The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The horrors driving thousands of Central American kids to take the dangerous journey to the U.S.

Before the 15-year old girl said goodbye to her uncle on that early April night, before she crossed El Salvador’s border, before she negotiated the serpentine and danger-studded road north, she thought of plastic bags. And whether she, like the others, would end up inside one.

A local gang member had said he “liked” her, she told the United Nations refugee agency. And in a country like El Salvador, where gangs recruit in schools, target girls for “sexualized killings” and have pushed the state to the brink of collapse, getting “liked” by a gang member is the last thing anyone would want. “The guy who liked me was going to do me harm,” she said. “In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags.” Her uncle took her aside and told her she must flee — so she did.

“I left on April 7,” explained the girl, who was not identified by her real name by the agency. “They said if I was still there on April 8, they would grab me, and I didn’t know what would happen.” The path to the United States involved myriad dangers — muggings, theft, extortion, kidnapping, rape — but that didn’t dissuade her. That stuff, and worse, was at home.

“In El Salvador, there is a wrong — it is being young,” a young boy told the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It is better to be old.”

The children in these reports are just a few of tens of thousands — predominantly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — who have fled gang violence, school-targeted killings and deteriorating security conditions in their home countries for the United States, according to recent official and unofficial reports. The deluge of migrants has precipitated a “humanitarian crisis,” said President Obama, who is confronted with an immigration crisis with little precedent. Unlike millions of undocumented workers before, who furtively cross the border for economic opportunity, many of these immigrants have immediately turned themselves in to authorities under the belief that, because they’re children and mothers, they’ll be allowed to stay.

That belief hasn’t turned out to be accurate. On Tuesday, the White House requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding to bolster border patrol and air surveillance. Press secretary Josh Earnest on Monday indicated the migrants wouldn’t be tolerated. “It’s unlikely that most of the kids who go through [the immigration court] process will qualify for humanitarian relief,” he said. “Which is to say that most of them will not have a legal basis … to remain in this country.”

The increase in the number of apprehended youths arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has been stunning. According to figures provided by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, authorities apprehended 26,206 kids in 2013 and 52,193 this year. That’s a 99 percent increase in six months. For a clearer idea, consider this: In 2009, authorities apprehended 968 Honduran kids. But this year? They’ve taken 15,027.

Almost all of Central America’s violence is related to a duo of street gangs called maras — M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha. Many analysts ascribe their rise — and their viciousness — to systemic state corruption, economic inequality and rising crime. In Honduras, Mexican drug cartels either cooperate or war with the maras, which  “has led to a significant increase in both inter-gang and generalized violence, with children being the primary targets,” the refugee commission reported.

The gangs start recruiting at a young age. In Honduras, considered by some to be the world’s most dangerous nation not at war, gangs recruit kindergarten kids. Though 91 percent of teachers said it’s a major problem, they are powerless to intervene. “Please get me out of here,” one female teacher pleaded when she asked for a transfer, according to In Sight Crime. “If not, they’ll kill me.”

Once a kid joins the gangs, he may be ordered to carry out kidnappings, extortion and murder. Young girls, some of whom are nine years old, are targeted for gang-rape and sexual assault, the Women Refugee Commission found. Then if she becomes pregnant, “the gang member responsible will leave her to raise her baby alone, then come back when the child is old enough to be recruited into the gang.”

Rather than stay — and emboldened by a pervasive rumor that if they make it to the United States they can stay — thousands of kids choose instead to depart on a journey on something called “the Beast.” These are the trains that kids ride atop of as they plow across Mexico’s arid landscape. Some kids, as others told aid workers, are killed or lose limbs while riding.

According to a survey by Doctors Without Borders, nearly six out of 10 kids say they suffered at least one episode of violence along the way. So some kids look to guides to help.

“While not all children described mistreatment by guides, many of those who did revealed being locked in rat-infested warehouses sometimes for days on end,” the refugee report said. “One described being beaten by a 2 X 4 wooden beam. Another child told of how women and girls were kept in a separate room and could be heard screaming while being raped.”

Then after their weeks-long journey, those who survive often turn themselves in. “The United States is giving us a great opportunity because now, with this new law, we don’t have to try to cross the desert where so many people die,” 14-year-old Gladys Chinoy, who wants to be a doctor, told the Associated Press. “We can hand ourselves over directly to the authorities.”

Today, thousands languish inside detention centers. But soon the realization may dawn that, regardless of what they endured to get here, they’ll soon be going home.