Reporter

A Central American child peers at the border wall from a bus of migrants in Tijuana, Mexico. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP)

In the past few days, the Trump administration has come under fire for its "zero-tolerance" policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Under the policy, officials must prosecute as many border-crossers as possible. That means parents caught coming to the United States without authorization are immediately taken into custody, and their children are sent to detention centers. More than 2,000 children have been sent to these facilities in the past six weeks.

The architects of the new policy argue that the harshness is part of the point — if coming to the United States illegally is painful, they say, people won't come.

But that ignores something important: Many of these families are coming from exceedingly violent corners of Central America and aren't just traveling to the United States for better jobs or more economic opportunities. Some are literally fleeing for their lives.

One woman, identified only as Carmen, told El Pais that she knew about President Trump's new policy. But, she said, she still planned to cross the border with her three children and her husband. Her family fled San Salvador, she said, because a member of a gang had become obsessed with her. He said he would kill Carmen if she did not date him.

Trump's policy "hasn’t changed my mind," she said. "If my children can stay there [even if she is deported], I have hope that I will be able to see them again. In my country, the only thing that awaits me is death."

A Pew study found that the number of immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala jumped by 25 percent between 2015 and 2017. During that same stretch, the total U.S. immigrant population grew 10 percent. In 2016, the last year for which statistics are available, the United States accepted more asylum requests from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala than from any other country besides China.

Here's a reminder of why many immigrants are coming to the United States:

El Salvador

El Salvador is the most violent country in the world that's not an active war zone. But it might as well be one.

"Exceptionally intense and persistent" violence, as the International Crisis Group puts it, pits rival gangs against one another. The state's "iron fist" response has made things worse, with mass detentions and hyper-militarized police who are accused of shooting first and asking questions later.

In 2017, one family of six explained to the United Nations why they fled their home town. For years, the family ran a small convenience store out of their home in a San Salvador slum. In 2013, gang members showed up and demanded bribes. At first, the family handed over money and inventory to protect themselves. (Salvadorans spend $756 million in extortion fees every year, according to the Central Bank of El Salvador which estimates that violence costs the country 16 percent of its gross domestic product.)

One day, they couldn't afford to pay. Days later, 20 gang members showed up at their door, threatening to kill the whole family unless they turned over $10,000 — about 2.5 times what the average Salvadoran makes in a year.

The family left their home the next day. "Since the family fled, the retaliation has been brutal: One close relative was hacked to pieces, and another was shot to death. The family continue to receive threats, and they live in constant terror of what could happen next," said Michelle Centeno of the United Nations.

As the Intercept wrote, children are also vulnerable: "Kids in El Salvador face well-documented threats at the hands of gangs, from extortion to forced recruitment as members or 'girlfriends' of members. Being a witness to a gang murder, or just being in the wrong part of town or on the wrong bus line, can get you killed. Increasingly, they also face violence from police. Poor youth are rounded up on suspicion of being gang members, hassled, imprisoned, and, in some cases, killed."

It's worth noting that the United States bears some blame for El Salvador's problems. Despite Trump's claims to the contrary, the violent MS-13 gang was founded in Los Angeles and exported to Latin America.

As PBS put it: “Before 1996, only criminals convicted of violent felonies with sentences of five years or more could be deported. But all that changed in 1996, when in an attempt to get tough on illegal immigration, Congress passed a law allowing authorities to deport criminals if they had a prison sentence of just one year. This led to the deportation of 10s of thousands of gang members to Central America, many to El Salvador.”

As Florida International University professor José Miguel Cruz explained, MS-13's presence in Central America "has brutally deployed extortion, human smuggling and drug trafficking, terrorizing neighborhoods and helping to turn the 'Northern Triangle' — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — into the world's deadliest place."

Honduras

To say Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America, where 61 percent of the population lives in poverty, doesn't quite capture the situation. Honduras is one of the most unequal places in the world, with rampant unemployment and widespread economic insecurity.

Last year's disputed election has created even more chaos. Today, powerful gangs control parts of the country. To survive, some families pay gangs a "war tax." Those who won't, or can't, are often killed.

"With a very fragile government and a very fragile state, the violent situation with the gangs and the military is going to increase also," Lester Ramirez of Transparency International told NPR.

"Most of the people that I've talked to, they understand the risks," Ramirez said. "Just crossing Mexico, there's . . . human trafficking, and there's rapes and all of this. But they're seeing that they have to immigrate because they don't see any opportunity."

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable in Honduras and El Salvador. Those countries have some of the highest rates of female homicide in the world. Sexual violence is also a huge, often unreported issue.

Guatemala

Guatemala faces many of the same challenges as El Salvador and Honduras, including gang violence and poverty. Things are so bad that many of the migrants captured at the U.S. border and flown back to Guatemala City in handcuffs say they plan to try crossing into the United States again.

NBC News interviewed several of the would-be immigrants. One, Hicer Hernando, 23, told reporters that he fled Guatemala after his father was killed in a machete attack. His family is Catholic; the people who killed his father are Evangelicals. "They were going to kill me, too," Hernando said. Another returnee, Juan Sebastian Tuil Mejia, said that he'd been deported 18 months ago and was still without a job.

Thousands of refugees have fled the country and traveled 2,000 miles to the United States border in the hope of earning asylum.

The story of the Berduo family is illustrative.

The Berduos' son Wayner has been a victim of several gang-related violent crimes in Guatemala. The 23-year-old was shot in the eye and the arm. His father told NPR that drug lords sent assassins to kill his sons in December. Their crime? Taking tourists to visit a waterfall in the northern part of the country. The drug lord allegedly didn't like having travelers so close to his property.

"If we go back home," Berduo told NPR, "they will kill us."

They've been turned away three times.

Read more:

Her 7-year-old was taken at the border as she sought asylum. Now she’s suing to get him back.

‘I wanted to stop her crying’: The image of a migrant child that broke a photographer’s heart

Going home to El Salvador after half a lifetime