By Antonia McGrath
Published Tue Jul 28 2020
On Wednesday July 29th at 20:00 pm Amsterdam time, there is a live online screening taking place of the documentary film ‘The American Fraud’. Antonia McGrath, one of the film’s directors and founder of the Amsterdam-based non-profit organization educate., will also hold a presentation. Antonia co-filmed, directed and edited The American Fraud alongside her friend and colleague Fionnuala Davidson while they were living and working together in Honduras in 2014 and 2015. The film explores the role of US influence in Honduras in shaping the country’s migration crisis. In the lead up to the screening, Antonia shares a reflection on the experience of making this film. I’ll never forget the night I arrived in Honduras for the first time. It was already dark, though it was only 8 pm or so, and as we passed through the main boulevard of El Progreso, a city that would become our new home, luminous fast food restaurant signs towered around us. I was with Fionn – my “project partner” for the year at a volunteer teaching project – and we had just been picked up from San Pedro Sula airport by our new bosses. Perhaps naively, I was shocked to see Burger King, KFC and Dunkin Donuts so huge and plastic in a country like Honduras, which I had anticipated to be tropical and – frankly, in my limited understanding at the time – poor (and therefore certainly not illuminated by Burger King signs). Thinking back, it was perhaps this initial surprise and the curiosity it evoked that laid the foundation for what The American Fraud would become.
The American Fraud is a documentary film that explores the influence of the United States in Honduras and the Central American migration crisis. The idea for this project was born two months into our year-long volunteer placement in Honduras. Fionn and I were sitting at work after-hours using the Wi-Fi and talking about that first night and the wider US involvement in the country that we had since experienced. As the weeks had gone by and we had discovered the same fast-food situation in San Pedro Sula, along with a widespread idealisation of the United States, we had begun to get a clearer picture of just how deep their influence here was. And in doing so we had begun to get angry. We learned about the immigration crisis, the 2009 US-backed coup d’état, the country’s military influence, and all sorts of other ways the US had been involved in shaping and fostering crisis and instability throughout Honduras’ history. I don’t remember the specifics of our discussion that night, but I do remember the feeling of anger. Both of us were furious that this imperialist power was so easily able to come in and do quite literally whatever they wanted in this country that was not theirs, this country where we were already – after just two months – seeing the dire repercussions that their influence was having on peoples’ lives.
Neither Fionn nor I are particularly passive people, and so the question soon arose: what can we do about it? We both shared an interest in journalism, and so the idea of making a documentary was suggested. There was little tangible change we could make in directly countering the presence of the United States in Honduras, but what we could do was find out as much as we could about it, put it into an accessible format, and share it with the world.
What started off as a vague idea soon turned into an investigation that had us travelling to remote parts of Central America that we would never normally have dreamed of visiting, in order to meet some of the most inspiring and fiercely passionate people I have had the privilege to encounter – and, in some cases, of growing to know well over the years that have followed. The American Fraud is a project of passion and anger, filled with interviews and footage that took us close to a year to collect, and questions that we needed to answer to piece together this story. Together, it explores how the United States has shaped Honduras’ ongoing history of crisis and its role in the migration exodus that continues today.
Little has changed in Honduras since the time that this was filmed. If anything, things have only gotten worse.
In November, three months after arriving in Honduras, we conducted our first interview – with Carlos, a taxi driver from San Pedro Sula.
Our experience with video production was about as limited as it could have been, but both Fionn and I had cameras (little digital ones, but both with decent video capabilities) and I had a laptop and a duct-taped-together tripod. And so, on a Saturday morning in November, we set off with our cameras into San Pedro Sula where Carlos had agreed to meet and speak with us. The stories he shared were fascinating: he told us about how he had to pay a monthly protection tax to the two main gangs in the city - Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. If he doesn’t pay it, they’ll kill him. He also told us about how the gangs actually originated in the United States and were only brought to Central America through mass deportations back in the 1990’s. The whole interview was filmed of just his hands on the wheel as we drove around the city, as he had asked to remain anonymous. If it was found out that he spoke to us about the topics he did, his life could be in danger.
That was our very first interview.
A group of boys from a barrio on the outskirts of El Progreso. The ‘M’ on the wall behind them marks the local gang’s territory.
From November through to May we did little in the way of filming. While we researched widely, filled notebooks with ideas and made many contacts that would later come in useful, our time was so taken up with our primary work that there were few opportunities to plan and conduct interviews. But when we finished our work placement and had two months at the end of our year to ourselves, it was the perfect opportunity to sink our teeth into our documentary.
By this stage, we had formulated a solid idea for the purpose of the film and had come up with the key topics we wanted to cover. At the core, we wanted to show just how deeply the United States had played a role in manufacturing the very reasons for which Hondurans were fleeing their homes, and the farcical irony of the US’ response when these very same people turned up at their border. This was the year that “Not our kids, not our problem!” was chanted in protests across the southern United States – a line that still makes my blood boil. We wanted to make a film that would make others feel the depth of this injustice.
At the beginning of June, we set off for two weeks of travel through Guatemala and Mexico. But we weren’t traveling for Mayan ruins and tropical beaches, we were following the migrant trail north, our route planned according to the locations of migrant shelters and border crossings. We started off by heading to the Guatemalan-Mexican border town of Tecun Uman on the banks of the Suchiate River where migrants cross the border illegally on rafts made from inner tubes roped together with planks. It was a surreal experience being there, seeing the immigration office on the bridge just above our heads, and the rafts crossing below the border agents’ very eyes.
The Suchiate river on the Guatemala-Mexico border. Migrants cross the river on rafts made from inner tubes roped together with planks.
We crossed the river, then circled back on another raft and re-crossed on the bridge before continuing from Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mexican side of the border to Tapachula, the next largest city, where there were several migrant shelters (albergues) that provide refuge for those travelling north. We visited Albergue Belen and Albergue Jesus el Buen Pastor where we interviewed numerous Honduran migrants and refugees. We began to listen to stories, hearing first-hand accounts of the dangers of the journey that Amnesty International had at the time pronounced “the most dangerous journey in the world.”
I’ll never forget interviewing Lillian Alejandra, a young mother of three, her youngest daughter just 19 days old. She had left Honduras while heavily pregnant and with her two other daughters, both under the age of 10, believing she would have a better chance of entering the United States if she was about to give birth. All she wanted was to escape the violence that had killed so many members of her family and to give her children a better future.
We met families that had had to flee for their lives, young men leaving their homes behind because they had no other way to escape their life in a gang, women who had been brutally raped on the journey, and people who had lost limbs falling off “La Bestia,” the freight train many ride north through Mexico. Many of the people we met in Tapachula were – and are – amongst the most courageous people I have ever met. Hearing these stories gave us a renewed sense of conviction that this film was important, that these stories mattered, and that they needed to be told.
From Tapachula, migrants normally continue north to Arriaga from where the infamous La Bestia, “The Beast,” departs. We too followed this route, and in Arriaga we again asked around for the nearest migrant shelter.
I’ve never felt as intimidated walking into a room as I did that day.
It was evening by the time we got there, and the sky was darkening as we followed Jose, a volunteer at the shelter (who also happened to be from El Progreso, where we lived), into an open courtyard that was filled with Central American men. There wasn’t a woman amongst them, and they all looked tough as nails, eyeing up the two blonde girls with curiosity and caution. When we broke out in Honduran Spanish they soon warmed up to us and after a few jokes and laughs, we were chatting like good friends.
We interviewed a few of the guys there that night in the dingy lighting of the courtyard. The one that sticks most clearly in my memory was Jose, the man who had led us in, who was in his thirties and heading to the US for his sixth time. He hated the United States but had fled Honduras as a way to escape his gang and said he had no other option but to return after having been deported once again. He told us some harrowing stories of his time in the gang and of his life on the streets of El Progreso.
Jose originally left Honduras to escape his gang. When we met him, he had already been deported from the United States five times.
I was once again asking the questions, notebook in hand, while Fionnuala operated the camera. She was sitting slightly behind me, and I was so focused on Jose and what he was saying that I did not realize that while he was talking animatedly about the horrors the US was responsible for in Honduras, all the rest of the other men in the shelter had gathered behind us.
When I unwittingly turned to ask Fionn a question and saw a wall of people all around us, watching and nodding, I remember being suddenly filled with a realization of the vastness of this story. That moment gave me a sense of how many people are caught up in this, and how many people there are across this beautiful, ravaged region that share this anger. Though it only lasted a split second, that was undoubtedly one of the most powerful moments I experienced in the making of this film.
Our trip through Mexico taught us both immeasurable amounts and we returned to Honduras ready to continue our investigations – though perhaps with even more questions than we had had before leaving.
Every Friday night, San Pedro Sula’s streets filled with people holding burning torches - antorchas.
July 2015 was a fascinating time to be living in Honduras. We had moved in with a friend of ours and his family who were not only incredibly political but also lived right next to a Dinant palm oil factory. Dinant, we found out, was one of the largest and bloodiest palm oil corporations in Honduras. We began to look into the palm oil industry and how the World Bank was funding a bloody war where many peasants were being killed at the hands of the corporation – yet another example of US influence that we were able to cover.
We also began attending the weekly Antorcha marches that happened every Friday night in San Pedro Sula, where thousands of people took to the streets with burning torches to protest against the corrupt government, call for the renunciation of the president Juan Orlando Hernandez, and the installation of the CICIH, the International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras. At one of these marches we met Kimberly O’Connor, a congresswoman from PAC, the Anti-Corruption Party, and Jimmy Sorto, the leader of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) in the department of Cortes, both of whom we later interviewed for the film. Their perspectives were immensely useful in rounding our understanding of the political situation.
There was also a hunger strike going on in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, at the time, so we travelled down to the south of the country for a day to interview German Ayala and Gerson Suazo, the two people who had begun this strike. While reporters from local right-wing television station HCH had to stay behind a rope barrier, we were invited into their tents. We spent hours talking about everything from their families to their hopes for their country.
Gerson Suazo was one of the first to start the hunger strike in Tegucigalpa. He was later joined by German Ayala and others.
Making this documentary was a steep learning curve – figuring out not only how to use our cameras and which angles were good to shoot from, but also which questions to ask and how to ask them effectively. My Spanish skyrocketed, as did my knowledge of Honduras and its complex and multifaceted history. But what stuck with me most are the people: the activists, leaders, hunger strikers, religious workers, street children, refugees and undocumented migrants, all striving for something bigger than themselves.
Finally, back in Europe, we got down to editing. Hours and hours of footage were poured over and ever so slowly it started becoming a coherent whole. As we edited, we made sure to portray Honduras with honesty and nuance. We didn’t want to focus simply on the violence and gangs, but to weave through the story the resilience and joy of the individuals whose stories we were so privileged to have heard and been able to record. As much as we wanted the horrors of their stories to be told with honesty, we did not want to dramatize them.
The first time I watched back the film I was so proud. And looking back now, I still am. Sure, there are things I might do differently now, almost five years later, but these are mostly to do with the cinematography, the editing, the style, the subtitles. But the content? The content I wouldn’t change for anything.
I often wonder about all the people we met in Mexico, where they are now and how they’re doing. Some I am lucky to still know, others I have long lost contact with. But this project was always bigger than any of the people in it, and I do believe that the stories this film weaves together tell a larger story, too: one of injustice and wrongdoing, and what can happen when democracy is torn out from under a society’s feet.
The United States still supports the violent narco-dictatorship it instilled Honduras when it supported a military coup back in 2009, and the desperate violence that bears down upon the country’s most vulnerable remains an everyday reality. At this rate, there will be more Lillian Alejandras and more Joses for many years yet to come.