'All you can do is run': Central American children fleeing violence head for Mexico
Behind an unmarked brown door sandwiched between a rundown motel and a fried chicken joint in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, lunch is being prepared on an outdoor stove, while children sit around dusty picnic tables scrawling in school notebooks.
“If they don’t study, they can’t stay here,” said José Ramón Verdugo Sánchez. Verdugo founded Todo por Ellos (All for Them) children’s shelter in 2009, in response to the growing number of Central American minors arriving in Tapachula – a tropical city about 40km from Mexico’s border with .
In a bid to keep children staying at the shelter off the streets, he struck a deal with a local primary school to allow them to attend classes. “Kids in school are less likely to be recruited by gangs,” he said.
Six years ago, most of these forgotten youths were Guatemalan. But as gang violence has spread across the “northern triangle” region, many more children from El Salvador and Honduras are .
In recent years, these Central American nations have competed for the unwanted title of global murder capital. Last year, violent deaths in El Salvador , putting the country ahead of Honduras as the most dangerous place in the world outside of war zones. In 2015, there were, a level of violence not seen since the country’s civil war three decades ago.
One of the victims was Norma Alicia Martínez’s 16-year-old son Carlos, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (also known as MS-13), who was killed last May on the streets of Usulután in .
Hoping to save her two youngest children from a similar fate, Martínez, 41, bundled her eight-year-old son Wilber and 10-year-old daughter Liliana into a taxi and headed to the capital, San Salvador. From there, they took a bus to the northern border of Guatemala, where locals told them how to reach a migrant shelter in Tapachula. “My only concern is getting my remaining children as far away from the gangs as humanly possible,” said the tearful Salvadoran mother, from the porch of the All for Them building.
In another nearby shelter, Jesús el Buen Pastor (Jesus the Good Shepherd), Digna Hernández Turcios, 13, sits on the cement floor, her knees pulled up to her chest, staring listlessly at a TV screen. On Christmas Day, she watched as three men stormed into her family’s home in San Pedro Sula, , and sprayed her uncle with bullets. Her mother, Damaris Yamileth Turcios Lara, 30, told Irin he’d been murdered because he refused to join Barrio 18, the deadly Central American street gang. Fearing further reprisals, the family fled to Mexico. “There are no human rights in my country,” said Turcios. “It is useless to go to the police; the only thing you can do is run.”
As the violence shows no signs of abating, experts warn that the US can expect to see a arriving on its doorstep.
“What we are seeing is that the deteriorating situation in the northern triangle is fuelling a looming refugee crisis, with people fleeing anywhere they can to find safety,” said Alice Farmer, a protection officer at the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Washington.
According to US Customs and Border Protection data, as many as were apprehended at Mexico’s northern border in the last three months of 2015, almost triple the number a year earlier.
At the same time, the number of unaccompanied children or young people travelling without an adult family member more than doubled, to 17,370. In December alone, which is usually a slow month for undocumented crossings because of the cold weather, 6,782 unaccompanied minors were apprehended.
Under pressure from the US, Mexico has by heightening border security in the south of the country through its southern border plan, launched in mid-2014. The initiative has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups, which say it has increased the unlawful detention of asylum seekers, including children, and is forcing them to use more dangerous routes to avoid detection.
Undocumented migrants are now finding it more difficult to ride on top of , the cargo trains commonly used to travel north to the Mexico-US border. Instead, they are taking buses and walking through the jungles and mountains, leaving them more exposed to the elements and to bandits, said Andremar Galván Serrano, chief coordinator of the migrant support group in Mexico City.
“Of course I’m worried,” said José Campos, when asked about his plan to cross by bus and on foot, skirting around border security checkpoints by detouring through jungle. “But not for me,” added the 43-year-old Salvadoran. He indicated the slim teenage girl perched on a rock outside the Belén migrant shelter in Tapachula. “I’m worried for my niece.”
and women face additional risks from Mexican criminal organisations and Central American gangs (whose reach extends well into Mexico), who seek to recruit them or sell them into sexual slavery. Local police and migration authorities are sometimes complicit in the abuse.
“The risks of the journey are enormous,” said Farmer. “I think people worry a great deal about bringing their young children with them, but they feel they have no option.”
Increasing numbers of Central American children are also being . While some unaccompanied minors are returned by plane to their home countries, others are brought to child shelters run by the Mexican family welfare agency, . In spite of a 2014 law that prohibits child detention, some are also sent to detention facilities run by the , due to a lack of space at the Dif shelters.
“In many cases, children are waiting in detention because there are not sufficient alternatives,” said Mark Manly, a UNHCR representative in Mexico City. “Many Mexican states do not have Dif shelters, and implementing the law requires additional human resources, financial resources and infrastructure.”
At Tapachula’s two shelters, which cater to unaccompanied minors and those travelling with female relatives, “children spend all day long doing nothing”, said Perrine Leclerc, head of UNHCR’s field office in the city. “They don’t have enough staff to look after the children or to organise activities. It is only the basics. They give you a bed and they give you food.”
Detention can last for as long as three months if children make asylum claims while in government custody. Only those who manage to apply for asylum at the offices of the Mexican commission for refugee assistance, Comar, before being apprehended by migration authorities can avoid detention and legally stay in the Mexican state where the claim has been made for the duration of the process.
According to Leclerc, the byzantine system has acted as a deterrent for children to apply for asylum. “What we are witnessing is that they prefer to be deported and re-enter Mexico, where they can apply for asylum directly at Comar and avoid being detained.” The dilemma led Milagro Del Socorro Romero Aguilar, a cook at one of the Tapachula shelters, to offer Turcios and her children a room in her two-bedroom flat. “What could I do? The two girls are my daughter’s age,” said Romero, stroking a pet chihuahua in the tiny living room she now shares with the family of five.
Once an undocumented migrant herself, the Nicaraguan moved to Tapachula in 2003, where she met and married her Mexican husband. “It was very different back then; things were easier for migrants,” she said. “Now there is nowhere for them to go. There is no place for children.”