A couple of weeks ago, sisters Karen and Sindy Laucel joined the exodus of youths from Central America, hoping to reconnect with their mother, who had left this farming village a decade ago in search of work in the U.S.
With so many heading north, now seemed the time to reunite. The teens filled a single backpack with three days’ worth of clothes, and their mother paid a coyote, or guide, to take her daughters and a 10-year-old girl from the village to the U.S. border nearly 2,000 miles away.
Crossing the Suchiate River into Mexico on an inner tube and traveling mostly by bus, they seemed to be among the lucky ones. They avoided the extortion, rape and other crimes so prevalent along the route — up until the moment an immigration agent pulled them from a bus in central Mexico.
Held for a week in a shelter near Mexico City with dozens of other girls and boys, they ate pizza and watched telenovelas until they were dispatched back home.
“I cried and cried and cried,” said Karen, 15. “Only when I finally saw all the other girls did I calm down.”
Sindy, a year older, has memorized her mother’s phone number in North Carolina, and said she just wanted to get to know her.
“I know her only by photos,” Sindy said.
Some Central Americans feel encouraged by rumors that children who cross into the United States will be allowed to stay. But other fundamental reasons fueling migration have remained unchanged for decades: family unification, hometown violence, inescapable poverty and lack of opportunity.
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, are among the poorest and most dangerous countries in the hemisphere. Plagued by ruthless street gangs and a growing presence of Mexican drug traffickers, the countries have seen homicide rates grow by 99% over the last decade, with the current rate five times that of the United States, according to a new study by the British-based Action on Armed Violence.
Karen and Sindy’s father and grandfather were shot to death in unsolved killings. The family can no longer afford to pay for Sindy’s schooling. The town where they live, Horcones, in Jutiapa state near the border with El Salvador, can’t pay its electricity or water bills to the federal government.
The homes, by contrast, reflect the wealth of remittances, money sent back by those who have migrated to the U.S. Many are well-constructed, with solid sheet-metal roofs and fancy Greek-style columns. In the Laucel house, the kitchen has a sparkling new Whirlpool refrigerator, although it is nearly empty, and a matching four-burner range, which is not plugged in. But the money arrives sporadically and lends itself to big-ticket purchases rather than steady sustenance.
Karen and Sindy’s mother, Mirna, is one of five siblings; all but one are in the Southeastern United States, sending money home and frequently calling the children they left behind. Mirna has never been back to visit.
The Obama administration says it detained more than 50,000 “unaccompanied minors” trying to cross the border in the first half of this year.
In fact, the smuggling of people to the U.S. is big business. Coyotes, who in Mexico are often descendants of some of the country’s most vicious drug cartels, can charge $7,000 or more for a single migrant. These networks may in fact be stimulating the current exodus by lying about the difficulties of the journey and giving false promises about what lies ahead, experts say.
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