EL PROGRESO, Honduras — Late at night, folding clothes on the couch when she couldn’t sleep, Maby Caceres would replay the moment she lost Cindy.
The family had awoken before dawn in a small room outside the southern Mexican city of Palenque. They had hailed a van for the short ride to the bus station, another milestone on their secret journey to the United States. Because the vehicle was crowded, Caceres decided that her eldest daughter should board with their neighbors, who also were fleeing Honduras. She, her husband and their three younger children would follow in a second van.
On the shoulder of the road, she handed the girl her birth certificate. Cindy Noemi Rodriguez Caceres. Date of Birth: July 28, 2003. Republic of Honduras. She pulled the slender 10-year-old into her arms.
“We’ll see you in the terminal,” she remembered saying.
The police stopped Caceres’s van minutes later. Cindy kept heading north. Each year, hundreds of thousands of migrants risk robbery, kidnapping and death in pursuit of a different future in the United States. Some fall off trains or perish in the desert. In recent weeks, migrants have encountered new obstacles from the U.S., Mexican and Central American governments. More patrols, more checkpoints and more deportation, to discourage a surge of people, thousands of them children, from arriving at the U.S. border.
Losing her first-born was one risk Caceres hadn’t foreseen.
Her own deportation from Mexico passed in a blur of concrete cells in shelters and overnight bus rides with the car-sick kids. And then the family was back in Honduras where they had started, in their cinder-block shanty under an avocado tree.
Caceres and her husband, Edgardo, didn’t know if Cindy was stopped by police. Or if she would reach the Rio Grande. Or if she was lost and alone in Mexico. Over three tense weeks, they allowed a reporter to follow them as they tried to learn her fate. They were determined to leave again for the United States. But they couldn’t go until they found Cindy.
“Now that’s what we’re waiting for. It’s hard,” Edgardo said.
“Worse than anything in my life,” Maby said.
In the stark heat of a Honduran morning, Edgardo Rodriguez, 33, swiped at his back-yard weeds with a borrowed machete. Sweat beaded on his chest. In this limbo, he needed to occupy himself.
He had dreamed of being a professional soccer player until Cindy was born and he needed to make money. He took construction jobs when he could find them. He’d done some welding and helped build barracks at a Honduran air force base for $23 a week. But he hadn’t found work in five months, a common problem in Honduras, where two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.
One night this past spring, Rodriguez pedaled a friend’s bicycle home after playing soccer, and a man wearing a mask pointed a gun at his head. The thief took his cellphone, the $20 in his pocket, the bicycle and his borrowed cleats.
Gangs had lived for years in Suazo Cordoba, this warren of rutted dirt roads outside the northern city of El Progreso. When Caceres was young, the dominant group was Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Residents feared it, but at least it offered some protection from rival factions. After police drove out MS-13, a smaller gang took over and preyed on its own.
Last year, Caceres’s youngest sister, Suny Caceres, had gone out to buy ibuprofen for a headache. Walking back from the corner store, the pregnant woman was stopped by two kids. They put a knife to her throat and robbed her of $2.50, her cellphone and an inexpensive watch.
The gangsters had recently taken up residence in a house behind Maby’s. They used the place for parties and meetings, and allowed young women — apparently prostitutes — to live there. On muggy afternoons, the young women sat by a nearby bridge over a muddy stream, looking bored in brightly colored stretch pants.
In May, a gangster running from police tried to hide in the family’s house. Rodriguez shut the door on him because the children were inside. The man returned hours later with a machete. He hacked at the door, screaming that he would kill them all. He finally left, but afterward, even inside, Rodriguez spoke of the gangs in a whisper.
When Cindy was a toddler, Rodriguez had tried to emigrate to the United States but was caught in southern Mexico and deported. Then Genesis, Any and Moises were born, and he resigned himself to staying. After the threats, he thought it had become too dangerous to remain.
“I don’t want a mansion. Just a humble little house with a roof and running water,” he said.
Cindy hoped for more. She was quiet and responsible, the one to sweep the floor and run errands.
Before they had left on their journey, Cindy asked her mother if they could visit Disneyland. She made a crayon drawing titled “In Summer,” of the America she envisioned: a beach scene with dolphins, snorkelers, palm trees and sun umbrellas.
“If everything goes well,” she had asked, “we get to go to the beach?”
“If we have money, we will all go there,” Caceres recalled telling her daughter.
Caceres wanted to keep her daughter’s absence quiet. In part, she felt ashamed. She also worried that her mother, who had suffered a stroke, might not survive such bad news.
But as the days passed, word was spreading. Evelin Caceres, one of Caceres’s sisters who owned a computer, posted a picture of the girl on Facebook.
“Heavenly Father I beg you with all of my heart that you have Cindy in your hands,” she wrote.
Maby Caceres wasn’t eating much. At night, she crept out of the room where the five of them shared a bed, and sat on the worn couch, worrying. She had submitted Cindy’s identification to an organization that looked for missing migrant children.
“I have never left my daughter alone,” she said one day. “Never.”
“We don’t know how she is. If she is sick. If she is eating. If she is cold. We don’t know. Ay,” she said and covered her face with her hands.
Three-year-old Moises toddled up to his mother.
“Mama, why are you crying?”
She rubbed away her tears.
“I just have a piece of dirt in my eyes.”
When Caceres was a year older than Cindy is now, her father had left for the United States. He was a construction worker with 10 kids and aspirations of becoming an architect. Caceres remembers her mother saying, “Moncho, don’t go.” He made it as far as southern Mexico before he was fatally shot in the back.
Since then, the risks of the trip have only grown. Mexican drug cartels and Central American gangs regularly rob and kill those who traverse their territory. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission estimated that 11,000 migrants were kidnapped during a six-month period in 2010. Amnesty International has cited estimates that more than half of migrant women and girls suffer sexual violence while crossing Mexico.
Caceres, 30, had always been resourceful. She fashioned shelving in the family’s shanty from discarded wood and spliced wiring from a neighbor’s home so there was light from bare bulbs. The home was still a poor shelter. It was one room, divided by boards and blankets to create enough privacy to sleep. Rain seeped through the tin roof. The toilet was a hole in the ground outside.
At one point, Caceres had worked in a sweatshop sewing elastic bands onto boxer shorts. Each packet contained 48 pairs, and she could fill 350 packets in a 10-hour day. “The company set a goal of 450 packets a day, but we never got there,” she said. She had to quit because of a lung infection.
With neither Caceres nor her husband working, their savings eroded. Caceres washed dishes with scraps of rope instead of a sponge. They often subsisted on the fruit that grew in the back yard: soursop, Spanish lime, cashew apple, mango. “Some days we eat,” Rodriguez said, “others we do not.”
But their expenses were constant. Cindy and Genesis attended a public school, but the teachers kept asking for money: the equivalent of $27 a year for general costs, $5 toward an air conditioner, 75 cents per week for uniforms. “It’s supposed to be free,” Rodriguez said.
After the gang threats, Caceres had asked her mother for help. She in turn borrowed $600 from a friend, at 10 percent interest, pledging her television and refrigerator as collateral. The trip north involved numerous costs: bus tickets, bribes for police at checkpoints, passage on a motorized skiff across the river into Mexico.
“We have spent it all,” Rodriguez said.
One afternoon, two women in white frocks knocked at the door. They were teachers from the school.
“This is something delicate,” one of them told Rodriguez gingerly. “What happened with the girl?”
She was referring to 6-year-old Genesis. In the 10 days since she’d been home, she hadn’t shown up at her first-grade class.
“She has been very tired,” Rodriguez said. “She is waking up at 8:00, 8:30.”
“But she has to get up earlier.”
“Tomorrow, we will send her over.”
There was one other thing. Indian Day was coming up, the teacher told Rodriguez. Could she have $2.50 for tamales?
Inside, Genesis started to cry and burrowed herself into her mother’s arms.
“I don’t want to go to school without my Cindy, Mama,” she said.
“Okay, my daughter,” Caceres whispered.
In cellphone calls with friends and relatives, Caceres had gathered shards of information about her missing daughter. The neighbors who had accompanied Cindy had split up. Some apparently had crossed into Texas. Cindy wasn’t with them. There were rumors that Mexican immigration agents had taken her into custody, but Caceres couldn’t confirm that. She chose to believe her daughter was on one of the buses returning with deportees.
“We’re going to IHNFA because my daughter’s coming home,” she told her sister over the phone one Monday morning.
The Honduran Institute for Children and Family (IHNFA) is the government-run deportation hub. Three days a week, busloads of families returning from Mexico pull into the office for registration and medical screening.
Before they left, Caceres put on a clean black-and-white blouse and combed Any’s hair. Rodriguez used the deodorant he received at a migrant shelter during their deportation.
The ride out of the neighborhood ran past feral dogs, tiny bodegas, smoldering piles of leaves and trash. On the highway to San Pedro Sula, half an hour away, the view opened up onto leafy plantain trees and sugarcane fields. Then came warehouses and maquila factories, Dunkin’ Donuts, Little Caesars, Power Chicken.
“Where are we going?” Genesis asked her mother.
“To bring your sister Cindy home.”
Caceres’s cellphone rang.
“Not yet,” she told Suny. “I’ll let you know anything that happens.”
Moises pointed out trucks and horses. At stoplights, young girls begged at car windows.
The day before, a well-known Honduran television journalist, Herlyn Espinal, had gone missing from El Progreso after a meal with friends. As the family drove into the city, it was announced on the radio that his body been found half-naked on the side of the highway.
When they reached the shelter, Caceres went inside. She came out a few minutes later shaking her head. Cindy wasn’t on the bus. Nor on the list for the next day’s deportations.
The family stood on the sidewalk under the sun. Rodriguez was considering heading to Mexico alone to search for his daughter. If they could find Cindy, they wanted to leave again for the United States. But, as always, the problem was money. No one noticed when 4-year-oldAny wandered away.
“Any! Careful!” Rodriguez shouted. “Stay out of the street.”
On the ride home, Caceres sat in the back seat and cried.
Two days later, Caceres woke up early and swept the dirt patch in front of her door. She changed the sheets that covered the couch’s torn cushions. A pot of beans bubbled over a wood fire.
Genesis ran around the house singing, “Cindy’s going to fly. To fly. To fly. To fly.”
The evening before, Rodriguez’s cellphone rang at 5:30 p.m. He passed it to Caceres. It was a Mexican immigration official. They had a young girl with shoulder-length black hair at a shelter in Mazatlán, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. She had a scar on her left hand. Her name was Cindy.
For the first time in 20 days, Caceres spoke with her daughter. Since being separated from her parents, Cindy had traveled northwest by bus nearly 1,200 miles across Mexico. She had lost the neighbors, except for a young man known as Meme. When police boarded their bus in Mazatlán, Caceres was told, Meme sprinted away, fearing the police would accuse him of human trafficking.
Caceres asked if anyone had touched any part of her body. Cindy told her no.
“Before her birthday she will be here, God willing,” Caceres said.
The day of her deportation, Cindy sat quietly outside Gate 74 at the Mexico City airport, her red sandals barely touching the carpeted floor. She wore new shelter clothes: pink polka-dot tights and a white T-shirt with a picture of the Eiffel Tower that said, “Paris Love.” She boarded the Aeroméxico flight and took a seat, 12B, next to the window. It was her first trip by plane. She happily ate the ham sandwich with the wilted lettuce and the candy bar called “Irresistibly Chocolate.” Staring down into the clouds, she brushed her fingertips against the window.
The plane landed at 1:50 p.m., and Cindy stepped out into a hot wind on the tarmac in San Pedro Sula. When she finally passed through the frosted glass, Genesis ducked under the divider and sprinted toward her sister, Any and Moises stumbling after. Caceres and Rodriguez joined them, all holding on to one another, immovable as a boulder in the river of passengers.
At home, yellow and white balloons hung from fruit trees. Several relatives arrived to greet Cindy. They had missed her birthday by two days. Her uncle Marcos picked her up anyway and playfully gave her 11 spanks to celebrate.
“You look Mexican,” he joked.
In the back yard, Cindy’s siblings clung to her, thrilled that she was back. Caceres stroked her hair.
Cindy smiled at the attention. But she seemed withdrawn.
After her initial fears, she had quickly grown accustomed to the shelter in Mazatlán. She ate tacos and tried hamburgers. She watched scary movies and befriended other girls. On her birthday, the shelter had given her a chocolate cake. For a few days, far from home, she glimpsed what her family was running toward.
From the bridge, the prostitutes from the gang house eyed the back-yard party.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Cindy told her mom.