No child should have to face crushing poverty and constant threats of violence. Please join us by contacting your federal legislators to urge them to support the bipartisan United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act (H.R. 2615) authorizing $577 million in foreign assistance to Central America to address the root causes of migration in Fiscal Year 2020.
Pastor Arnold Linares is director of Puerta a las Misiones, a UNICEF-supported youth outreach center in Rivera Hernandez, a dangerous neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, Honduras that's under gang control.
"This community has been plagued by gangs, violence and poverty," says Linares, who works with his team to provide children with activities and creative outlets designed to keep them safe. In Rivera Hernandez, gangs recruit young children to carry out executions on their behalf because they won't go to prison. It's a place so dangerous for children that even some of the gang members urge caution.
"Please keep the children busy," one gang leader warned Linares. "Or else we will."
According to the UNICEF Child Alert: Uprooted in Central America and Mexico, that chilling ultimatum is just one reason why families in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico leave their homes, communities and countries. Poverty, limited access to education and other vital services, organized crime and extortion also make families feel they have no choice but to embark on uncertain migration journeys that can lead to a host of new problems and trauma.
“As this report shows, millions of children in the region are victims of poverty, indifference, violence, forced migration and the fear of deportation,” said María Cristina Perceval, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “In many cases, children who are sent back to their countries of origin have no home to return to, end up deep in debt or are targeted by gangs. Being returned to impossible situations makes it more likely that they will migrate again."
Fifteen-year-old Pilar* is from the city of El Progreso in Honduras. When a female schoolmate began pressuring her to work as a prostitute to earn revenue for the notorious 18th Street (M18) gang, Pilar refused.
The classmate, who belonged to a gang, began making threats. “She told me that because she didn’t like me and because I didn’t want to sell my body, she would make [the gang] kill me,” recalls Pilar. Once gang members began following her home from school and she told her parents about the threats, the family made the difficult decision to sell their home and possessions and leave for Guatemala, where they hoped they would be safe.
“Adolescents are dying every day,” Pilar's father told UNICEF at the migrants’ reception center in Guatemala City, where they waited for word about their asylum application. “It is common for the gangs to take girls, but you cannot go to the police because they are in the chain of corruption.”
According to the UNICEF Child Alert, Central America contains some of the world's most violent countries that are not engaged in active warfare. 2017 figures from the InSight Crime foundation put the homicide rate in El Salvador at 60 per 100,000 people — staggeringly high when compared with the homicide rate of a country like Canada, which stands at 1.68 per 100,000 people.
Child killings in the region are also high. Between 2008 and 2016 in Honduras, the average rate of child deaths was roughly one per day. In El Salvador, 365 children were murdered in 2017. In Guatemala, the National Institute of Forensic Sciences reported 942 violent deaths of children last year alone.
The roots of much of the violence in El Salvador and Guatemala can be traced back to recent civil wars, which created large populations of unemployed men with access to weapons, as well as state institutions weakened by corruption. In addition, thousands of violent gang members who were jailed in the U.S. were deported back to Central America in 1996, free to regroup and establish a reign of terror.
The United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and M18, which were formed in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1980s, respectively, now have a combined membership of 54,000 in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Innocent families are living caught in the crossfire.
Erica*, a 38-year-old mother of two daughters from Puerto Cortes, Honduras, has seen her brother, nephew and a family friend murdered by gang members. Recently Erica received a note threatening she would be next. Afraid for herself and her daughters (above), she is planning to take her family to join her mother in the U.S. But her recent applications for asylum and visas were denied.
Now, with her daughters too scared to go out alone, the family waits for word on their third asylum application. If they are refused, Erica feels like her only other option is to pay smugglers, known as coyotes, $3,500 per person — a plan that could expose her and her daughters to even greater risk.
Women and unaccompanied children are easy prey for traffickers, criminals, organized gangs and security forces. Families also run the risk of apprehension, detention and the possible heartbreaking separations of parents and children.
Eric and his family tried to leave Honduras for the U.S when he was nine years old. Now 18, he plans to try again. But after his family's last unsuccessful attempt, it's a wonder he's even considering it.
According to the UNICEF Child Alert, 68,409 migrant children were detained in Mexico between 2016 and April 2018 — 91 percent of whom were deported to Central America.
"My mother was hopeless because she couldn't get a job," Eric recalls. "She was looking for ways to provide food for us." So the family set out by bus and made it safely through Guatemala. When they reached Mexico, the danger quickly escalated.
“At a police roadblock, a policeman carrying a gun got me out of the vehicle,” Eric recalls. “The first thing he said was, ‘Kid, get off the bus, please.’ I got off. They treated me like a criminal ... aiming a gun at my head. I was so scared that I was shaking.”
Eric heard the officer making a phone call in which he said the woman in his custody was darker-skinned than the children who accompanied her. "'There should be no problem, because they don’t look like her…. so come here as soon as you can and take them,'" Eric recalls the officer saying. “In that moment we got scared, because we knew the man wanted to sell us.”
The arrival of another officer who came to transport the family to a jail full of women and children saved Eric and his sister, but they spent the next four months in detention. Then, after all they'd been through, they were deported back to Honduras, destitute and homeless.
Eric's mother eventually left Eric and his sister to look for work. Though he has managed to study accounting and has dreams of opening his own business one day, there are no job prospects for him in Honduras and the emotional scars remain.
“All that suffering is still present,” he says. “I had psychological problems from the distress I suffered. Leaving the country was what marked my life the most. Those problems made me a lonely boy because I had to think like a grown-up.”
Many families feel that migration to Mexico or the U.S. is the only way to secure a safer, more hopeful future. But many don't succeed. Between January and June of 2018, some 96,216 migrants from Central America, including 24,189 women and children, were returned from Mexico and the U.S. More than 90 percent were deported from Mexico. Returning to the economic hardship, stigma, violence and psychological stress they sought to leave behind makes many migrants who are sent back from Mexico and the U.S. feel like they have no choice but to try again.
“It’s essential to address the risks faced by migrant and refugee children and the root causes that contribute to large-scale population movements,” says Perceval. “Government leaders have an opportunity now to do the right thing. This means implementing proven approaches that can help alleviate the root causes; protect children in transit and upon reaching their destinations; provide children with access to essential services throughout the migration journey; ensure that deportation and return take place only when they are in the best interest of the child; and provide them with the protection and support needed to successfully reintegrate.”
All photos: © UNICEF/Bindra
*names have been changed to protect identity