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Fernando Avila and his mother, Irma, walking in San Salvador (for safety reasons we have changed their names). Mexican authorities deported the 15-year-old back home after a failed attempt to escape to the United States; his family is waiting for another chance to send him.

Jessica Orellana for The Globe and Mail

Gang violence in El Salvador is so severe that parents are putting children as young as 9 in the hands of smugglers heading north. Stephanie Nolen reports on impossible choices in one of the world's most violent nations

The last time Irma Avila's son was deported back to El Salvador, the officials who handed him over to her delivered a harsh rebuke: You're a terrible mother, they told her. You can't keep sending your child with the coyotes like this. Horrible things could happen to him on the trip to America. It's your job as a parent to protect him – not to risk his life this way.

Ms. Avila listened stoically. And when they were done with their scolding, she answered like this. "I have reasons," she said. "They are good enough to send him away."

Then she turned with Fernando and led him out the big metal doors of the deportation centre to catch a bus back to their town, with the single goal of keeping him alive long enough to hand him over to another smuggler, just as soon as she could arrange it.

The journey to the United States, which Fernando, 15, has attempted twice, is almost unimaginably perilous. Here is a short list of some of the fates that regularly befall migrant children travelling alone: Kidnapping for ransom. Kidnapping to be used as slave labour packing cocaine for Mexican drug traffickers. Drowning in a river crossing. Death by dehydration in the desert. Getting separated from the group when walking at night, and dying in the fields. Sexual or other physical abuse by authorities in Mexico if you are caught.

Ms. Avila knows all this. She, and the tens of thousands of other parents who have made the choice to entrust their children to coyotes, have no illusions. But they send their children anyway. This is what it is like to have children in El Salvador today: You feel you are a better parent when you hand your children to a smuggler than when you keep them with you, where you can see them, where can you stand over them at night and watch as they sleep.

"If I send him, he may die," Ms. Avila says. "But if I keep him here, he will die."

There is a war under way in El Salvador, between street gangs whose members kill each other in a senseless battle for territory and retribution, and between the gangs and the state, which eight months ago launched a crackdown that has served only to enflame the violence. Seven hundred and sixty-three people were murdered here in the first 28 days of this month; El Salvador will almost certainly overtake next-door Honduras as the homicide capital of the world this year. The country has the same population as greater Toronto, yet more people died here on some weekends this summer than in Toronto in all of last year.

The gang problem is not new – tens of thousands of Salvadorans fled to the United States during the civil war in the 1980s, and some wound up in Latino street gangs in Los Angeles. In the 1990s, the U.S. government carried out mass deportations of gang members, many by then hardened criminals, to El Salvador and neighbouring countries – into unsteady new democracies where police forces had no experience with this kind of organization. These have been deeply violent places ever since.

But the killing has never been as fierce as in the past 18 months, when, first, the government pulled its support from a gang truce that had been negotiated by church and other community leaders, and then launched its "iron fist" crackdown. The resulting death rates and the siege mentality give the gangs a rapacious need for new recruits. And they have a preferred demographic: The average age of formal gang recruitment is 15, according to the charity Save the Children – but long before that age, the gangs enlist kids as couriers and scouts.

A gang member in a prison in Quezaltepeque, on the outskirts of San Salvador, in 2012.

A gang member in a prison in Quezaltepeque, on the outskirts of San Salvador, in 2012.


'We will cut your ears off'

They first came for Fernando Avila two years ago. (The Globe has changed the names of the family in this story, and is not publishing photos in which they can be identified, because they face a risk of violent retribution for talking to a reporter.) It started with the standard mix of intimidation and enticement. And when Fernando resisted, it escalated to phone calls at all hours of the night: "We will cut your tongue out. We will cut your ears off. We will dig out your eyeballs. We see you walking to school. We are coming." A car with tinted windows crept along beside the path where he walked to class each morning.

The Avilas understood that these were not exaggerated threats. "You just get crazy, when you hear things like this: because you know if you're receiving these threats, they will kill you," Ms. Avila says. There was no help to be had from the police, who almost never investigate these crimes – and if the gang knows you have reported them, it means certain death.

So Fernando, who dreams of being an engineer, stopped going to school.

And his family started the hushed, frantic conversation that takes place inside houses across this country: It was time for him to go. He was too young to go. He had to get out. He had never been away from home for a single day. He might never come back. It would cost thousands of dollars. They didn't have a penny.

They called the coyote – the same one who had taken Fernando's cousins, when the gang came for them a year ago – and they called the moneylender, who took the deed to their small house in exchange for $7,000 (U.S.). And in June, Fernando joined a flood of children, travelling alone, from El Salvador, and from Honduras and Guatemala, with their similarly pathological levels of violence, trying to reach the United States.

It is impossible to know how many children leave: 57,045 unaccompanied minors were apprehended in Mexico or at the U.S. border in the financial year that began in September, 2013 – up from 13,865 in 2012. But that figure does not include the children who managed to enter the United States undetected, the ones who made it. By July of this year, 28,626 children had been caught travelling alone; now the majority of apprehensions are in Mexico, because the U.S. crackdown on immigration includes "outsourcing" – pushing Mexican authorities to intercept migrants before they ever get near Texas.

A child's journey from – and back to – El Salvador

  1. The Avilas drive to within a few kilometres of the border crossing. They meet a coyote, who takes Fernando, on the back of a bicycle, along a dirt road that crosses the frontier. He is put in a minibus, and travels the length of Guatemala in a day.
  2. Within sight of Mexico, Fernando walks through a ditch parallel with the border to a dirt road, where a taxi is waiting to take him and other migrants around the border point. They meet up with a new bus on the Mexican side.
  3. They sleep in a hotel, before setting out for Villahermosa.
  4. Travelling on dirt roads and taking makeshift ferries over rivers, the minivan takes them to Tierra Blanca.
  5. Using vans, taxis and a boat, they reach Ciudad Valles, and wait 20 days here in a safe house.
  6. They arrive at Monterrey. Waiting for a van to take them across the border, Mexican migration officials conduct a raid. Fernando is caught and taken to a detention centre for 10 days.
  7. Fernando is shipped south by bus for two days, then held at a migrant station in Veracruz with hundreds of other children for 13 days.
  8. Eight weeks after leaving home, Fernando arrives in San Salvador.

"The surge," as it is called, of children travelling alone, and of parents (mostly young mothers) with children, overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system and provoked bitter debate in the United States, including considerable commentary that asked "what kind of parent" would send their child on a three-country journey alone.

Yet the surge was driven in part by changes to U.S. immigration law. President Barack Obama has focused much of his efforts at immigration reform on the ostensibly less controversial area of children. In 2012, he issued an executive order that allows undocumented migrants to remain in the U.S., for the time being, as long as they arrived as minors before 2007. A further order, two years later, stayed the deportation of undocumented migrants who had children born in the United States. These changes do not apply to children who go to the U.S. now – children such as Fernando – but they combined to create an impression in Central America that there would be leniency for minors.

The changes came even as the Obama administration accelerated deportations of undocumented adults to record numbers. Just 2 per cent of Salvadoran adults have their asylum claims accepted. The rest are deported. The net result has been a perverse incentive for parents to send their children alone.

The consequences can be read in Central American newspapers every day. A pair of Honduran brothers, 15 and 17, were shot crossing Mexico in March; the older one died. Eleven-year-old Gilberto Juarez, from Guatemala, starved to death lost in the desert last July, the phone number of his brother in Chicago stitched into his belt. Jaqueline Carpio, a 15-year-old Salvadoran, drowned last month, when the truck she was in plunged into a river, trying to evade Mexican authorities.

Gangs, extortion, hefty loans

The Avilas live in Aguilares, a small town a couple of hours' drive from the capital. Twenty-five years ago, Eduardo's and Irma's families were peasant farmers in a valley not far from here. At the height of El Salvador's brutal civil war, the U.S.-backed right-wing military and leftist guerillas took up positions on opposing hilltops above them – and their families fled as the shells rained down.

They found a place to live on the edge of town. Eduardo never went to school, but eventually got a job as a labourer with a road-construction company. Irma got to fifth grade, by the time she was 15, but then she met Eduardo, and she was pregnant and married by 17. Over the years, he built their two-bedroom house, where wedding pictures have pride of place on the rough cement walls, and their daughters, 6 and 4, stuff their giggling friends into the woven hammock on the front porch and swing until the beams creak.

Huge bougainvillea bushes bursting with dark purple flowers hang over the dirt streets here, and chickens and stray dogs nose in and out of the gates. The neighbourhood is in the control of the Barrio 18, one of the two main gangs in El Salvador. Two streets over, it's the territory of the Mara Salvatrucha 13. Gang members cannot cross the invisible border; a civilian also stands a reasonable risk of murder for crossing – no matter if your school or your job or the bus stop is on the other side. Extortion, kidnapping and robbery happen in every part of El Salvador, but it is blue-collar neighbourhoods like this one that the state has essentially ceded to the gangs.

About a year ago, a childhood friend of Fernando's paid a discreet visit with a warning: The mara had their eye on Fernando. Ms. Avila started walking him to school and back. "He wasn't actually any safer," she acknowledges with a small, bitter laugh – at 5-foot-2, she was then only an inch taller than her son. "But at least I could see him."

The gangs derive a significant portion of their income from extortion: Every business pays, in a regular envelope collected by a child of 6 or 7. And individuals must pay, too, for the privilege of not dying. The Barrio 18 went after Ms. Avila's brother Antonio six months ago, demanding he pay $1,000. He has no children – and so the threat was to Fernando, and a cousin of his. The frantic family scraped up $500 in loans from friends and begged for time; Antonio pleaded that the gang take him instead. The offer was refused.

One option, of course, would have been to let the gang recruit Fernando. He would have to undergo an initial ritual, of being beaten by other members, and before too long he would have to do something – an assault, a robbery, maybe worse – to prove his loyalty. But the threats would stop, the extortion would stop; they would live under a weird sort of protection. El Salvador's gangs have an estimated 60,000 members, and another 500,000 people – parents and children and spouses – who are supported by them, a total of 9 per cent of the population. Fernando could likely have gone back to school, for a couple of years.

Ms. Avila, in a low-voiced conversation on the bench of their front porch a few days ago, said she did not consider it for one moment. "I can't send him to go join a gang – they'll just kill him. The gang is three choices – hospital, death, or jail." Her son is a sweet boy, who swings around the baby sisters who adore him, tolerates the mess they make in the room they all share, works hard to help his parents. She could not bear to think of him, tattooed and in the uniform of board shorts and Adidas, standing laconic guard on the corner.

But the Barrio 18 had already bankrupted them. The family lives on the $300 Mr. Avila earns each month, barely scraping by. Some years they also earn another $400 or so from a plot of land they rent to grow corn. But this year the crop failed in a drought. So when the moment came to call the coyote, there was no money saved at all.

Ms. Avila dug out another phone number, the kind every family has these days, for a moneylender. He took the deed to their small house and gave her the $7,000 she needed for the coyote. She has two years to buy the house back. With interest, she expects it to cost more than $10,000.

Then she called the smuggler . Sometimes parents ask around, to see whose children got to the States quickly, safely. The more you can pay, the better the coyote. Parents must put half the money upfront. Demand pushes prices up, of course, so a trip that was $3,500 two years ago is $7,000 now. If you can afford a "full extra" package, for $9,000, your kid won't have to walk much, and will stay in hotels. Every package these days comes with three tries: If you're caught and deported, you try again.

A teenager returning home after a failed escape attempt waits as his parents are interviewed at the Care Center for Migrants in the city of Santa Tecla, El Salvador.

A teenager returning home after a failed escape attempt waits as his parents are interviewed at the Care Center for Migrants in the city of Santa Tecla, El Salvador.

Jose Cabezas for The Globe and Mail

'They put us in cages for dogs'

A day after they sold away rights to their house, Mr. and Ms. Avila borrowed a car from a friend, and, early on the morning of June 17, drove Fernando up to the border with Guatemala. He had a backpack with a change of clothes and some crackers, his birth certificate, a cheap Nokia cellphone, and the phone number of his Aunt Rosa in Miami, on a tiny slip of paper he kept deep in a pocket. A few minutes from the border, they parked the car and called a number the coyote had given them. A man rode up on a bicycle, put Fernando on the back, and pedalled away.

They crossed into Guatemala on a dirt road a few hundred metres from the border post. The U.S. government is pushing the Central American countries to tighten border control, but as Fernando would soon discover, the borders are not the complicated part of the trip. In Guatemala, he got into a minivan with two teenage Salvadoran girls, and in a day, they drove across the country. Near dusk, they were in sight of the Mexican frontier. He and the girls were instructed to get out and walk, at a distance of two metres apart, along a dirt track running down into a gully parallel to the border.

Ten minutes away, a taxi was waiting with the motor running, and it drove them up a dirt road, into Mexico, where another minivan was waiting.

The next few days were a mix of trips in a van driven by a 25-year-old Mexican, down dirt sideroads (to avoid Mexico's Federal Police and evade the attention of the narco-traffickers), meals in local houses where the coyotes had connections, rides on makeshift ferries across rivers, and nights in hotels where the arrival of a vanload of teenagers raised no eyebrows. "Everyone else in the hotel is migrants, too," explains Fernando.

His mom called every day. "Even if I didn't have food to eat," she says, "I paid for those calls. Because I needed to know he was okay."

When they reached Ciudad Valles, they stopped, and for 20 days they waited in a small house with a Mexican family. Fernando watched movies, and sometimes explored the neighbourhood with the kids who lived there, who were about his age. Then they got word, and headed north again – to Monterrey, where, the coyote said, they were just four hours' drive from the border. They checked into a hotel; the coyote told Fernando they were waiting for a guy who would put them in the false back of a trailer and take them into Texas.

That afternoon, he was lying on the hotel bed watching Spider-Man – the cartoon, not the movie, he clarifies – when suddenly the door opened and two men wearing badges walked in. "They said, 'Pick up your things, you're going now.'" Dazed, Fernando followed them to the parking lot. There, he found a truck like the one the dog catcher uses back in Aguilares, except the mesh cages in the flatbed were bigger. Big enough for teenagers. They put Fernando in one, with another boy. "I was okay until then – but that made me cry," he says, a bit fiercely. "They put us in cages for dogs."

He spent 10 days in a detention centre nearby before being shipped south to another one in Chiapas, bordering Guatemala. Sleeping on a thin mat on the floor, he awoke one night to find an older migrant with his hands in Fernando's pyjamas. He leaped up shouting, and both were threatened by guards with solitary confinement. He turned 15 in the detention centre, the next day.

Finally, on Aug. 11, two months after setting out, he arrived in San Salvador, on an overnight bus from Mexico – the buses come twice a week, up to six in a day, packed with kids. The Avilas got the call the day before, to come to the migrant-reception centre and get him, and they were there in the morning, carrying the matching copy of his birth certificate.

The kids clambered down the bus steps, backpacks swung over their shoulders, their faces pleated in the universal wary smirk of teenagers in an unfamiliar situation. Their shoes flapped on their feet: The Mexican migration officials who loaded them on the bus 24 hours ago had taken away their laces, afraid of suicide attempts.

Government officials registered them and gave them a packet with breakfast; the staff has a swift efficiency honed in the last two years, as the numbers of deported kids has grown steadily. The children – the youngest 12, the oldest 17 – were taken into a sort of group-therapy session, where they slumped in their chairs looking tired and dazed while a psychologist said how happy she was that they had survived. One by one, they were called out for an interview – about three minutes long – with a social worker from the National Council on Children and Adolescence, intended to screen for those who have been abused or suffered trauma on the journey. They saw a nurse for another three minutes. The psychologist got them playing Jenga.

The Avilas were outside, in a row of mothers and uncles and grandmothers in white lace kerchiefs – all of their faces a shifting mix of joy that their children were safely back home, and horror: Their children were back home.

When Fernando emerged, Eduardo wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders, and Fernando's studied bravura fell away; he began to sob. The little girls were tugging at his hand, but fell silent when they realized that their father was weeping, too. Ms. Avila kept her face resolute, and herded them toward the door.

They took the bus back to Aguilares – they had nowhere else to go. But now Fernando's risk was infinitely greater: The Barrio 18 knew where he had gone, of course. And his attempted flight would be seen as an act of treachery.

Mr. Avila called the coyote, to book try number two.

Relatives wait as a bus arrives with a group of children being sent back from Mexico at the Care Center for Migrants in Santa Tecla, El Salvador.

Relatives wait as a bus arrives with a group of children being sent back from Mexico at the Care Center for Migrants in Santa Tecla, El Salvador.

Jose Cabezas for The Globe and Mail

Denial – and lies

If he had made the border, Fernando's instructions from his coyote were to walk until he found la migra, as the border patrol is universally known, and turn himself in. A 1997 U.S. court settlement determined that minors detained crossing the border alone must be released to the care of a relative in the U.S., if one is available, or foster care, while they await an immigration hearing. Fernando would probably be released to the care of his Aunt Rosa – who is herself undocumented and who would have to reveal her presence in the U.S. to authorities and risk deportation by claiming him.

At that point, much in his fate would depend on whether the family could take on even more debt to get a lawyer: Non-citizens have no right to state-provided counsel in the United States. Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar who studies the issue of child migrants from Central America, describes cases of unilingual Spanish-speaking six-year-olds "representing" themselves in court cases. A Syracuse University monitoring project found that 47 per cent of children with counsel are able to stay in the U.S. – but 90 per cent of those with no lawyer are forced to leave.

A lawyer could try a number of legal avenues to help Fernando stay, such as a "special immigrant: juvenile" visa. Under international law, he could apply for asylum, as a refugee, fleeing persecution, whose government could not or would not protect him. Fernando might seem like an obvious candidate, but lawyers use this as a last resort, Ms. Kennedy explains, because it so rarely works. The terms of asylum law essentially don't apply to Central Americans, she said, so rarely do judges recognize their cases – 98 per cent of Salvadorans are rejected.

Their case is not helped by the fact that the Salvadoran government downplays violence and insists that family reunification is the primary cause of most of the child migration – that, with an estimated two million Salvadorans in the United States, the surge is driven by a "pull" factor of parents paying to bring their children to join them. "Calling violence the only cause of migration is a grave mistake, and could lead to the adoption of misguided policy," Zaira Navas, the director of the government's children's council, said in a public presentation last September. "Reunification, and the economic and social situation in our country, mean that people go searching for better opportunities for their life, because the country is not providing that."

Ludin Chavez, director of operations for Save the Children in El Salvador, dismisses this idea with a brisk shake of her head. Poverty and family reunification have historically been the main "push" factors for migrants, she says. But that changed two years ago; the sharp spike in numbers of unaccompanied minors leaving, paralleling the end of the truce and the renewed gang war, make that clear, she says. "Violence is the primary reason now."

El Salvador has the highest rate of child murder in the world, according to Unicef. In interviews with The Globe, more than a dozen children who had attempted the trip told stories that echoed Fernando's – of classmates disappearing or shot; of seeing a parent or a sibling beaten or killed. All but one said violence was their main motive for leaving. And it isn't just boys: More than a third of the unaccompanied minors are females, girls evading both gang membership and rape. Gang members pick the girls they want, the female migrants explained, and declare them "girlfriends" – i.e. their property. And a girl can no more refuse this than she can any other gang order.

Since the surge began, the government, and those of Honduras and Guatemala, have mounted public-relations campaigns, including radio and television ads, that spell out how dangerous the journey is. Save the Children's research has found sexual abuse of migrant children; enslavement of children by drug cartels; and even the harvesting of teenagers' organs for trafficking, says Ms. Chavez. Data on how many children experience these things are, of course, almost impossible to compile, because the migrants avoid authorities at all costs, and indeed often are abused by officials themselves, who know they are utterly powerless victims.

The ads also warn parents that coyotes are lying – the usual promise from the smuggler is that any child who reaches the U.S. will be able to stay. (Of 16 families interviewed by The Globe and Mail, 15 believed this to be the case.) Ms. Chavez points out that parents have often attempted or made the journey themselves, so they know the dangers, and when the need to get out is so urgent, the coyote's promises are almost irrelevant.

Yet other than the scare tactics, Ms. Chavez says, the government is doing little to address the explosion in child migration. "Calling it a humanitarian crisis," she says, "is like calling it an act of God, like an earthquake – not something with well-known causes."

No one tracks the well-being of the children who reach the U.S., and no one monitors what happens to the ones who are brought back into El Salvador. "No one follows up with these kids – because they don't want to know," Ms. Kennedy says.

Anecdotally, she tries to follow some of the hundreds of children she has interviewed. "There are deportees who've been sent back and been murdered within hours or within days. And no one is tracking those."

In June, 2014, the Obama administration requested $3.7-billion (U.S.) in new spending on immigration to address the surge, but Congress has yet to release much of it; most of what has been spent has gone into enforcement measures. There have been no significant policy changes that reflect the dramatic shift in push factors. Yet, deportation is no longer a deterrent. "It's not uncommon for the deported to turn around and leave again the same day," says Ms. Kennedy. "You can't stay."

A dubious gift

The Avilas were hopelessly torn when Fernando came home the first time, two weeks ago: He was in terrible danger, and yet it felt like such a gift, to have him there where they could see him, his big flip-flops in the row by the door, next to the small pink ones – after weeks when they had tried to get used to the idea that they would not see him home again for years. But ultimately, there was no question but that he must go again: The coyote had been paid. Fernando had to get to the United States to evade the gang, and so that he could start to work and send money so they would not lose the house.

Fernando left on a second attempt a week later. He made it four days into Mexico, and was caught entering Chiapas. He was deported and arrived home this past Tuesday. And now they wait. He sits beneath the tin roof of their house, while the little girls swing in the hammock, and they wait for the coyote to call. He has one chance left.

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's Latin America correspondent