COMAYAGUA, Honduras — It is 1,862 miles from here to the kitchens and lawns of Houston. The route through Mexico is more dangerous than ever. And if Santos Arias somehow manages to reach the U.S. border without getting arrested, kidnapped, robbed, maimed, beaten or killed along the way, chances are he’ll be deported and have to start all over again.
No matter. Arias, 21, is going anyway.
“I know the risks,” said Arias, who earns $50 a week hawking cellphone accessories and airtime minutes in the street. “Anything is better than here.”
Desperate, daring and acutely aware of the prosperity gap between here and “Los United,” young Central Americans like Arias are the future of illegal immigration to the United States.
Though the overall number of arrests along the southern U.S. border has fallen near its lowest point in 40 years, there has been a surge of unlawful newcomers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador since 2011.
Unlike Mexico, where economic growth and a lower birthrate have contributed to a 75 percent drop in illegal crossings to the United States since 2005, the countries of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” are producing too few jobs, too much violence and too many young people. Like Arias, many are willing to take mortal risks to work as landscapers and dishwashers for $8 an hour — equal to a full day’s wages back home — in Central American magnets such as Houston, New Orleans and the suburbs of Washington.
The immigration reform bill approved by the Senate in June and awaiting a vote in the House has nothing to offer future illegal migrants like Arias, other than a tougher U.S. border. Only those who entered the country before Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible for its residency provisions.
Immigration authorities here say 80,000 to 100,000 Hondurans are leaving for the United States each year, an exodus that increased amid the economic and political turmoil that followed the country’s 2009 coup. Most migrants don’t make it, with more than 50,000 deported from the United States and Mexico. Often they turn around and start the journey all over again.
Bleak economics are not the only push factors from places like Comayagua, a rural town briefly made famous last year when a horrific fire at the local prison left 360 dead. Drug traffickers have turned Honduras into a prime smuggling corridor for U.S.-bound cocaine in recent years, leaving the country with the world’s highest homicide rate.
Arias has been robbed eight times as a street vendor. His leg is scarred from a bullet wound left by teenage assailants who stole his bicycle. His meager income is subject to a “war tax” by a gang that garnishes a quarter of his earnings.
At times, it’s enough to make staying home seem riskier than hopping Mexican freight trains and trying to slip across the U.S. border. “The only thing I’m afraid of are the kidnappers,” said Arias, shy and slightly chubby, with a boyish face. He has never been outside Honduras.
“You have to think of it as if you’re a soldier, as if you’re going to war, and never let your guard down,” he said, reciting his neighbor’s advice. Other tips: Bring a knife for protection and a piece of rope to tie around his waist when he sleeps on the train, so he won’t fall onto the tracks and get split in two.
Arias said he would stay in Comayagua if he could find a decent job. He has a high school diploma and has taken classes in business administration.
During the past few months he has applied for several positions — good, formal jobs that pay $400 a month — and still the phone does not ring.
“I have to take care of my mom and my sisters,” he said — twin 35-year-olds, both with cerebral palsy.
Arias said his family used to own a small dairy farm near the Atlantic coast, but their house was swept away by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. His parents moved the family into the city and split up. His father started over with a new wife. His older brother left for the United States.
Arias doesn’t speak to them anymore. They stopped supporting his mother and sisters years ago.
Instead, he will put his trust in his friend and neighbor, Jose Rodolfo, 29. A tall, slender truck driver with a gold tooth, Rodolfo has a hair-raising, near-death story that still hasn’t discouraged Arias from wanting to go north.
It will be Rodolfo’s fourth trip to the United States, and by now he knows the church shelters along the route that offer migrants free food, clothing and a clean bunk bed. He knows how to handle himself in the gritty train yards of Mexico. And he has learned invaluable lessons about where to try crossing the U.S. border — or at least where to avoid.
In February, Rodolfo and a friend caught a freight train in central Mexico that they thought would take them toward Texas, but they ended up in Nogales, Sonora, just south of Arizona. Within 10 minutes of getting off the train and wandering through downtown, they were forced into a truck at gunpoint by two men.
“They drove us to a carwash, gave us some sandwiches and told us to wait,” Rodolfo said. “We stayed in the truck all night. The next morning they drove us out into the desert.”
They arrived first at a ranch near the tiny town of Altar and then were taken further into the mountains to an even more remote ranch house. There were 19 other men held captive there, mostly other Central Americans. “There was plenty of food. They treated us well,” Rodolfo said.
One morning, after six days, the guards woke them up. Their “load” had arrived.
Rodolfo and the other captives were issued 70-pound backpacks full of plastic-wrapped marijuana bricks, densely packed and bound in duct tape. “They told us they’d give each of us $1,800 once we delivered the load in Phoenix,” Rodolfo said.
Rodolfo spent the next two weeks as a “mule” for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most powerful drug lord; he was one of many migrants U.S. border officials say are being pressed into service by smugglers. He was caught between fear, fatigue and the thrill of getting a “free” guided trip into the United States.
A cartel scout led the Central American mule train across the border and through the mountains.
“We didn’t see the migra [U.S. Border Patrol] once,” Rodolfo said.
At a safe house in Phoenix, the group delivered the backpacks, each one worth more than $30,000.
He and his fellow mules crammed into a cargo van for a ride to the motel where they were supposed to get paid, but a local sheriff’s deputy pulled over the vehicle after the driver blew a stoplight. Everyone was arrested.
The Central Americans told U.S. authorities that they’d been abducted and forced to carry the drugs. They were turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.
Two months later, after a stint in a U.S. immigration detention camp, Rodolfo was back in Comayagua. Already planning his next trip.
Arias has been saving his money, scraping together a few hundred dollars for the journey — not enough to hire a “coyote” smuggling guide, but maybe enough to keep the extortion gangs that demand $100 as a “toll” from throwing him off the roof of a moving freight train.
In a month or so, when they have enough cash, Arias and Rodolfo will join other Hondurans and buy a ticket on the “Sultan of the North” bus line. It leaves for Guatemala every night, picking up U.S.-bound migrants along the way.
From Guatemala City, it’s another bus through the Peten jungle to the Mexico border. The freight trains leave from the rail head outside the Mexican town of Tenosique, on the other side; 1,000 or more migrants from all over Central America sometimes crowd onto a train’s roof.
“The trip is a test,” Rodolfo said, sitting on the front porch of his father’s small house, with Arias beside him listening closely. “You make the decision to go, and that’s it. Either God is with you, or he isn’t.”