WORCESTER, Mass./PHOENIX, Ariz., Dec 22 (Reuters) - Diego
Canil Ordonez was just 16 years old when he realized he needed
to get out of Guatemala after gang members arrived at the store
where he worked to shake down his boss for money.
His boss didn't show up for work the next day, but the gang
members did. They demanded cash from Canil Ordonez, who had seen
his job at the store as a step up after spending years shining
shoes to support his family, starting at age 9.
"They took me out of the store, and they took the money and
they beat me up," Canil Ordonez, now 21, recounted in a recent
interview at a social service center in Worcester,
Massachusetts. "They were following me everywhere."
Fearing for his life, Canil Ordonez joined the ranks of a
growing number of children from Central America to risk all on a
hazardous journey to the United States, driven in part by
widespread gang violence and grinding poverty.
During a harrowing trek across Mexico, his traveling
companion, an 18-year-old male, was briefly kidnapped and held
for ransom. The journey ended when the pair surrendered to
immigration authorities in Texas; Canil Ordonez's friend could
no longer walk bec a use of injuries to his feet.
The number of such young migrants taken into custody by U.S.
officials has risen dramatically in the past year, and while
most are sent home, those who are fleeing abusive parents or
gang-dominated communities can be granted refugee status, an
October report from the Women's Refugee Commission found. The
commission is a part of the International Rescue Committee, a
nongovernmental organization founded in 1933 and based in the
Some 13,625 such children were taken into custody and
referred to children's services in the 12 months that ended in
September, according to updated figures the commission provided
to Reuters. That marks a sharp rise from the roughly 6,000 to
8,000 they served in each of the prior five years.
DESPITE PERILS, WOULD DO IT AGAIN
Most of these children come from Guatemala, Honduras and El
Salvador, the study found. They are fleeing street gangs such as
MS-13, which has been accused of human trafficking, kidnapping,
rape and murder, as well as crushing poverty, it said.
Central American children are caught between gang members
who threaten to kill those who will not join their ranks and
police who assume they already are gang-affiliated, the study
Most of the 151 people - 129 boys and 22 girls - interviewed
by the researchers of the report, titled "Forced from Home: The
Lost Boys and Girls of Central America," said they would make
the dangerous trek again rather than remain in their homelands.
"These children exhibited both an urgent need to escape and
an incredible will to survive," the report said. "Until
conditions for children in these countries change substantially,
it is expected that this trend will become the new norm."
The rise in arrivals over the past year comes as the overall
number of arrests on the U.S. border with Mexico is at its
lowest level since the early 1970s. A U.S. Customs and Border
Protection official disagreed with the report's conclusion,
saying the surge may not represent a long-term trend.
"This increase, however, is not inconsistent with historic
migration trends and patterns, which are cyclical and vary month
by month over a year," said the official, who declined to have
his name published citing department policy.
KIDNAPPED BY THE CARTELS
The journey poses a host of dangers all its own, according
to the report and Reuters interviews with five young men who
made the illegal trip as minors. Many migrants travel across
Mexico atop freight trains, with the constant risk of falling.
They are also easy targets for robberies and kidnappings.
Franklin Chavarria was kidnapped and held for ransom by
members of the violent Zetas drug cartel in Mexico when he was
16 years old and making his second attempt to enter the United
"The Zetas are dangerous. They want money, and they want to
know if you have family in the States who can pay," Chavarria,
now 20, said in an interview in Phoenix, Arizona.
"After five days I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?
What's happening? What are they thinking?' I decided to get out
before something bad happened," he said, adding that he managed
to escape and keep going.
U.S. officials launched a public awareness campaign in Latin
American media this month aimed at dissuading unaccompanied
children from attempting the trip.
Videos, posters, radio spots and movie trailers are to run
through March to illustrate the perils from "the perspective of
grieving loved ones left behind," Customs and Border Patrol said
in a news release.
'MORE AND MORE TRAUMATIZED'
Chavarria, who is originally from Honduras, now lives with a
foster family in Arizona and attends high school. Canil Ordonez
lives with a foster family in Connecticut and attends community
college. Both now have green cards that make them legal
permanent residents of the United States.
Their stories are typical. Many of the children granted
refugee status are put in the care of Lutheran Social Services
and Catholic Charities USA, who find foster families around the
nation to care for them, lawyers to help seek citizenship and
counselors to address the trauma many have experienced.
"Over the years, I've seen children coming who are more and
more troubled, more and more traumatized," said Mary
Bartholomew, a senior program manager at Lutheran Social
Services in Worcester, who has been working with unaccompanied
immigrant children for nearly a decade.
"Many of them have seen siblings murdered, many of them are
pursued for gang membership ... many of them feel the pressure
to join because some other family member is going to be harmed
besides themselves," she said.
Two gang-related fears drive many young people to flee their
countries: the risk of becoming a victim of violence or, for
some, being forced to commit violent acts to survive.
"Those guys, they make you to do things that you don't want
to do," said Selvin Munoz, now 23 and living in Worcester, who
fled Honduras at age 16. "You're trying to be someone in life,
but you can't, unless you join them selling drugs, killing
people. And you don't want to do that. You want to be a better
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther)