SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – Twelve-year-old Maynor Serrano points to the rows of houses where his friends and neighbors used to live. All are gone – many fleeing to the U.S.
Two of his friends were killed as 10-year-olds, their bodies chopped to pieces in a suspected gang vendetta.
He saw homes reduced to crumbling wrecks, their walls pockmarked with bullet holes. Entire neighborhoods were abandoned in hours – the result of monstrous gang violence.
Some houses became casas locas, crazy homes, for torturing families in this macabre city, which has the highest homicide rate in the world. Daily newspapers are filled with graphic photographs of bodies.
Like many, Maynor Serrano yearns to escape to the U.S., where he has relatives.
“It’s tough to live without hope,” he said. “If it’s not there, you go look for it.”
He spoke as he pulled weeds in one of the most violent barrios, Chamelecon, under the watchful eyes of a special military unit there to provide protection.
For generations, poverty and endemic violence have prodded Hondurans to leave for the U.S. But new forces are helping push out the waves of young people now pouring over Texas’ southern border. They include enticing family package plans offered by savvy smugglers.
They also include a spate of rumors – widely circulated over social media – that relaxed policies in the U.S. make this a critical time to move north.
“The rumors grew rampant, like wildfire,” said Nelson Garcia Lobo, director of a Mennonite church group known as the Commission of Mennonite Social Action. His organization represents some of the poorest barrios in the country, whose residents are often targeted by smugglers.
“They’re the most vulnerable ones,” Garcia Lobo said. “Suddenly, many saw hope.”
“We have been overwhelmed with stories of ‘it’s now or never,’ ” added Cesar Carcamo of the Mennonite organization.
The result is an unprecedented wave of migration of Central American children to the United States, most of them unaccompanied by adults. The Texas border has become ground zero for the latest immigration surge. President Barack Obama has described it as a humanitarian crisis.
The rumors of a relaxed U.S. policy have at least a grain of truth, Carcamo and Garcia Lobo said.
Late in 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law a measure that guarantees protections and hearings for minors who arrive at the border without parents from countries other than Mexico and Canada. The law was part of an effort to stop trafficking in children.
But the result has been that incoming minors are often reunited with family members in the U.S. pending a legal review of their immigration status, which may take years.
For Honduras, the exodus is a social crisis with deep roots.
“What we are facing is a crisis of the urbanization of the poor, and that means a lot of young people with no future,” Garcia Lobo said. “We are a country whose past is too grim and dark to overcome overnight.”
Beyond San Pedro Sula’s wide avenues, filled with U.S. fast-food chains, foreign manufacturing firms and high-end malls, lies a city of 900,000 haunted by remnants of the Central American wars of the 1980s, the root cause of the current crisis, experts say.
The 1980s were marked by the anti-communist policies of the Reagan administration, which included billions of dollars in military aid to the region, including aid for the anti-Sandinista Contra rebels in neighboring Nicaragua. Tens of thousands of people were killed throughout the region.
Peace accords were signed, but the region never fully recovered and is still marked by political instability, land disputes and, more recently, the explosion of gangs, including the MS-13 and MS-18. Those gangs, known as Maras, were spawned in the ghettos of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, drawing their members from earlier waves of Central American immigrants.
As these members were arrested, incarcerated and eventually deported, they re-established their criminal organizations in the struggling countries of Central America.
Over the years they have grown into powerful crime networks, joining forces with Mexican cartels, including the Zetas, which use this Central American country as a pathway between South and North America. The result is pervasive violence. Military officials attribute up to 90 percent of killings to drug violence.
“What we’re witnessing today is an accumulation of factors that have continued building, leading to a steady increase in migration,” said Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “As people become more desperate and parents in the United States see things get more violent, people look for new solutions and a new way out. I lived in Central America during the conflict years, and while the refugee situation was different, the amount of violence and fear is just as great now as it was then.”
The drama is manifested in places like San Pedro Sula’s bus station, where men, women and children say their sad goodbyes and wait for departures.
A giant green bus leaves at 1 a.m. for Guatemala City, where many connect to buses headed for the border with Mexico. The station is filled with stories of heartbreak. Six men, just deported from Mexico, lie under a handwritten sign that says “Dios” – God.
Marco Matute, 35, had just been deported from Veracruz, Mexico, in his second failed attempt in two months to return to the Dallas area to reunite with his three U.S.-born children living in Denton.
Yes, he had seen commercials by the U.S. government urging people not to leave on the dangerous journey. But he didn’t want to hear it.
Like many, he had focused more on social media chatter and talk among neighbors, including a smuggler. There was talk of a new family reunification policy by the U.S., but with a short time span. The plan would also accommodate children with parents, the smuggler told him.
Matute, who said he faces daily death threats and extortion, is a woodworker earning about $300 a month – what he earned in less than two days in the Dallas area. He immediately called his brothers in Dallas to inquire about the rumored policy.
They didn’t know about it, but the idea of seeing their brother again and reuniting him with his children motivated them to help out with half the money. Many migrants rely on relatives in the United States to help pay their way.
Plus, Matute said, the smugglers were offering special packages, including a family plan: three attempts to get to the Texas border for $6,500. Matute instead bargained for $3,500 and no second chances. He was set to go.
A string of bad luck followed. On his first attempt he was caught by Mexican immigration authorities. One of them extorted money from him and even took his favorite belt buckle, a gift from his father, he said. He had barely reached the southern Mexican state of Tabasco.
The second time, without the smuggler and broke, he went on his own. He held on for life on a train known as “the Beast” – so named because of the high number of migrants killed or maimed after falling under its wheels while hitching a ride – and almost fell from its roof. Then he was detained in Veracruz, about halfway to the Texas border.
He will try again, later this summer, he said, as soon as he earns 7,000 lempiras, about $350. Besides, he said, he has nothing left at home.
“This is about my children, seeing them again,” he said. “I won’t stop until I can hold them. Ask Obama what he would do if he was in my shoes, without his daughters? I will go on my own, even if I have to walk all the way to Dallas.”
He doesn’t blame the younger ones for leaving. In Honduras, they kill you like chickens, he said. In Honduras, childhood ends early.
In this fiscal year, which began last October, more than 57,000 unaccompanied children have either surrendered or been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol, up from 15,700 in 2011. U.S. officials expect the figure will reach 90,000 by this fall.
Most have come from Central America, including 15,000 of them from Honduras, more than double last year’s number and five times the 2012 tally.
In recent months, some 14 percent of the arrivals have ended up in Texas – and 27 percent of that number in North Texas, according to Vanna Slaughter, division director for Catholic Charities of Dallas Immigration and Legal Services.
“How did this happen with us being caught unaware?” she said. “We will be shortsighted if we don’t make the connection to the turmoil in Central American civil wars and the impact this will have in Texas for years to come.”
For now, the White House has taken steps, pressuring countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to step up efforts to stem the flight, sometimes of entire families, including toddlers. And there are signs that the governments are responding.
Mexico’s interior secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, has vowed to improve security on the train known as the Beast, which leaves southern Chiapas state.
At a migrant center in San Pedro Sula, Honduran first lady Ana de Garcia pledged jobs to hundreds of people who had just been deported from Mexico. “Let’s not let our children leave on a treacherous journey,” she said.
Not everyone got the message. Marleni Flores Redondo rushed out with her daughter, Madeleine, to catch a small bus for the town of Comayagua.
“I’m ready to leave again,” she said. “I just need a shower and a good night’s rest. We’re misfits here.” She is determined to reach Frankfort, Ky., where her husband works.
At the bus station, Patricia Ortega sat with her three children. She cuddled George, 4, in her arms, a bottle to his mouth. Nine-year-old Johnny looked confused, and Susie, 8, checked her mother’s smartphone. Ortega said she was headed to Mexico City for a week’s vacation and “to enjoy the beach in Cancun and see the pyramids.”
Her story doesn’t check out: Mexico City is hundreds of miles away from Cancun. But Ortega said she is convinced the future for her children isn’t in Honduras. The children’s father was killed just 30 days after he arrived from Houston, a robbery victim.
“I want my children to learn to at least dream,” she said.
Out on the sidewalk, Salvador Caballero, 24, stood next to a wooden coffin, holding a Bible. His wife had died giving birth the previous morning, he said, along with the baby.
“Children are a blessing of God,” he said. “Maybe this is a sign that God doesn’t want children in Honduras.”
After he buries his wife in their hometown of Surcholuteca, an eight-hour drive away, he too plans to head north, make a fresh start. After all, he said, “What do I have to lose?”