| Noe Leiva |
TEGUCIGALPA (AFP) – Cristian remembers the day his two best friends told him they were going to attempt a dangerous trip alone from Honduras to the United States to escape gang violence ravaging their country.
“They asked me to keep it a secret,” the 16-year-old said of his pals Alexander and Jairo.
“They did not have money to pay a trafficker, but they were being threatened by the Mara Salvatrucha,” Cristian told AFP, referring to one of the country’s feared gangs.
Mara Salvatrucha and another gang, called Barrio 18, forcibly recruit many youths in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Cristian, a tall thin boy with curly hair, says his buddies left on July 25.
ABOVE: Children play during a programme of the non-governmental organisation called Compartir, in Tegucigalpa on August 29. Honduran children migrate illegally to the US to prevent being recruited by youth gangs
“It is sad,” he said, “because they were told that there (in the US), they would have everything, and they fell for it.”
“Here, they make children sell drugs. The gang members extort. They take youths and tell them if they don’t sell drugs, they will kill them. That is why they left, out of fear of the gangs,” he said.
Cristian said he has escaped the crosshairs of the gangs because he lives “like a prisoner” – rushing from home to school and then to the headquarters of a non-governmental organisation called Compartir (Share), without stopping along the street.
He is working hard to learn how to use a soldering iron at Compartir, which for 23 years has been helping kids in slum areas near the capital Tegucigalpa.
Dreaming of a better future, Alexander and Jairo left for the United States just as President Barack Obama was meeting at the White House with counterparts Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador and Otto Perez of Guatemala to ask them to discourage illegal immigration, mainly by children.
The massive flight of kids from those three countries, travelling without adults as they flee poverty and gang violence, reached crisis level in the rich neighbour to the north.
The US Border Patrol says that between October 2013 and August of this year, 61,581 unaccompanied minors crossed the border from Mexico, enduring a 1,500-kilometre (900-mile) trek during which they braved criminal gangs that kill, rape and extort, especially in Mexico.
Cristian, who lives with his parents in Villanueva, a poor hillside district of Tegucigalpa, hopes not to have to leave the country like his friends did.
He says he wants to become a soldier and carry a gun to protect himself and the children of his neighbourhood from the street gangs.
Authorities say they traffic in weapons and drugs, carry out killings for pay, and rob and extort money from merchants, business people, drivers and families.
Honduras is plagued by runaway crime blamed on the drug traffickers and the street gangs.
It has the world’s highest murder rate – 79 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Violence Observatory at the National University.
The US NGO Casa Alianza says it has recorded 9,641 people under age 23 killed in Honduras since 1998.
In six months of government under Hernandez, who took power in January, 527 youths have been killed. In 79 per cent of those cases, the perpetrator or perpetrators are unknown.
“Here I have learned things that otherwise I never would have learned in my life,” Cristian said as he worked at a rudimentary workshop at Compartir.
Nearby, small kids read stories in a library and a teacher holds a class for six female students in a computer room.
“Creating opportunities is what can keep children from emigrating,” said Rosa Maria Nieto, director of Compartir.
The United States has similar projects in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that are called “Alcance”, through the Agency for International Development.
Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to boost the number of border agents and immigration judges.
But Yadira Sauceda, administrator of Compartir, said “migration is not going to stop if the causes of it are not addressed.”
Cristian misses his two friends.
“I have heard nothing about them since they left. If they are deported and come back, they run the danger of being killed,” he said.