Child migrant crisis: Churches, aid workers on front lines in Central America

The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras meet with President Obama on the Central American crisis today. While their focus is often police and military solutions, others are seeking ways for kids to work or attend school without fear of being killed.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Immigrants run to jump on a train during their journey toward the US-Mexico border, in Ixtepec, Mexico, July 12, 2014.

One afternoon earlier this month, members of a street gang grabbed 10-year-old David Orellana as he walked home from school in a rural district east of this capital city.

The boy’s body was found a day later, decapitated and dismembered. His school uniform was folded neatly alongside him.

Police say that the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, street gang likely murdered the second-grader because, though he lived on their turf, his school was located in rival Barrio 18 gang territory.

According to local news reports, David’s parents, who live in the United States, had feared for his safety and wanted him and his sister to join them there. His sister went north, but David refused to abandon his grandmother in El Salvador.

Gang violence is one of the many factors driving the mass migration of children from Central America in recent years. Since October 2013, some 57,000 minors—mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which together make up the region’s Northern Triangle — have crossed into the southwest United States. That number is projected to grow to more than 90,000 by the end of the year. The children often make the dangerous journey with the help of smugglers known as coyotes, and in fiscal year 2013, about 39,000 children were apprehended at the US-Mexican border, according to the Pew Research Center.

The young migrants, all under the age of 18, have strained shelters in the US and sparked heated debates about how to deal with the influx of migrants and who is to blame for the crisis. So far, the US and some Central American countries have launched  education campaigns to inform potential migrants of the dangers of traveling through Mexico and into the US illegally, and President Obama is asking Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to tackle the influx. Today, presidents from the Northern Triangle nations meet with President Obama at the White House to discuss potential solutions.

“We can’t change this [crisis] simply with a campaign saying to people: don’t send your children,” says Cesar Rios, executive director of the Salvadoran Institute For Migrants. “Because we are going to have many Davids, many kids who will die.”

Regional political campaigns center on curbing gang violence as the solution to emigration, but in practice this tends to mean boosting police and military presence on the streets. As a result, nongovernmental organizations and churches in Central America are often left focusing on broader social issues, running programs that aim to curb the vicious cycle of violence and poverty plaguing many communities here. 

In El Salvador, the groups try everything from the practical —job training, sports, after-school activities, and psychological intervention—to the radical, which includes physically removing children from their homes. One private school, which administrators asked not be named for fear of gangs, has students from gang-controlled neighborhoods placed with relatives in other parts of town, so that they need not return to their former neighborhoods on weekends. During the school week, at-risk students bunk at the citadel-like school.

“Gang members don’t have to recruit,” says Giuliano Perseu of SolucionES, a violence-prevention effort composed of five Salvadoran NGOs that is partly funded by the US Agency for International Development. “They just wait for the kids to get close.” 

Prisoners in own homes

On a recent Friday, 50 teenagers and young adults pack a sweltering meeting hall for initiation into a program called “Preparing Me For My First Employment,” which is part of SolucionES. The program aims to build job and life skills during a four-month course, after which participants can apply for work with companies in the textile sector. During the ceremony, Katharine Andrade, program manager of Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador, asks everyone to describe their fears about participating in the program.

Silence and awkward shuffling ensues. Finally, a young man in a black button-down shirt speaks up, saying the hardest part is leaving his house each day.

“At times, as young people, we fear the violence and delinquency, and we feel it’s better to be at home,” he says.

Ms. Andrade and others applaud him. “I have spoken to hundreds of young people that live locked inside their houses,” she says. “You have come here, and just so you know, that is a big step.”

All at the seminar belong to a generation called NiNis, a nickname derived from the Spanish term “ni estudian ni trabajan,” meaning that they neither study nor work. About a quarter of El Salvador’s 1.8 million young people fall into this category, according to a 2013 study by the International Labour Organization.

Before joining the program, 22-year-old Denis Martinez was doing little more than drugs. When the program’s coordinators convinced him to sign up, he was high.

But at the job training meeting, he stands before the group and lets out a deep sigh of relief.

“I believe I was one of those kids about to fall,” he says. “Thanks for giving me another opportunity.”

SolucionES, which began two years ago, has a $42 million budget, with $20 million coming from USAID and the rest from private donors. The program is in 20 neighborhoods, with plans to expand to 50 in the coming years.

Jose Contreras, the mayor of Ciudad Arce, a municipality that has benefited from SolucionES’s work, says that El Salvador’s government needs to launch similar programs on a broader scale.

“The young people leave because they feel they don’t have opportunities, they feel marginalized and are afraid,” Mr. Contreras says.

Murders have soared to 2,098 so far this year, up from 1,235 killings in the same period in 2013. A controversial gang truce, credited with slashing murders, has come undone.

'The ones that have stayed'

One Catholic cleric who works in youth development in some of El Salvador’s most dangerous neighborhoods says little can be done in areas controlled by gangs.

The priest, who asks not to be named for safety reasons, mentions a San Salvador public school where 500 students abandoned classes after receiving death threats. The school lies in territory contested by MS-13 and Barrio 18 cells. Underemployment in El Salvador hovers around 43 percent. Without an education or job skills, Salvadorans have little hope of competing for what scare opportunities exist.

Though it’s a dangerous trek – with children facing not only exhaustion and hunger, but the possibility of being robbed, abandoned, raped, or even killed – families will continue to take the risk and send their children to the US, the priest says.

“There is no bigger danger for a child than living here,” he says. “The ones that have stayed, it’s because they don’t have any possibility of leaving.”

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