Two weeks ago, Karla arrived at the Texas border with her two very young children, her mother and three siblings under the age of 15. It took the family a month to make the 2,414km journey from their home in northern Honduras, traveling by bus through Guatemala and Mexico. They sold everything they owned to pay a network of people smugglers, who bribed the way clear through checkpoints along the route.
Karla headed north partly because she had heard the US had begun allowing children to enter legally. This is what the smugglers were saying and the family knew others who had safely made it across the frontier, but the main motive for the journey was fear: Karla wanted to get beyond the reach of her father and his contacts in the street gangs that have turned Honduras into the country with the highest murder rate in the world.
Karla said her father was seeking revenge after he was convicted of raping her as a child and sent to prison. He had already hired a gunman to kill her older brother, who fled illegally to the US.
Illustration: Tania Chou
When the grueling journey eventually brought them to the banks of the Rio Bravo, Karla thought the family’s nightmare was finally over. However, after putting themselves in the care of a US customs agent, a new one began.
Instead of being taken to a detention center in Texas for processing, they were sent straight back to Mexican immigration control to be sent home.
“They didn’t even let us speak,” said Karla, who is now staying at a spartan facility in San Pedro Sula, the coastal city that is receiving floods of migrants deported from Mexico. “We are back where we started and I don’t know what to do. We haven’t got a dollar between us.”
The mirage of an open door on the southern US border has triggered a political storm in Washington — and helped fuel an unprecedented humanitarian crisis on the US’ doorstep.
Republicans have seized on the issue, accusing US President Barack Obama’s administration of overseeing a systemic failure of immigration policy and demanding tougher action against illegal immigrants.
Earlier this week, the White House announced plans to introduce fast-track deportations and US$116 million to pay for the cost of transporting unaccompanied children back home, but activists in Central America say the political debate in the US is missing the point.
“All the talk is about the children in the US, but they are relatively well-off,” said Sister Lidia Mara Silva de Souza, a nun from the Scalabrini order that has worked with deportees from the US for decades. “The ones who are the most vulnerable are the ones who are returned to the situations they are running from.”
The vast majority of the child migrants come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — all struggling with levels of violence tantamount to an undeclared regional war. Honduras has a murder rate of about 90 per 100,000 inhabitants, while the rate in Mexico hovers at about 20. In the US it is fewer than five.
Heavily armed street gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 impose a reign of terror on entire neighborhoods across the region, which is also a key route for Mexican and Colombian cartels shipping narcotics north.
Drug-fueled corruption, political instability and — in the case of Honduras, a right-wing coup — have all contributed to a situation of institutional collapse. As their states fall apart around them, many Central Americans feel that justice and security can only be found elsewhere.
“For many people, the choice is to flee or to die,” said Carlos Paz, director of the San Pedro Sula office of church organization Caritas.
The US political row over child migrants caught fire early last month when leaked photographs showed children crushed together in a Texas holding facility while they awaited processing. Soon after, the US government released figures showing that more than 52,000 unaccompanied children had reached the southern border between October last year and the middle of last month: more than double the number for the entire previous fiscal year.
These children cannot be legally deported without first going through the courts, because of 2008 legislation designed to prevent child trafficking. That law was signed by former US president George W. Bush, but Republicans blame the recent surge on the practice of placing minors with relatives in the US pending deportation hearings, a process that usually takes more than a year.
The Obama administration says the wave of migration has been triggered by people smugglers who spread rumors that children are being given legal permits to stay in the US.
Yet, perversely, the phenomenon has also been fed by tighter border controls: Unable to return home to visit children they left behind, Central Americans already living illegally in the US pay smugglers about US$5,000 to bring their sons and daughters across the frontier.
Taxi driver Roberto Cerrato said his 11-year-old granddaughter is now safely in the care of her mother, after being sent to join her 10 years after she headed north.
“My granddaughter was the apple of my eye,” he said. “I cried for a month after she left, but it is the best thing. Honduras is not a place for children.”
The migrants include many teenagers traveling alone — some looking for their parents, some seeking work and others trying to escape the violence. A good few are doing all three.
Carlos, 14, set out last month, hoping to join his mother who had fled to Houston after gang members killed her employer. The woman had been secretly selling drugs on gang territory and Carlos’ mother had heard she was next. Carlos spent nearly a year living with relatives before heading north, but only got as far as southern Mexico.
“Maybe I will never see her again now,” he said, wandering aimlessly around the city center waiting for an elder brother to pick him up.
San Pedro Sula is the most violent city in the world, with a murder rate of about 180 per 100,000. Surviving there begins with knowing the invisible lines that mark the boundaries of rival gang territories and respecting the de facto curfew that falls at sunset. It is also important to see, hear and say as little as possible. Most residents who agree to speak to a journalist do so anonymously.
There is no choice, they say, but to accept the “war taxes” the gangs extort from businesses, or the “protection taxes” they levy on family homes. If there is a murder, it is better not to go to the funeral.
Church organizations and some non-governmental organizations do have a presence, but some will admit they have to obtain permission from the gangs and stay away from controversial topics.
Earlier this month, the Honduran government claimed that the murder rate had fallen by 17 percent in the first three months of this year, but the announcement was met with skepticism. Two workers at the San Pedro Sula morgue who were interviewed separately said the number of bodies they receive is significantly higher today than it was a year ago.
Stories are also piling up of young children forced to work as lookouts, messengers or spies for the gangs. Eight children between the ages of seven and 13 were kidnapped and killed in La Pardera neighborhood in May, and word on the street is that they were killed for refusing to join the dominant local gang.
“In this job you become hardened to seeing death,” one of the morgue workers who recovered some of the children’s bodies said, asking for his name not be published. “But to have to recover a child who has been cut to pieces and burned — that was just too much.”
US politicians have called on Central American parents not to expose their children to the many dangers facing migrants on the journey through Mexico, mentioning only in passing the desperate situation they are leaving behind.
“Tens of thousands of young children are being exploited and are being put at great danger,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said last month at a meeting of Central American leaders in Guatemala. “The lives of children cannot be put at risk in this way.”
The threats are real and activists are receiving increasing reports of kidnapped and missing children in Mexico, but dozens of interviews in Honduras show that most Central Americans are fully aware of the danger — yet many still feel that they have no choice but risk the journey north.
The gravity of the situation was reflected on Wednesday, when the the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called for Central American migrants to be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict.
“The US and Mexico should recognize that this is a refugee situation, which implies that they shouldn’t be automatically sent to their home countries, but rather, receive international protection,” the agency said.
Many in Honduras believe the Mexican government is stepping up its pursuit of migrants in deference to growing US pressure. During congressional hearings on the crisis last month, the chairman of the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, Michael McCaul, berated Mexico for not doing more to stem the tide of children.
“If we can close the southern border of Mexico, that stops 99 percent of our problem,” he said.
The Mexican government is unlikely to admit publicly to doing Washington’s bidding, but the number of deportations from there has risen dramatically. The children’s reception center in San Pedro Sula received 4,001 child deportees for the whole of last year, but 5,767 in the first six months of this year alone.
Several times a week, a convoy of buses brings the latest group of migrants turned back from Mexico. Earlier this year, the convoys had four buses and arrived twice a week — now there are three convoys a week, each with seven busloads, many of them including entire families.
US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told a press briefing last month that 39,000 adults with children were detained at the border between October last year and the end of May. Most of the deported families in the San Pedro Sula center included more than one child, while many had three, of whom a good number were still in nappies.
Edin, a harried-looking woman in a tiger-print T-shirt, had two small children in tow as she waited nervously for the latest convoy, on which her husband and infant son were being returned. The plan had been for him to get to the US, save enough money for a people smuggler and then send for the rest of the family.
Edin said they started to consider leaving Honduras after her husband, a milkman, was threatened by a gang for refusing to pay their “war tax.” Soon after, the couple witnessed the murder of a local evangelical pastor and decided to flee.
When the bus finally arrived, Edin interrupted her story to cuddle her baby, hug her husband and allow herself to cry a little, but the moment of relief was brief.
“We are staying with my sister, but I am frightened [that] we are putting her in danger as well,” she said.
Another returnee, Martha, 22, said the experience of a few weeks in a Mexican holding center with her three much younger siblings was not something she wanted to relive.
“They treated us like dogs and the little ones were getting very upset at being cooped up,” she said, adding that she decided against applying for asylum in Mexico after officials told her it would mean another six months in detention.
Yet while she was happy to have regained her freedom, she was nervous about what to do with it.
Her family, from the mountainous state of Olancho, had for eight years depended on remittances sent by their mother, who was working illegally in Houston, Texas. Martha said their problems began when she refused the advances of a local drug trafficker. Soon after, the family home was sprayed with bullets and the whole family fled to the capital, Tegucigalpa. When the dealer tracked her down once again, she led her siblings north in the hopes of joining their mother. They got to Chiapas before being detained by Mexican officials.
Back in Honduras, Martha wanted to call her mother to discuss what to do next, but she said a Mexican guard stole her phone.
“The only thing I can think of doing is to try again,” she said.
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