Violence, Main Motor of Child Migration in El Salvador

Niños migrantes deportados de México
Migrant Children Deported to Mexico

Susana (name changed to protect her identity) will have try again to make the journey to the United States with her son Daniel, 16. Both left everything they had in El Salvador to escape because a gang threatened to kill the boy for refusing to be a gang member. 

Daniel is one of the statistics. El Salvador’s Migration Office reports that from Jan. 1, 2014 to now 2,167 children and adolescents were deported from Mexico in their attempt to reach the border between that country and the United States. 

“It’s hard to leave everything for the situation …” Susana says haltingly. The woman left the department of La Libertad, on coast south of San Salvador in late June to save the life of her son and rejoin his father, who lives in Los Angeles, California. 

Susana had a small business that sold local seafood to restaurants and cafes in the area. She lived near ​​San Diego beach with her son.

A couple of months ago, Daniel said that gang members hounded him and followed him as he left school and warned that he should join the gang if he didn’t want trouble. But at first, the young man said he didn’t take the warnings seriously. 

“Everything started getting bad then. We have never bothered anybody. I’ve been working and trying to raise my son and I didn’t imagine that we would have problems when all we were doing was trying to get ahead,” continued Susan, wiping her tears and hugging her son. 


The persecution and pressure to join the gang worse, Daniel recalls with a faraway gaze. When he refused the gang gave him an ultimatum. “They told me they were going to kill me,” he told Americas Program.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came the day the gang came to the house where Susana and Daniel lived to make sure he understood they were serious about the death threat. The mother said that then she knew they had to leave, because her son’s life was in danger. The warning was no game.

Susana spoke with her husband living in the U.S. and they agreed it was best to flee El Salvador immediately to save the life of their son. Her husband sent the money so that she and Daniel could leave as soon as possible for the United States. 


NIÑOS MIGRANTES Repatriados de Mexico OM
Photo courtesy of Oscar Machon, photojournalist El Salvador: Child migrants returning to Honduras

“We left alone because the person who was waiting for us was in Mexico,” she explained. My husband talked to this person and he said that once over the border my boy would told have everything settled because due to the threats and persecution against him he could seek asylum in the U.S. and the authorities would let him stay with his dad,” Susana stated.

However, the trip for Susana and Daniel ended before even getting close to the border between Mexico and the United States. They were arrested in Puebla, at a police checkpoint, and sent to a shelter in the southern border city of Tapachula. Then they were deported to El Salvador. 


Susana says they will wait a short time to try again to get to Los Angeles. She believes this is the only way to safeguard her child, protect both their lives and meet up again with her husband, who left El Salvador more than ten years ago, seeking a better life for his family.

She’s not the only one who has the idea that there is an easy legal solution for children crossing the border into the United States. Several parents interviewed while waiting for their children who had been deported outside the Directorate for Attention to Migrants, believe that children’s legal situation is resolved in the U.S. by the fact that they are minors. These parents claimed that the coyotes sent their children with had explained to them that migrant children are welcomed by U.S. laws once they reached U.S. soil.

“That’s how it is … for children the situation is different because the authorities over there (USA) take into account that they are children. Miss, if it weren’t the case, we wouldn’t take the risk of leaving with them or of sending the children with other people,” José said, as he waited for his nephew who had also been deported. 


Authorities and NGOs launch “awareness” campaigns

NIÑOS MIGRANTES Repatriados de Mexico OM4Parents who choose to send their children to the United States with coyotes pay between $3,000 and $ 3,500 for the trip. Usually parents pay half the money in El Salvador before starting the journey and the other half when they receive the child in the United States.

The Director of Immigration in El Salvador, Hector Rodriguez, told the media that in recent months the number of parents who arranged the journey for children and the flow of children leaving the country, legally or illegal, have increased considerably.

According to some migration data from El Salvador, 30% of children traveling to the United States illegally is from San Salvador, the capital and 50% from rural and urban areas in the departments of San Miguel and Morazán, located to the east of the country. 


With the growing problem, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, announced that the government will launch a campaign in the coming weeks to raise awareness among parents about the real costs and risks to children who are sent with human smugglers to the United States. 


“Parents should be aware of the danger. Children suffer, girls are raped–every family should know the real situation when children are sent illegally to the United States,” said the president said during an event held with poor communities in the Salvadoran capital.

Last week, the mayor of San Salvador along with UNICEF, Democratic Vision, Sigma Alpha Landa Foundation and some private universities launched the “Dreams or Nightmares–pain knows no borders ” campaign to talk to the kids about the risks of this type of trips.

According to the campaign organizers, they hope to generate reflection so children and young people do not leave the country and instead seek opportunities in the place they were born. The outreach campaign visits schools and communities in the capital to give informative talks about the risks of traveling illegally to the United States in the hands of coyotes. 

“We have to first raise awareness among children and young people not to leave El Salvador. They have to take care of the most precious thing, which is life and not allow that to be put in the hands of coyotes who lie to say that you get citizenship automatically when you reach the United States, “said Gabriela Carias Sigma Alpha Foundation Landa.

But some wonder aloud if the propaganda will help. The president of the Salvadoran Institute for Migrants (INSAMI) and former government official, Leonel Flores, told the Americas Program that awareness campaigns such as that recently launched by the government and the authorities of Salvadoran Foreign Ministry, are not enough. 


Flores believes you have to combat the real causes of child migration, such as violence. According to the INSAMI six out of ten migrant children have been forced to leave their country by violence. 

“This action (the campaigns) is important, but minimal faced with all that has to be done to address the problem of migration of children traveling without documents to the United States. 


“As long as you do not combat the actual causes and make structural economic, social and political changes in the countries of origin, and inequality grows, there will be no border to stop those seeking to feed their children or those looking to flee violence,” he said. 


Flores, a migrant Salvadoran who finished medical school in the United States, considers the importance of this type of campaign lies in informing parents and the children themselves about the risks and dangers to children on the path known as “Ruta del Migrante”. 


According to Flores, the U.S. should adopt “comprehensive” immigration reform as soon as possible, since long before this crisis, Latin American migrants and over 2.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States have been productive agents and development in the North American country. 


“America must once and for all pass comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible. It has been shown that migrants are agents of productivity when migration is orderly. This must be declared a regional humanitarian crisis and international treaties must be modified to protect unaccompanied minors who are detained on the road or on the border, Flores said. 


Flores said that the main objective that these international treaties should have should be the protection of the rights of children and adolescents to ensure that immigration controls, detention centers or shelters recognize the human rights of children and respect for their condition of vulnerability. 


Death on the both sides 


While El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras seek to create awareness among parents with the idea of ​​sending their children to the United States illegally with coyotes, the problem of child migration is already taking lives. 

Gilberto Ramos Francisco Jimenez, 11 is the first fatality reported to the authorities since the crisis. The boy, originally from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, died in early July, shortly after crossing the border from Mexico and the United States. 

His body was found by Border Patrol agents from McAllen, Texas. According to information provided by the Foreign Ministry of Guatemala, the child died several days before authorities found his body and presumably was due to heat stroke and dehydration.

consulado de guatemala
Gilberto father showing his picture. Photo: Consulate of Guatemala

Gilberto left his home a month ago. His father told authorities he paid $ 2,500 for his child to make the journey and join his brother who lives in Chicago. The boy was identified when border authorities called the telephone number found in the waistband of his pants. 

After the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry contacted the brother in Chicago, the father recognized the clothes his son was wearing when he left Guatemala in the photographs: an “Angry Birds” t-shirt, trousers, and black leather boots. Gilberto’s body was released to his parents on Friday in Guatemala. 


Less well known internationally, the death of a ten-year old boy shocked Salvadorans last Saturday. The body of David O. was found partially buried in a wooded area near his home in the department of Cabañas located north of San Salvador. 


The child’s parents have resided in the United States for several years and planned to send for their son later this year due to the violence. David lived in a rural area of ​​the department, and spent his time at school, raising cattle and farming. Few people dared attend his funeral for fear of gang retaliation.

Shortly after authorities found the body of the child is the news spread like wildfire. According to the first version of the National Civil Police (PNC), David lived in an area dominated by the MS 13 gang members and went to school in a zone held by Barrio 18, eternal rival of the Salvatruchos (adjective with which members of the MS is known 13).

Local police said that the mere fact of living in two territories controlled by rival gangs is enough for the gang to suspect that all locals are rivals, collaborators or informants. The police report says that David had no criminal record, nor was profiled as a gang member.

The ten year-old boy was kidnapped Friday. The grandmother told the Salvadoran authorities that shortly before the sunset he went out to buy tortillas. She became concerned when night came and her grandson did not return. She told the police that she went out with other family members to look for the boy but could not find him. The next day one of the family members who participated in the search returned to a place where the night before he saw several subjects digging a hole in the ground and found the body of the child. 


According to the police report, the boy was stabbed and tortured. Then the murderers beheaded and dismembered his body to bury. This barbaric practice is common in the crimes committed by the MS 13 gang, police said locality. 


The little boy’s trip to the United States had been postponed once, but both his parents and the rest of his family thought that the family would be reunited this year when David finally joined them in the U.S.

First Salvadoran children deported from U.S. Arrive

The first group of deported Salvadoran children arrived on a private jet, with their mothers and other women from New Mexico. The U.S. Embassy in El Salvador today confirmed the deportation of four Salvadoran children, their mothers and 22 women. All were arrested while crossing the border from Mexico, with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE acronym). 

According to information provided by the embassy, ​​the women and children who were deported were held in the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, after being captured. These four children are the first deported from U.S. soil since US and Central American authorities warned of the immigration crisis on the border between Mexico and the United States.

With the deportations, the Salvadoran Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday afternoon that Salvadoran President, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, will meet with President Barack Obama and the leaders of Guatemala, Otto Perez, and Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández. The presidents will meet on the July 25 with President Obama to address the issue of migrant children and the situation of the immigration crisis.

Carmen Rodriguez is a reporter for El Salvador. Collaborate with the Americas Program

Photos: Oscar Machon, Salvadoran photojournalist



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