The Northern Triangle Children Don’t Leave Alone: They Are Taken

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The United States estimates that 60,000 children from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries will enter the country without legal papers this year. US President Barack Obama has declared a crisis and has requested $3.7 billion to alleviate it. Why are more children leaving than before? Is Central America now more violent? Are there new laws in the United States that are attracting them? The answer is no. The real answers are given by a Salvadoran coyote, among others.

“It makes me laugh when the media says the children are alone. None of them go alone. The ‘polleros’ — guides for undocumented US-bound migrants — bring all of them. All of them have been brought. If I was in the United States illegally, would I just say to my child: ‘Come on over’? No, it’s not like that. But of course people want to have their children with them… so what do they do?” said Mr. Coyote from his house in the northern province of Chalatenango in El Salvador.

Mr. Coyote has been a coyote — another word for pollero — since 1979. He boasts that he is one of El Salvador’s first coyotes. In fact, when he began to work as a coyote, it wasn’t illegal to do so. He was even able to publish advertisements for a “safe trip to the United States” on newspaper pages, and provided the number for his office in the municipality of Cuscatancingo. He is a coyote that has seen various eras in the migratory flow, from the exodus of migrants escaping from the war, who passed through Tijuana to Los Angeles in a few hours, to the decade of the 1990s, when the construction of the wall began. And now during the past 14 years, in which the Zetas went into business and the US Border Patrol has grown to over 18,000 agents. He has seen thousands of Salvadorans leave quickly, without papers, and he continues to watch them go. Now, they are usually children.

This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here

This was the fifth time that I spoke with him, and his only request was that I not mention his name. A few days ago I told him over the phone that I did not understand the phenomenon that has been occupying the headlines of newspapers and radio and television news programs: that of the wave of child migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Around 52,000 Central Americans under 18 years of age entered the US without permission and without the company of an adult this past June. An average of 300 per day.

Mr. Coyote, the good-natured person that he is, let out a guffaw over the phone and answered: “Come over here in a little while and I will explain it to you.”

“But what has happened in recent months? The laws haven’t changed. Why now?” I asked him once I had arrived at his house.

“That’s easy, in any city a child arrives and they [the other migrants] start telling each other: so and so arrived like this and without money. Things have gotten out of control; many polleros have taken advantage of this and are still charging $7,000. It’s a great business, because to bring them [the kids] to the Mexican border with the United States, to Reynosa, for example, they are spending — with everything included, even the tax paid to the Zetas, because the Zetas charge a fee whether the person is young or old — around $2,000. Let’s say that there at the border they pay around $500 to whoever brings them over. There’s $2,500. They bring the kid to the other side. They leave him there, in the urban part of the city, and they prepare him well — they tell him to say that he came alone, that he is looking for his mom or his dad. They [the kids] have to forget that they were accompanied by a coyote, they follow directions. There is always someone watching to make sure the kid speaks with the police — even then he is not alone, there is always somebody watching to make sure they pick him up. Then he is in safe hands. As soon as the police have him, the coyote informs the family: ‘He’s in the hands of the law now; give it a little time.’ Immediately, the authorities communicate with the mother; the child always carries with him names and telephones.”

“So the price hasn’t dropped?”

“Yes, there are people that are charging less, because now that it is a generalized practice, the families know that it is easier — they are no longer willing to pay $7,000. My understanding is that some charge between $4,000 and $5,000. Once they’re in Mexico, they’ve won the battle, and once they are in the United States, with the authorities picking up the kids, everything’s in the bag. I have some friends who say that the minors are easy money. And that’s true. The best thing that can happen is that a police officer from any department detains them.

“Do the coyotes go around offering their services, or do the people go looking for them?”

“Both. The coyotes take advantage. And at the same time, someone sees the children of their neighbor and asks, ‘How did you do it?’ And so on. The other brings her children. They used to require deposits, of $4,000 or $5,000. Getting rid of the deposit has been a huge factor. It is as though one day they said: ‘We’re going to leave the border open for a day.’ Ha ha. Perhaps people would go by foot. “

Working as a coyote is an undying business largely because it feeds off of an overwhelming human necessity: the need for parents to be with their children.

* * *

Hundreds of headlines have been written about the thousands of children that have left their countries in recent months. “The violence and the maras have set off a massive exodus of minors to the US,” read the Spanish newspaper El Pais on July 7. Dozens of media organizations wrote the same headline, with their own variations. Some went even further, such as Fox News, which on July 11 claimed that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang is taking advantage of this migratory wave of children to increase their numbers in the United States and to recruit children held in US Border Patrol detention centers.

What has changed to cause tens of thousands of Central American children to flee from the violence in recent months? What turn of events has resulted in even child gang members taking advantage of this situation as part of their plans for expansion? The response appears to be nothing. Nothing new has happened, or at least it is not obvious. What has happened, according to Mr. Coyote and Ruben Zamora — who until a few weeks ago was the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States — is that many things have not changed; they have stayed the same.

Some publications have speculated about “new laws” that permit children to go free. Others have even gone so far as to say that now the laws allow children who enter the US undocumented to receive the necessary documents to stay, just because they are under 18. This, all of this, is a lie.

The legislation is the same. There is a law that requires the US Department of Homeland Security — which the Border Patrol is housed under — to turn over any undocumented child to the US Department of Health in under 72 hours. The law that requires this is the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). A minor who has reached the US alone or with a coyote is, according to the law, a probable victim of people trafficking and for this reason, should be brought before a judge so that the authorities can decide whether to grant the child asylum or deport him or her. The first time that the child sees a judge, an adult decides if they want to accept voluntary deportation or go to a second audience with a judge to request asylum — something that is granted in very few cases. An undocumented Central American child that has entered the US with a coyote or alone should go to the second audience, because then they will automatically be considered a possible candidate for asylum.

While just like in the case of adults it is unlikely they will receive asylum, unlike with adults, a child cannot remain for days or weeks in the centers of the Border Patrol known as “refrigerators” for their color and temperature. They must instead be brought to special shelters belonging to the Department of Health. Unlike an adult, a child cannot remain in these shelters for weeks or months until a judge calls him to a second audience, where a sentence will be issued. An adult normally spends that time waiting in a detention center for migrants. A child, if one of his or her parents is in the United States, is handed over to these parents — whether they are undocumented or not. The Department of Health does not request information about their migratory status before handing over the child; the government body just verifies that they are the parents. It is even common that children be delivered to their uncles or their older siblings. The law that orders all of this for a child is not new — it has existed since 2008, and it was created during the administration of George W. Bush, not under current President Barack Obama, who is the one facing the so-called “child crisis.”

So if there are no new laws encouraging the children to migrate, maybe the wave of migration is due to the fact that El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have become violent countries in recent years. This hypothesis is incorrect. We have been violent countries for years, and we have been extremely violent countries since 2008, when that law was created. In fact, if the children of El Salvador were really leaving just because of the violence, in 2009 thousands and thousands would have left.

In 2008, the year in which the US law was created, the murder rate stood at 51.7 per 100,000 residents in El Salvador. In 2009, this rate shot up: 70.9 per 100,000. The rate stood at around 65 in the following two years, and dropped to 41.2 in 2012 and to 39.6 in 2013, partly thanks to the government truce with the gangs. With the exception of 2012 and 2013, El Salvador — including in 2014 — has always seen more than eight deaths each day. Honduras was named the most violent country in the world last year by the United Nations and Guatemala occupied fifth spot, just slightly below El Salvador. And that’s not all — another variable that has remained stable is the age at which people die. According to the Salvadoran forensics institute (IML), between 2010 and this year, the worst time to be a Salvadoran if you are hoping not to get murdered has been between the ages of 15 and 24. The worst age includes some of the years when one is formally considered a minor.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Here we have been violent for much more than six months. Here we have been violent for much more than the time period during which 52,000 children left.

Many of those 52,000 children surely left because a gang was trying to recruit or kill them. However, those same children were already leaving before. They left in 2004. They left in 2006. I traveled with one of them, a Guatemalan, in 2008. I traveled in Mexico with two of them — two Salvadorans — in 2009. Those who had a death sentence hanging over their heads have always fled. More than 1,000 Salvadoran children have been detained each year by the Border Patrol since 2009. More than 3,000 were detained in 2012, and nearly 6,000 in 2013. More than 11,000 so far in 2014. And it could be that now, with this wave, more children are leaving because they think they will be murdered. All told, the data tells us that it is an optical illusion to believe that Central America’s youth have only been threatened for four months. They have been being threatened and killed for years.

The argument of the most radical slanderers, those who believe that it is a lie that small children get killed in northern Central America, is absurd. All they need to do is open a Salvadoran paper to find news like that which appeared on July 13: an 11-year-old child was kidnapped on July 11 when leaving his fourth grade class in the Felipe Soto Academic Center of Santa Cruz Michapa in the Cuscatlan province. They kidnapped him, and two days later, the police found his dismembered body buried in a sector known as El Arenal. Those same skeptical politicians could have opened the newspaper a day earlier, on July 12, and they would have discovered that two boys — 15 and 16 years of age — were killed and abandoned in a vacant lot in Tonacatepeque, San Salvador, the night before. This has been happening for years.

However, in the past six months more have left than usual. In order to try to explain this, it is worth examining the words of an official that has had to deal closely with this problem.

* * *

Ruben Zamora became the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States halfway through the administration of former President Mauricio Funes. The new government gave him a position as the representative to the United Nations. However, the person who took over his old position, Francisco Altschul, has not yet received his credentials as an ambassador, so Zamora has continued to deal with the crisis that Obama declared a couple of weeks ago.

In just one sentence, Zamora dispels the expectations of anyone looking for a definitive explanation for the departure of these thousands of children in such a short time period: “There is not a single factual explanation.”

But he has his own explanation:

“The Salvadoran community in the United States has been growing economically. While large numbers of people once lived together in a small room, now some can pay $1,000 and rent a two-bedroom house on the outskirts of a city. That’s when the mother begins to be able to bring her children over. Now more people can pay for the trip to bring them. And, of course, the maras and the violence in the region speed this process. The economic situation of some, combined with the fear that their 14-year-old daughters could be raped or recruited by gangs, leads them to bring their children over. They don’t see a way to bring them legally to the US and they see the security situation in the country as too poor for their children or for them to return to El Salvador. What option remains?”

Both the former ambassador and Mr. Coyote end their comments with a question. “People are going to want to have their kids with them. So what do they do?” asked Mr. Coyote. If the parents do not have a viable way to bring their children to the US legally, if the parents do not see the violence in the Northern Triangle as showing signs of lessening, if many of these parents no longer work as dish washers, but rather, have built their own business with years of effort, then what do they do? If neither the United States nor their home country gives them an option, a coyote will. And, as Mr. Coyote said, the parents are always going to want their children at their side. This is one of the few generalizations that comes close to being an absolute reality.

The Central American child migrants, at least the majority of these more than 52,000 child migrants that have arrived in the US this year, did not just decide one day to grab a backpack and take off. At least, they did not decide this alone. The photo that has circulated around the world of Alejandro — an eight-year-old Honduran boy — as he faces a Texas Border Patrol officer on the other side of the Bravo River, is a powerful image for the person looking for absolute and simple explanations. But migration is complex. Families look to reunite and the violence hurries this process. The headlines that blame the gangs or the violence, the texts that speak of unaccompanied children that, one day, at the age of eight, decide to go the US alone because their evil parents never sent for them, are not taking note of the fact that Central America has for many years been home to conditions that a child should flee from. Moreover, they fail to understand that the parents always want to be with their children, and that if they can, they bring them. And that to do so, they need a coyote.

“The [current situation] is a repetition,” said Zamora, “of what happened with Mexican migration. If you study Mexican migration, in distinct proportions and with less publicity and drama from the media, the same thing happened. One day, the parents started to bring their kids.”

The notion also offered up by some media organizations — which usually have never spoken with a coyote — is that the coyotes have cheated people. Cheated the multitudes. Or, in other words, that the migrants are so stupid that they believe that if their children reach the US without permission, as though by magic, they will become residents or citizens from one day to the next. Mr. Coyote knows that people from this country have been migrating for many years to the US. He knows, at his age, that nobody there believes in magic.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Smuggling

* * *

“All of these children that have entered [the US undocumented] recently are going to receive a summons from a judge, in order to have their case for asylum or deportation reviewed, but almost no one shows up for these appointments. What many do is change their address, move to another state. But what is most important for the mothers of these children is to have them there. Later they think about what they will do next. But first things first,” said Mr. Coyote as we sat in his house in Chalatenango.

Zamora had said the same thing differently. “What the parents think is: ‘well, at least I will have my child with me for one or two years.'”

The conversation with Mr. Coyote continued:

“Is it true that the children leave because they are afraid of the gangs?”

“Yes, a certain percentage, I won’t say no, but that is also an easy go-to explanation. Some, a considerable percentage, I do believe have started to have problems and believe their lives are at risk. Kids who the gangs wanted to recruit. But from there, it is the parents who decide when they are going to bring them over.”

“Have new coyotes emerged?”

“Yes, there are new ones. I have heard of some people… Here, close by in the Guarjila sector, where you never used to hear of anybody working as a coyote, there is someone in almost every district who works bringing people to the United States. They are people who have gone up there one or two times and began communicating from there. While some have thrown in the towel, others are just beginning. With an adult, it can be necessary to try three times; that’s what the contract is like. With a kid the only hard part is getting them into the United States, because Mexico is easy. Presently, the most difficult thing is to get a kid out of El Salvador, because the police are on guard. If they catch you leaving with a kid and it’s not your child, that’s a big deal. Guatemala will follow you too. Mexico just raises the price. In Mexico, in any case, the bottleneck is the south. From the Federal District northwards, everything is a breeze. Sometimes the passage is free of hassle — it is only necessary to keep handing over money. It’s there at the northern border that is tough: they cross children over with Puerto Rican or Dominican papers. They’re not going to make a child walk through the whole desert. They go through the shortest points of passage. Places where whole groups cannot get through, just two people. You see the street there, and on the other side is the United States. There is a shopping mall, workshops, something like that. The kid just has to cross, somebody in a car picks him up and brings him somewhere else to hide him. They just bring a couple kids, not a group. Otherwise somebody could begin pointing fingers. ‘He charged more, he was more difficult.’ Now there are people that charge $4,000 or $5,000 for a child.”

* * *

“The Salvadoran coyote told me it would cost $7,000 to bring my child to the house in Maryland, and $4,500 to bring him to the border and make sure he turned himself over to the police in the United States,” said Sandra over the phone.

Sandra is Salvadoran, from La Union, and is slightly over 40 years old. She left 11 years ago for the United States as an undocumented migrant. She no longer has Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and for this reason, she remains undocumented. She works, as an undocumented migrant, at a laundromat. Two years ago, she managed to bring her oldest daughter, who is 15, and last month, amidst this wave of children who have been brought to the US, she tried to bring her youngest son, who is 12, and who she had not seen for the duration of the 11 years she had been there. She said she talks to him three times a week, that she is saving up to send him money and that she doesn’t have the option of traveling to El Salvador as a “tourist.” Sandra, remember, is undocumented. Her daughter is too, and her son would be as well, if he hadn’t been detained in southern Mexico a month ago while trying to reach Maryland. They deported him to El Salvador. Sandra decided to get her son out of El Salvador for a variety of reasons, which she shared with me by telephone:

“Where we lived in the La Union is really dangerous. They threatened the neighbors — two boys and their mother. Extortion, death. And they are particularly messing with those who have family here. And they are getting close to my son. I would perhaps go there if I saw that life there was different, but as things are right now, people aren’t even visit there… That’s why I tried to bring my son here instead.”

Returning to El Salvador is not something on the horizon for Sandra, but leaving completely is. Tearing up all her roots from this place and taking them over there so that they can grow without permission.

Because she knows this is what is on offer for her children: to grow up without permission.

“Some people say the coyotes trick you, that they say your children will be legal if they enter [the US] in these months,” I said to Sandra.

“I already knew that they wouldn’t give them papers. The coyote was very clear. I also know that they would call from a court later. I have spent 11 years here; I am not going to believe papers are just given away,” she said.

She didn’t believe in free papers, but she felt trapped, and opted to pay a coyote the $4,500, the least expensive option. And she would do it again, because nothing that caused her to do it a month ago seems like it’s going to change. For those who want to hear Sandra’s response:

“Sandra, would you try to bring your son over again?”


* * *

Right now there is even a promotion, the coyotes are offering a sales price, like that which Sandra opted for. This is because word got out that it was possible. It is hard to believe that word of mouth works so well at spreading news that it has even forced the president of the United States to give press conferences and request billions of dollars to alleviate the crisis. But according to Mr. Coyote, former ambassador Zamora and Oscar Chacon — the director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities in the United States — it is possible. The word of mouth diffusion between Central American communities there is powerful, they believe. All of this could have begun with one mother who wanted to have her child at her side, and another mother who saw her, and then another, and then a father, and then another mother, and then 52,000.

The word spread rapidly partly thanks to the fact that the messengers — the coyotes — have spent decades playing an important role for the migrant community. A coyote from Ahuachapan told me that he had heard the rumor two months ago and that since then he had seen colleagues bring at least 16 children just from one municipality in Ahuachapan. That same coyote said that the Guatemalan coyotes were even recruiting Salvadoran “juntadores” to bring children over from there. A “juntador” is someone who attracts the client and brings him or her to the coyote. The juntador usually receives $200 per migrant. This coyote said that just from the municipality where he was based — Candelaria de la Frontera in Santa Ana — three children had left, including an 11-year-old gang member. “Who knows what problem he had with the gang, but they wanted to kill him,” said the coyote.

A month ago, in Guatemala, the taxi driver who picked me up from the bus station in the capital told me that that week he could not work for me, because he had to make two trips to the Salvadoran border, to bring two groups of four kids who were travelling with an adult relative and were headed to the US. The Guatemalan coyote crossed over into El Salvador via a “punto ciego” — an unmonitored border crossing — picked up the migrants, brought them back over the same border crossing and put them in the taxi on the Guatemalan side. The taxi driver, a week prior to my arrival, had already made two other trips for the same coyote, for another six children. One taxi driver, one coyote and 14 children in just two weeks. The business is booming for everyone. It is well known that when governments do not know how to resolve a situation, the criminal world will always have an option to offer.

However, Mr. Coyote believes that this boom for the coyotes will end badly.

* * *

“Until now, it has been a good movement for the coyotes. But the hit is going to come — I can tell you that with total confidence. Maribel Ponte said so clearly on the news… Or what’s her name?” said the coyote.

“Mari Carmen Aponte, the US ambassador in El Salvador?”

“Her. She said that crime had to be addressed. That they are going to bring even the photos of the coyotes and the declarations of the head of the household and of the child. And, if possible, receipts showing the money was sent — some coyotes make the mistake of giving out receipts. It could even happen that the United States will try to bring the polleros over there. If the rest realize that two or three coyotes were brought there… I don’t think that too many will want to continue [in the business]. Because I don’t think that the US is going to say: in order to keep more kids from coming, we are going to invest money so that these kids go to school, study and so that it is no longer so ugly over there. They aren’t going to do that. It is easier to bring a few coyotes over [and put them in prison]. Some lawyers have already recommended this to the families. There are special visas to stay there. It is not permanent, it is temporary, for those that collaborate in a case with the justice system. They are going to give legal status to many of these kids, but they are going to be protected witnesses, and they are not going to go after these coyotes here — they are going to go after them in the United States. All of the information is going to come from there: this guy brought this kid and that guy brought that kid. Because the head of household, with the objective that they let his kid stay, is going to provide it.”

It is marvelous to hear a coyote giving validation to declarations of a US ambassador while sitting on a patio in Chalatenango. It is even crazier to think that his analysis could be correct. The former Salvadoran ambassador Zamora believes that “this pursuit of coyotes is going to begin,” more than anything because the judges that hear the deportation cases are administrative judges, attached to the Executive branch. That is to say, they respond to the political strategy of the president in power, and this president has made it very clear that what he wants to do is to deport the Central American kids more quickly and attack the coyotes. Zamora, furthermore, confirmed that “the Salvadoran government has ordered the State bodies (the Attorney General’s Office and the police) to increase their pursuit of the coyotes.”

The United States is set on an immediate solution and, Zamora believes, “immediate options do not exist,” since in an immediate sense the problem can only be “reduced, not eliminated.” To be clear, when we say immediate we refer to extraditing a certain number of coyotes or putting more patrolmen on the border. When Zamora says something “lasting” he refers “to the creation of decent employment opportunities.”

However, the United States has already made its position clear. In fact, the White House spoke last week. They published a statement explaining what they would use the $3.7 billion that President Obama has requested to resolve the crisis for. In sum: of all those millions, the majority is going to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health, and will be focused on the detention and deportation of migrants. Of all those millions, 295 are destined for the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to better control their borders and to create the conditions that will allow them to address the causes of migration. If we follow the logic that budgets are the most practical demonstration of the vision of a government, the government of the United States appears to believe that in terms of the migration of Central American children, it has about an eight percent responsibility. Or, said another way, the US believes that improving Central America is only eight percent of the solution.

* * *

The fact is that going into the third week in June this year, nearly 52,000 children had left the three most violent countries in Central America. The fact is that, as Mr. Coyote said, “a ton of people are going to end up there who since they were children have been fugitives because they never went in front of a judge.” The facts — not those of this particular crisis, but rather of migration in general — have already been stated by Mr. Coyote:

“Of course people want to have their kids with them… So what do they do?”

*This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Jimmy Alvarado contributed reporting to this piece. 

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