McALLEN, Texas – By his second birthday, the men in Joshua Garcia’s life – his father and two uncles – were dead. Murdered, his mother Sara Cinfuentes believes, by gangsters or drug lords who operate with impunity in the Guatemalan hills.
Her mother, living in Florida, begged her to leave, and sent $5,000 to cover the journey. That’s when a terrified Cinfuentes scooped up her son and began a harrowing trek – by boat, by bus and on foot from the violence in Guatemala to the safety of America.
Over 20 days, smugglers shuttled her and others between homes, concealed them in trucks and even told them to run among cattle across fields. But there was no hiding from Mexican police, who ordered Cinfuentes to turn over her savings or be sent back to Guatemala. She stood paralyzed on a road watching police beat another man in the group for not giving up his money.
But she and Joshua made it, tired, poor and huddled -“yearning to breathe free,” – as Emma Lazarus wrote. And inside the air conditioned shelter run by Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas, with her son seeking comfort in her arms, she broke down recalling what she had done.
“I’m running away,” she says, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I was afraid for something bad to happen to my son in Guatemala.”
The thousands of mothers and children streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border have fled Central American regions that routinely rank among the top murder capitals of the world. Their journey, spanning thousands of miles in lands overrun by drug cartels and corruption, is hardly an easy path to freedom. Many say they don’t want to leave their home countries, but the conditions force them to choose between the lesser of two violent options. Not all who make the journey survive.Lawmakers and humanitarian groups are now at odds over defining the primary source driving the dangerous travel north. A 2013 report by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), based on interviews with more than 400 unaccompanied minors, determined that they were largely escaping recruiting attempts by violent gangs. The agency estimates that as many as 60% of the children interviewed had legitimate claims for U.S. asylum.
“Children in these countries aren’t just accidental victims of this violence,” said Nicole Boehner, a protection officer with the UNHCR, “they’re actively targeted because of their youth.”
The Obama administration is scrambling to stem the flow of minors entering the country and to process those who have already arrived. Vice President Joe Biden met with Central American leaders in recent weeks to discuss the crisis, while administration officials released public service announcements throughout the region to warn of the dangers involved in making the trip.
On Tuesday, the White House asked for more than $3.7 billion in funding to handle the challenge.
The rise in unaccompanied minors who make the journey north spiked dramatically after 2011. In the last year alone, the number of children stopped along the southwestern border increased by 99%. Those numbers are expected to rise.
“Children, especially, are easy prey for coyotes and transnational criminal organizations and they can be subjected to robbery, violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking or forced labor,” Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said in a statement last week.
The journey can oftentimes lead to a tragic ending. So far this year, border patrol agents have discovered more than 220 dead along the southwest border.
The death of an 11-year-old Guatemalan boy highlighted the worst fears of parents who choose to send their kids into danger. Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez was wearing a pair of “Angry Birds” jeans and a white rosary around his neck when his body was discovered by U.S. authorities in the Rio Grande Valley. Inside his belt buckle was a phone number for his brother in Chicago.
While the official cause of death remains unknown, Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra guessed the young boy lost his way along the unfamiliar terrain and didn’t have enough water to survive the desert sun.
“Down here finding a decomposed body … we come across them quite often,” Guerra told reporters last week. He had been leading the sheriff’s office for just over a month when they recovered the 11-year-old’s body — it was the first child migrant found under his tenure. “It’s a very dangerous journey,” he said.
The boy’s family last heard from him 25 days before his body was found just a mile shy of the nearest U.S. home along the border.Guatemala has been wracked by violence for so many generations that those leaving now are the great, great grandchildren of the first victims of the country’s civil war. More than 200,000 civilians were killed in a conflict that is so entrenched that a former dictator only went on trial for genocide last year, accused of killing and disappearing more than 1,400 Mayans during the ‘80s. And though peace treaties formally ended the wars by the mid ’90s, the legacy of bloodshed still holds strong.
Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America but its GDP per capita amounts to roughly half of that in other Latin American countries. Income inequality is rampant and more than 50% of Guatemalans live below the national poverty line. Crime in the region is so widespread that the United Nations set up a special agency called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala to disband “clandestine security organizations” that had infiltrated the country’s judicial system and kept ties with state officials.
“Five years ago, organized crime networks may have controlled neighborhoods, but now they’ve grown in such strength they control communities, they control even cities,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “They are like de facto governments in some parts of these countries.”
“A lot of things happened to us,” Cinfuentes said, recalling the previous three weeks.
She was exhausted, her clothes dirty and Joshua’s eyes downcast. He developed a rash on his back from a blanket, she thinks, during the two days they spent in custody at a detention center run by U.S. Border Patrol. Those two days marked the end of one perilous journey and the beginning of a new and unknown chapter for Cinfuentes and her son.
“When we came from Guatemala to Mexico we came on a boat with wheels on the bottom and that’s how we crossed,” she told volunteers and reporters at the shelter in McAllen.Smugglers made them walk for some distance and then split up travelers in the group. “They told us, ‘you have to take this bus and get off at a certain place’ so first we took the bus - every person on a different bus - and they brought us to a certain place. Then we took another bus and they left us someplace else.”
New guides arrived and moved them to private homes of Mexican families living along the path to Texas. Cinfeuntes said she experienced great kindness as a guest. She stayed in some homes for just a night or two and with another family for as long as a week until it was deemed safe to cross.
“After we were in the houses, they put us in a car, cars that even transport animals,” she said, with a laugh. At sunrise, they approached a Mexican military checkpoint and so the group was ordered out of the cars and moved to buses.
This was when she was confronted by Mexican police. “I am afraid for my baby because when they got us off the bus they said I had to give them a certain amount of money and that if I didn’t give it to them we had to go back, and I was already really far.” It was here where she witnessed another man beaten and where all she had gone through seemed close to crumbling.
But she paid, as did others. With the border in sight, “we had to walk or even run. We even had to be in between cows,” she said.
Safely across, Cinfuentes and others were picked up by border patrol agents. At the detention center, she was given an order to appear before an immigration judge on July 27. She will do so, she said, in Miami where her mother lives.
They have not seen one another for 10 years and Cinfuentes cried again imagining a reunion – and an introduction for Joshua and his grandmother.
“It’s really hard. It’s not just picking up and going,” Cinfuentes says. “You have to travel on mountains, get on buses, deal with the Mexican police.”
It’s a journey that she would never make again, Cinfuentes says. But now she wants “to move forward and to be more than what we were in Guatemala.”