SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—Iron gates swung open, and three packed buses lurched past families waiting in the hot morning sun. They clutched letters from the government advising them that their children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews had been picked up in Mexico—and were about to be returned.
Out of one bus spilled women carrying tired infants, and children who looked confused and frightened by the commotion. Mothers tried to shield them; one boy was draped in a teal sheet, revealing only soft brown eyes.
All were Salvadoran migrants who had been detained in Mexico and then quickly sent back on a 10-hour bus ride. Their trips had lasted no more than two weeks in total.
Mexico serves as a bridge between the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the United States, where some 63,000 child migrants have landed since October 2013.
With encouragement—some say pressure—from the United States, authorities in Mexico are now cracking down. Mexico has tightened security on its southern border and ramped up the number of checkpoints and raids on routes favored by migrants.
Stepped-up enforcement means that an already hard journey north is likely to become even more perilous. Many migrants ride atop a system of cargo trains, known as La Bestia, or ‘the beast.’ Those who fall have died or had limbs severed. The trains have been sped up, and according to Mexico’s immigration authorities, 6,000 migrants have been rounded up on the trains in recent months. Migrants are also extorted, raped, kidnapped and, at times, killed by cartel or gang members.
Still, most of the migrants being deported from Mexico will try again, says Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar working with returning children in El Salvador. Kennedy, who has interviewed more than 500 child migrants, says that about 60 percent of the children say gangs and threats of violence pushed them to leave.
“You are not going to stop someone who fears for their life every single day from migrating,” Kennedy says.
To dissuade families from sending their children north, El Salvador’s government—with funding from the U.S.—has begun airing an ominous fairy-tale-like public service announcement: a cartoon with a sinister coyote leading children through the dark. In it, boys and girls say they were hungry, sexually abused, and abandoned in the desert. The government has also warned families that they could face fines of up to $11,000 for endangering their children if they try.
Zaira Navas, director of El Salvador’s National Council on Childhood and Adolescence, says family reunification has been the strongest factor cited by the returning children her agency interviews. Rubén Zamora, El Salvador’s former ambassador to the United States, has pointed to economic gains made by Central Americans in the U.S., which allows them to send for their relatives.
The precise ratio between fear of gangs and desire to reunite with family is hard to determine. What is clear is that at a time when people are afraid for their children, they are looking to family members in the United States for refuge.
Returning families and children often face the same threats from gang members that they were trying to escape. Of the some 3,000 children deported back to El Salvador this year, only about 300 have entered into protective services, Navas says.
“The state does not have specialized programs for children threatened by criminal violence,” she says. “The situation calls for us to create this type of program.”
Many of the mothers and children at the repatriation center said they had left because of the threat of violence and were trying to reach family in the United States. They forded rivers on makeshift rafts, hopped buses and trains and heeded the advice of fellow migrants along the way—often with little knowledge of where they had traveled. One mother and daughter stared bewildered at a topographical map, unable to make out the route of their trip.
Lisbeth Portillo, 19, fled El Salvador with her 4-month old daughter, Mónica, after her family, who earned money from a small vegetable stand, couldn’t pay the extortion fees that gangs demanded. Gang members carrying rifles surrounded their house and knocked at the door.
The family moved to another part of El Salvador, but Portillo still did not feel safe, and she took off with her daughter for Guatemala, where authorities shook her down for the few hundred dollars she carried. They were later caught on a bus in Tabasco, Mexico, just across the southern border with Guatemala. Their trip lasted only eight days.
“I didn’t want to leave but I felt like I had no choice,” she said, as she looked down at her daughter who played at her feet, swinging a newly inflated pink balloon. “They’ve killed so many people for not paying.”
By mid-afternoon, three more buses had arrived. The faint smell of sweat filled the hallways. In a waiting room, three boys drew in coloring books. Nearby, Julia Elizabeth Molina, 17, watched over her 11-month-old girl, Marcela. The toddler, whose black hair was tied up in random tufts, banged a yellow tambourine.
Molina had left after her baby’s father was shot dead by gang members because his brother belonged to a rival gang. But she also wished to reunite with her mother, who has lived in Louisiana for ten years. She didn’t know whether she would try to make the trip again.
“My mother wants me to go,” she says. “But I’m going to wait a little.”