When 5-year-old Georgina first saw her older brother and cousin descend from the bus that brought them back from Mexico, she let out a joyful scream.
But her aunt sobbed and her mother couldn’t bear to look. For them, the return of Ismael and Abraham – after just eight days en route to the United States – marked a quick and painful defeat for their family. They had mortgaged their home to pay $8,000 for a coyote to smuggle the cousins to the US.
The teens left El Salvador after gangs had repeatedly threatened them with forced recruitment outside their school. They’re from San Martin, a district east of the capital that’s home to a turf war between the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs.
“We may lose the house,” says Ismael and Abraham’s aunt, Sara Gabina Cuellar. “But we wanted them to leave,” and live, she says.
President Obama and the US Congress are deadlocked over what to do about the now 63,000 unaccompanied minors – mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – that have arrived at the US-Mexican border since October. But tens of thousands more never make it that far. Their journeys often end in Mexico, where authorities have started cracking down over the past few months as increased attention – and heightened international pressure – has focused on the waves of Central American youth migrating north.
For migrants like Ismael and Abraham, this means a rapid return to frightened and indebted families – and countries unable to keep its citizens safe.
“There is a lot of concern that in Central America, there is very little capacity to receive people being deported and repatriated,” says Geoff Thale, a Central America expert and program director for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
As a result, returned migrants are left with a dilemma: return to the same gang ridden neighborhoods and threats they were trying to escape, or make another attempt at the perilous journey north.
“We are going to try to send them again,” says Ms. Cuellar, referring to Ismael and Abraham. “They can’t stay here.”
Some 60,000 Central Americans have been deported from Mexico as of mid-July, of which 12,400 were minors. In comparison, 86,000 were deported during all of 2013, some 9,622 of them children.
Mexico’s densely-forested, 700-mile southern border with Guatemala and Belize has never been well secured. A WOLA report published in June documented several spots where the border was marked only by signs and concrete monuments. There has long been a brisk business of ferrying people and cargo across the Suchiate River, which separates southwest Guatemala from Mexico.
“Historically Mexico has been much less concerned with stopping migrants in transit,” Mr. Thale says. Though this has allowed cartel members and corrupt officials to extort migrants, Thale says, “it has not been a public security priority for [Mexico] because the perception is that they are just passing through.”
This summer Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto announced plans to tighten the country’s southern border, adding more inspection stations with scanners and biometric readers provided by the US. Mexico also increased its use of checkpoints on the principal routes used by migrants, and stepped up raids on shelters.
This month, authorities rounded up hundreds of migrants from hostels in Arriaga, Mexico, the first boarding point for “The Beast,” a train system that heads north through Central Mexico. Migrants ride atop the trains, risking injury and death. They also face threats of rape, robbery, and assault from the armed groups that stalk the trains.
“The route is dangerous,” says Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a Fulbright researcher studying child migrants in El Salvador. “But staying is sometimes equally or more dangerous.”
More than 60 percent of Salvadoran minors looking to reach the US say gangs and the threat of violence are what pushed them to leave, says Ms. Kennedy, who has interviewed some 500 returned child migrants.
In a repatriation center in San Salvador, where Kennedy has worked, many mothers and teens told the same story: They left after receiving threats from gangs. Some traveled alone, others with the aid of smugglers. Most had only a vague idea where they’d been.
In a single day this month, 159 Salvadoran migrants – 51 of them children – were repatriated to El Salvador from Mexico in six buses. This number is typical, says Mauricio Silva, a spokesman for El Salvador’s Department of Migration and Foreigners.
“There are days when we’ve had seven [buses],” Mr. Silva says.
At the repatriation center, migrants receive a traditional Salvadoran lunch of pupusas, and go through several interviews. Doctors examine the children and vaccinate them.
But experts say there’s little follow-up beyond this point, and that the repatriated migrants face the same threats they tried so desperately to escape. Families who paid smugglers thousands of dollars find their hardships compounded by debt.
Wearing bubblegum-colored lipstick, Elsie Garcia, 16, walks out of the repatriation center with her 5-year-old brother by her side. Her uncle paid a coyote $3,500 this month to bring her to the US, but she was caught in Arriaga and sent on the ten-hour bus ride home after just a week on the road.
“I am not going to let her go again because they are just going to catch her,” says Elsie’s mother, Teresa Juarez. “That money is lost.”
But the gang member whose advances she rebuffed before she was sent away still lives in her neighborhood.
While teen boys are sometimes conscripted into gangs, girls find themselves pressured to become the sex partners of gang members. Ena Lopez watched this happen to a neighborhood girl, and feared her daughter, Ivette, could suffer the same fate.
After paying a coyote $3,000, Ms. Lopez took off with Ivette, leaving her 2-year-old son behind, in the care of her parents.
“I left to try and save one child,” she says.
But the van they were riding in with four other migrants was stopped. All were sent to a detention center in Tapachula, Mexico.
Ivette, who says she’d like to be a lawyer when she grows up, spent her thirteenth birthday in the detention center with her mother. They shared a vanilla cookie in celebration.
“I am still scared for her,” says Lopez. “I am afraid they are going to ask for her next.”