Sitting at my Shabbes dinner table on a Friday night during the plague, I learned that Spanish had two words for assassin. The first was asesino and the second was sicario. According to the dictionary, sicario is more of a hitman, while asesino is an assassin. A distinction without a real difference. Our houseguest, Darwin Ramos used them interchangeably. A Honduran asylum seeker, he knew about assassins and hitmen from personal experience. Darwin was an environmental activist who fled Honduras, having to leave behind his wife and children, because his name was on a hit list. He was number eleven. (A police officer had shown him the list at a demonstration to intimidate him.) After nine of his friends and fellow activists were killed, he fled.
My Spanish was almost non-existent before Darwin came to live with us. I had a sprinkling of activist chant Spanish (Amazon escucha la la la en la lucha!) so our early conversations were conducted with the help of Google translate. Darwin had studied religion, and we spoke about religion and theology. He was very interested in belief in God, and Judaism, and whether I thought the Bible was literally true. These were topics about which he also had strong opinions (except Judaism, about which he was eager to learn and supplement the very superficial knowledge he had). I started to hear about what life had been for him in Honduras. On Shabbes, when we did not use electricity, and Darwin would join Andrea (my partner) and I for dinner, conversations were enabled by Andrea’s translations. Her Spanish is okay, though sometimes we fell back on charades. (Yes, we could have bought a dictionary.) Over time my Spanish has gone from nonexistent to poor. So, my ears perked up when Darwin, in the middle of telling his story used the word sicario. I knew I was not mistaken because he raised his two hands, as if firing a gun, when he said the word.
I am a Talmudist by training and have a basic reading knowledge of Greek. Sikarios in Greek, is a bandit. It is (mis)transliterated to the Hebrew of the Mishnah as sikrikon. Josephus speaks of the sikarios, the highwaymen, in the Galilee. The Mishnah’s memory of the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel led to the enactment of the law of sikrikon which governed whether or not a property bought from an agent of the Empire (soldier of other) was a valid purchase, and whether the original owner could sue the purchaser for restitution.
None of this, of course had anything to do with Honduras and the cartels and the narco-traffickers that, as Darwin said, had “big control” over every aspect of the government of Honduras. The way that language travels, however, brought me a little closer to the story that Darwin was telling us.
That story was almost unbelievable. Unbelievable yet excruciatingly true.
Darwin lived in a small village in southern Honduras called Catacamas. It is part of the Olancho Department which is more or less in the Western part of Honduras. He was part of an environmental movement which was trying to stop the clear cutting of the jungle which bordered Olancho. As he understood it at first, the clear cutting was done in order to sell the timber and to grow livestock illegally. One night when he and his comrades were out taking pictures of the clearcutting, a plane landed on what became clear was not a makeshift ranch but an improvised airstrip. The plane was loaded with cocaine bound for the US. When Darwin and his fellow activists reported this activity to the police, they fell into the web of the “big control.” The police were being paid by the narco-traffickers and they tipped them off. (pagar is payoff; mucho dinero is exactly that) Darwin and his friends were kidnapped and tortured (tortura) and forced to work offloading drugs from the planes.
When Darwin was released but continued to organize and demonstrate against the destruction of the jungle, the police came to the demonstrations (manifestaciónes), took pictures of the activists and gave them to the cartels (carteles). This is how Darwin came to the attention of the death squads (escuadrones de la muerte), and why he used the word sicario. Apparently, the carteles outsourced the assassinations to the mafia whose main job was killing people.
(I was having a bit of a moment at this point. When we took to the street in Los Angeles to demonstrate, the police often roughed people up, the police would take pictures of us and with the aid of face recognition software might want to make legal trouble for us. When Darwin and his fellow activists went to demonstrations, the police took pictures of them, made a list, and a hit squad assassinated them.)
This was when Darwin realized that he had to leave Honduras. He spent a bit of time in safe houses but then joined one of the caravans traveling north. He was one of the people that the President sent the army to the southern border to stop. Darwin, however, did not intend on going to the United States (Estados Unidos). He was going to seek asylum in Mexico.
Arriving in Tijuana, Darwin found a room in a hostel and started working in a restaurant. One afternoon, after he finished work, he noticed a van parked outside. As he was walking home, as if out of a bad B movie, the van started following him, and then the people in the van jumped out and tried to grab him. They tore his clothes off but he got away. They chased him through the streets. Running through back alleys and climbing fences and walls he made it to the hostel. In a hotel near where he was staying some human rights lawyers (abogados de derechos humanos) and activists (activistas) who were helping asylum seekers trying to get to United States, were staying. Luckily the lawyers and activists were at his hostel helping other asylum seekers. They saw him, found out was going on, jumped into a car and headed north for the border. They drove around all night so as not to be caught. Fortunately, an urgent call to a congressperson convinced the Border Patrol to open up a crossing and take Darwin into custody. He was greeted with open arms by officials of the United States Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Just kidding. I wish that were true. Actually he was detained. In two different states for nine months in execrable conditions before being released.
Like I said the story is unbelievable. Parts of it have been indirectly supported by indictments introduced in the Southern District of New York against the brother of the President of Honudras, known as El Tigre, or the tiger. He was, according to the allegations, as Chief of Police, in charge of the escuadrones de la muerte, the Death Squads. He is in custody on charges of narco-trafficking.
Darwin has been staying with us for eight months. When COVID hit, the courts closed and his hearing has been pushed off until December. The Trump administration keeps trying to close the door on asylum seekers. Darwin speaks to his family often. It is not good news. He still speaks out on environmental issues. We still have dinners together on Shabbes. We have finally bought a dictionary.