on our credit card and waited for the bus. Everyone chowed down on our re-heated tortillas and beans. The bus ride was six hours, but could take nine due to construction on a stretch that goes through the mountains. Unsure about our ETA, we got on the bus. As we settled into plush travelers chairs with TV screens on the back, I whispered to Rina, “We don’t have air tickets yet, and I am not 100% sure this is going to work, but it has been an adventure!” She stared at me, trying to see if I was joking or not, but knew me too well to know I was telling the truth.
I waited an hour or so before trying to call the airlines and rapidly discovered I had no signal. I had no way to book new flights! But my internet was working. I quickly texted my mom in San Diego, and told her the story. I sent her the information for our canceled flights, booking numbers, and the customer service line of Cheapo Air. She jumped on the phone with them. As I sat in my plush captain’s chair bus, she sat in her office on hold for six hours, talking with one customer service agent and another, trying to re-schedule our flights. As we neared the capital, we still had nothing confirmed. Friends in Honduras sent us photos of the airport in San Pedro we would have flown out of. Flights had been canceled a second day and passengers were trapped in the terminal. Families could not reach the airport to pick them up because of the blockades and thousands of people were sleeping on the floor. One person on Facebook said the restaurants in the airport were out of drinking water and food was running out too. Supply trucks could not get through to service them. I was so glad we were in Guatemala.
Our bus pulled into a large terminal on the outskirts of Guatemala City. We and our luggage were transferred to a smaller bus that would take us into the heart of the great metropolis. Mom finally texted me and said, she had flights for us and for Juan leaving at 7. It was just about 5 p.m. We were going to arrive right on-time. Our new flights would take us to Mexico City, switch flights at 9 and arrive in Tijuana/San Diego at midnight. I was so excited because our anniversary flight to Chattanooga left at 8 a.m. We could still make it!
We grabbed dinner in the terminal, took some photos, chatted with friends, and said goodbye to Guatemala City. We boarded our flight with over tired and worked up kids who fought falling asleep. A few hours later, we landed in another country in the largest city of the world. I have always been amazed flying through Mexico City because the lights are endless. The city literally stretches to the horizon and beyond. Our plane landed without incident, turned off the runway but stopped on the tarmac. Mexico City had not assigned us a gate and did not know what to do with us. We had a two hour layover, which quickly turned into one as we sat waiting for a gate. I looked at Rina and said, “We’re gonna miss our flight!”
Our plane finally taxied to a parking spot where they unloaded us onto a shuttle. When everyone from our plane was on the bus, it finally closed its hydraulic doors and started to move. We drove to a building with immigration stations. We stood in an endless line of foreigners, waiting for permission to enter Mexico. Fortunately Mexican immigration is really fast. Even at midnight they had a dozen agents to attend the crowds.
Once through we ran to baggage claim. Our flight was scheduled to leave in fifteen minutes. “Rina, you run ahead with the kids to the gate, tell them we are here and we are coming. Juan and I will wait for the baggage and re-check it. We are right behind you.” Nervously, my brave wonderful wife obeyed and took the escalator to the terminal to find our gate. Juan and I stood like helpless dodo birds waiting for our luggage to come. After a few minutes I was nervous because I didn’t see our bags. I started to wade through the luggage piled along the walls when I found them. “JUAN!” I screamed. “They are over here!” Poor Juan. This was his first ever experience traveling. In his 37 years, he had never once left Honduras, let alone been in an airplane, cross riot lines, or anything else. He was clueless and dependent upon me. We grabbed the bags and ran toward the re-check when a brutal Aero Mexico lady stopped us. “Where are you going?” she demanded. “To Tijuana.” I said frantically and annoyed at yet another interruption. “You missed your flight. It already left. ”She said flatly with no empathy. “Stand over here.” I tried to protest because we still had five minutes to go. “It left. Now please stand over here and wait for me.” she ordered curtly. She then occupied herself with other passengers. I tried to ask her what options we had, to which she replied, “You’re option is to wait for me when I am ready.” I was annoyed at being treated like a cow, herded to the side with no information. Juan and I stood helpless with my bags wondering if my family got on the flight without us and what Rina was thinking.
After what seemed hours, but was really only five minutes. The lady returned with new boarding passes for a flight I did not choose and vouchers for hotels. “You’re new flight is at six a.m. You need to be here at four. Here is a voucher for food in the airport, taxi service and your hotel. Senor Juan is in one hotel and you are in another.” I again protested, explaining to her that Juan has never traveled and could not stay in another hotel. I needed to help him. She waved off my protests like an umpire waving off a fly and pushed Juan out of the baggage claim and into Mexico. I yelled at him. “Wait right there, I will find you!” and the sliding doors closed between us. “Look lady, I’m not going to Mexico.” I growled. “My family is waiting for me upstairs. I need to find my family.” I bared down, ready for a fight, but surprisingly she led me to the escalator for the terminal and told me to find them. I found them helplessly waiting at our old gate. After explaining everything that happened, it took us two hours and three supervisors to convince Aero Mexico to make a simple change and give us hotel rooms in the same hotel with Juan. By the time we got to the hotel downtown, there were only two hours to sleep before we had to come back. I showered in the hot water and thought about the last few days. What a trip. I cancelled what I could cancel in Chattanooga. I climbed into bed in that strange hotel in Mexico City, my children sleeping on the queen next to us, and whispered “Happy Anniversary” to Rina.
We caught our six a.m. flight that morning and arrived in sunny San Diego at 8:30 a.m. A half an hour earlier our flight from Chattanooga had left. In the end, Juan’s blocked flight canceled and we were never charged. My wife and I filed for a return with the travel insurance we bought and are still awaiting a response. It was good to be home. While we have enjoyed ourselves, Honduras has plunged further into darkness. The President elect, Juan Orlando has dispatched military all across the country. He took possession of power again January 20th it a ceremony held at the Olympic stadium. The resistance leader Nasrala has called for violence in the streets and has decided to also take power as president in a private ceremony hosted by himself and his henchmen. This crisis is far from over and the scars it leaves will be deep. Please pray for Honduras, our beloved country.