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It’s not just violence Central Americans headed for the U.S. are fleeing

9 Mar

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Cesar Lara has a clear explanation for the flood of Central Americans pouring into the United States.

Some flee the raging violence caused by gangs and drug cartels. “You see terrible things from the time you’re a child,” the 20-year-old said. Some flee because they can’t find work. Lara only got his job at a Pollo Campero fast-food restaurant through help from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

As for those who stay behind and make things work? “We’re the minority,” Lara said.

For the past three years, U.S. politicians have argued over what to do about nearly 100,000 unaccompanied minors and tens of thousands of families who surged to the southwest border from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

On one side are politicians who say they are fleeing horrific violence and should be treated as refugees. On the other are those who say the migrants are just looking for better jobs and should be sent back.

A visit to this violence-riddled region shows the facts fall in the middle.

Many Central Americans take advantage of U.S. immigration laws that allow minors to enter the country and stay while their immigration cases are resolved. Smugglers advertise that. Relatives in the U.S. send the same message. And many go to the U.S. coached on how to qualify for refugee status.

“They’re leaving with a note taped to them that says they’re being persecuted and they fear for their life,” said Elda Tobar Ortiz, executive director of El Salvador’s Institute for the Development of Children and Teenagers.

She said Salvadoran officials have to investigate those claims when children are deported back to El Salvador to ensure that they’re not returning to dangerous neighborhoods or violent relatives. But it’s difficult to find a place in this country that isn’t wracked with danger.

It wasn’t always like that. Central America used to be a pass-through for drugs headed north to the U.S., and for guns and money headed back south. A decade ago, gang violence rarely escalated beyond the occasional fist fight, said Eduardo Lanza, deputy commander of a U.S.-trained police unit in Honduras known as Los Tigres.

“At first, it was like a kid’s game,” he said. “‘You’re in my neighborhood’ or ‘You’re talking to my girlfriend.'”

Then droves of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans in violent U.S. gangs started getting deported back home, where they brought the vicious tactics they learned with them, say police and prosecutors.  And international drug cartels started selling more here, prompting bloody battles with local gangs for control of territory and trade.

“That’s created a mortal fight between drug traffickers here,” said Orlin Cerrato, director of intelligence for the Honduran National Police. “And it’s not like there’s some professional strategy to do that. They just kill each other.”

Danny Pacheco has seen the effects of that evolution firsthand. The evangelical pastor runs a church out of a small house in a dangerous neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. Several years ago, a local gang called Los Ponces took over a small grocery store across from his church.

The store owner refused to pay the “war tax” that most local businesses are forced to pay to the gang in charge, so the gang killed him. When his family was at the funeral a few days later, gang members swarmed the building and took control for good.

When the police refused to step into the dispute, the gang established what is known as a casa loca — a “crazy house,” where members drink, do drugs, murder and maim. One by one, neighbors left. Unable to find anyone willing to buy their houses, Pacheco said they sold what they could and fled to the U.S.

“There was a complete lack of control,” Pacheco said. “It reached a point were we’d have two, three murders a night.”

That all changed when the gang members went a step too far: They kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed a 13-year-old girl from the neighborhood. Honduran police finally intervened and discovered the girl’s body buried in the backyard.

Pacheco, working with Honduran and U.S. officials, reclaimed the building and turned it into what he calls a casa de esperanza — a “house of hope.” He said happy endings like that are rare in his country, which is why so many people flee to the U.S.

“We’re in the eye of the hurricane,” he said.

Those brave enough to stay must confront dismal economic prospects. María Teresa Mejía, 25, from the small town of San Vicente, El Salvador, has done everything possible to find a job. She is months away from graduating with a university degree and is getting additional certification in computer skills through a program funded by Microsoft.

Mejía still worries about finding a job and assumes she’ll have to move to the capital, San Salvador. Even there, companies maintain wait lists for jobs already filled, she said.

“I like it here. I want to live here. I’m going to try,” said Mejia, whose mother moved to New York City 15 years ago. “But it’s hard. It’s very hard.”