Gender and Migration

“They Said We Would Pay With Our Lives”

As Central American gangs increasingly target children for violence and sexual assault, more unaccompanied minors are heading to the United States.

A fog slowly lifts over the Rio Grande which forms the U.S.-Mexico border on December 10, 2015 near La Grulla, Texas.

A fog lifts over the Rio Grande, which forms the U.S.-Mexico border, near La Grulla, Texas.

John Moore/Getty Images

This story was produced through a partnership between Slate and the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Julia was not yet a teenager when members of Mara Salvatrucha in her small hometown in central El Salvador began to threaten her with sexual assault. Her neighborhood had always felt quiet and safe, she said. But things started to change when she entered fourth grade and her classmates began to join the gang, which is also known as MS-13. Soon, gang members were attempting to recruit her cousin, who was the same age as Julia, and her brother, who was a year older.

Activities like going to school and playing in the nearby park became life-threatening. On the way to school, she passed houses that were plastered with “MS” tags and riddled with bullet holes. At night, the once-peaceful home she shared with her grandmother, brother, and cousin was her only refuge from the perpetual gunshots and the dozens of gang members who had flooded the neighborhood.

One morning in May 2013, Julia was walking to Centro Escolar, the school she attended with her brother and cousin. She was 12. A light-brown car appeared in front of them, and five gang members jumped out. They approached Julia, began to touch her, and tried to take her clothes off, according to a sworn statement by Julia’s brother, Juan, and an interview with Julia and her family. “They tried to rape my sister,” said Juan. (Editor’s note: Julia, Juan, and Jill are pseudonyms. The names have been changed to protect them from gang retaliation.)

Julia’s cousin and brother ran to defend her, when one of the gang members pulled a knife on them. As a group of people approached, the gang took off. But before they left, “they said we would pay with our lives,” Juan said.

A few weeks later, the gang made good on that promise. They killed Julia’s 12-year-old cousin. Someone called on the phone and asked him to go outside. When he walked through the front door, he was shot to death.

Then the phone calls started. They would come once a week. “They told us that something worse than what happened to our cousin was going to happen to us,” said Juan. The threats continued, even after they dropped out of school and threw out the chips in their phones to try to protect themselves. Julia’s parents had fled to the United States a few years earlier—their father in 2006, followed by their mother in 2007—and by February 2014, their parents had decided there was no choice but to pay a smuggler to bring Julia and Juan to join them in the United States. They were 13 and 14 years old.

Julia and Juan were part of a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America that began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. In response to this spike, the U.S. government implemented a number of deterrence policies to prevent Central Americans from arriving at Mexico’s northern border. One of those strategies was the U.S. government’s support of Mexico’s Programa Frontera Sur, or Southern Border Plan. After Mexico introduced the plan in 2014, the next year saw a dramatic decrease in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border. The United States paid Mexico $130 million for border security, at least $65 million of which was allocated for southern border efforts, to apprehend Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans who were looking to enter the United States. Mexico was then tasked with sending the would-be border crossers back to their home countries before they reached Mexico’s northern border.

But this deterrence strategy has not prevented another wave of unaccompanied minors from making the journey north this year. Smugglers have become even more creative, and those who are fleeing have become more desperate. According to data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the numbers of unaccompanied minors are catching up with the figures seen during the 2014 surge.

When Mexican authorities boarded the bus transporting Julia and her brother, the two teenagers were prepared. Smugglers had given them fake Mexican IDs to prevent them from being returned to El Salvador. They memorized details of identities that weren’t their own. This would eventually allow them to avoid the Mexican authorities and reach the U.S. border. Others on the journey were not so lucky, they said.

Cases like Julia and Juan’s have become all too familiar to immigrant rights advocates who work with unaccompanied minors. “I am hearing unprecedented stories,” said Ala Amoachi, a lawyer in Long Island, New York, who has represented hundreds of unaccompanied minors from Central America, including Julia and her brother.

Gangs are now targeting younger boys and girls, and pushing them to flee, Amoachi said: “Before, it was 12 or 13, but now, for the first time, I’ve been hearing multiple stories about children as young as 6 or 7 being forced to join, or killed for not wanting to join the gangs. We’ve had kids in here as young as 4 years old reporting sexual violence.”

The gangs in Central America, the largest of which are MS-13 and 18th Street Gang, are in a constant battle for territorial control. The gangs fear that boys might join their rivals, so they recruit them forcefully while the boys are still very young. With a large number of gang members dying in gang-related violence, the need to recruit members is very strong.

The boys are primarily used to sell and run drugs, and are part of the gang’s extortion racket: Gangs target businesses and individuals, rich or poor, for one-off, weekly, or monthly payments—if they don’t pay, they’re liable to be killed. Experts say racketeering is one of the primary sources of income for gangs. The girls are recruited to run drugs and are used as “gang girlfriends,” forced to engage in sexual acts with one or, very often, several gang members.

Young women understand their role would be to have forced sex with the gangs, Amoachi said. “Girls become a vehicle for gang members to take revenge” against families who refuse recruitment or cannot pay extortion fees.

Immigrant rights advocates expect the number of minors fleeing to the U.S. to rise, and so does the U.S. government. In written testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Gil Kerlikowske, the Customs and Border Protection chief, requested “resources” to support 75,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors in the coming months. The budget was approved by the House Appropriations Committee in June, and $319 million has been allocated for “temporary care and transport” of the unaccompanied minors. The budget also requests an “additional contingency budget authority” in case the number of children apprehended at the border surges beyond the 75,000 mark.

“As long as the Central America homicide rates are increasingly targeting children, I think this is the number we’re going to see of people arriving in Mexico and the United States,” said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights research and advocacy organization focusing on the Americas.

Violence in the Northern Triangle—the region of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala that comprises some of the most dangerous countries in the world outside of active war zones—resulted in the latest surge of young border crossers. “The phenomenon occurring in these countries can be described as a ‘war on children,’ ” said Esther Kolni, an attorney at Legal Aid of Northwest Texas. “The violence is aimed primarily at children.”

Advocates point out that many minors, particularly girls, are also fleeing sexual abuse, domestic violence, and molestation, but in the vast majority of cases, they have had some contact with gang violence.

El Salvador has become known as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. According to a 2015 study by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, a diplomatic initiative between states and civil society to address armed violence, El Salvador has by far the highest rate of gender-motivated homicide in the world, followed by Honduras. According to the study, El Salvador and Honduras also rank highest in terms of overall homicide rates.

The people fleeing that violence are becoming younger and younger.

“We are seeing really young children this time around. In 2014, the average age of [unaccompanied] children we came across was around 14. But this year, we’ve seen children aged 2 and 3 years old. This is something we’ve not seen before,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a pro bono movement of law firms, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, universities, and volunteers, which provides legal counsel to unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children in the U.S.

Advocates also point out that families are often separated once U.S. officials detain them. “We’ve seen very young children, 2, 3, and 4 years old, separated from their mothers and fathers by Customs and Border Patrol. The children are placed in ORR custody and the mothers sent to the adult detention centers,” said Elizabeth Frankel of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in New York. “Officially CBP is supposed to prioritize keeping families together; however, in practice, we regularly see children separated from parents,” Frankel explained.

Customs and Border Protection maintains that every effort is taken to keep the children with their mothers. A spokesperson from CBP said, “My folks on the field told me that they follow the guidelines set by [the] Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 and Flores v. Reno.” In the Flores v. Reno settlement, a nationwide policy was established for the detention, release, and treatment of minors in immigration detention. It requires that children be released from Department of Homeland Security custody without much delay and handed over to a parent, legal guardian, or another custody-seeking adult whom the DHS deems appropriate.

When Julia and her brother first set out for the United States, they were relieved to be escaping the gang threats and violence. Having learned from experience how dangerous the journey can be, their parents made a deal with some coyotes—who help people reach the United States—to keep the minors together. But as soon as they left for Guatemala, a coyote robbed them of their money. Then, once they reached Mexico, they were assigned to different coyotes. Each wondered whether they would ever be reunited. Fortunately, they found one another again just as they were about to cross the U.S. border in San Ysidro, California, about 10 days later.

Despite having been separated, neither experienced violence or assault en route. Others were not so lucky.

Sexual violence on the journey north is widespread, especially for girls. Some who are aware of the risk of sexual assault take birth control pills to prevent unwanted pregnancies from rape.

Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union—including case files, supporting documentation, and communications between government officials and unaccompanied minor service providers—highlight both the risks of the journey for unaccompanied girls and the hurdles they face in accessing women’s health care upon arrival.

An alarming number of cases, according to files obtained by the ACLU through Freedom of Information Act requests, report sexual assault of girls at the hands of family members, friends, and acquaintances in Central America, but several also faced sexual violence, forced prostitution, or trafficking while en route through Mexico to the U.S. border.

Jill was 17 and pregnant when she arrived in the United States from Honduras. She had grown up with her aunt and uncle, after her parents died when she was 2. She was physically abused by her aunt, and sexually assaulted by her uncle, grandfather, and cousins. To finance her journey, she traveled to Mexico and worked as a prostitute for three months before beginning her journey north. Then on her way to the States, she was sexually assaulted by Mexican soldiers, resulting in a pregnancy, according to her medical records.

To add to what health care workers classified in many cases as post-traumatic stress disorder, young women like Jill face systematic hurdles while trying to access reproductive health care from service providers in the U.S. Examining the 27 cases detailed in materials received through the Freedom of Information Act disclosure, ACLU lawyers identified potential problem shelters in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Analysis of the ACLU documents revealed that though several of the immigrant minors opted to terminate their pregnancies, the U.S. federal government often delayed abortion services. In many cases, the minors were unable to get an abortion until their pregnancies were relatively advanced. In many states, abortions are not performed after the woman is past 22 weeks of pregnancy.

The documents examined by the ACLU also reveal that some religiously affiliated shelters discouraged minors from terminating their pregnancies, even if the pregnancy was the result of rape. Instead, girls were counseled to give birth and give up the child for adoption. In other cases, religiously affiliated shelters either refused to accept minors seeking abortion or insisted that they be transferred to other providers. This, despite the fragile mental health of the minors, many of whom expressed suicidal tendencies and a willingness to end the pregnancy by any means necessary.

In June 2016, the ACLU sued the federal government for giving federal funds to religiously affiliated shelters that restrict unaccompanied immigrant minors’ access to reproductive health care services to which they are legally entitled.

Julia was not pregnant, but she experienced a form of trauma upon her arrival, at the age of 13. Once she and Juan had crossed the border, officials questioned them. One official asked them why they had come. “We told him why and he said ‘No, everything is a lie,’ ” and that El Salvador is not a dangerous place, said Juan. They were placed in CBP custody, and Julia was separated from her brother.

Once Julia and her brother were reunited with their parents in Long Island, their parents hired a lawyer to assist with the asylum applications.

In June 2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied both asylum applications. The decision said that they had not proved refugee status because they had not established that they suffered past persecution or had a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of one of the five enumerated grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political belief.

“This is the only case I’ve had denied of a child who had experienced sexual abuse or an attempted sexual abuse,” said Julia’s lawyer, Ala Amoachi.

Amoachi believes that since the U.S. government began prioritizing the removal of minors in 2014, high caseloads, stretched resources, and inexperienced asylum officers have meant some cases are not properly determined. “I think it was the officer. Plainly. Nothing more,” she said.

The USCIS Asylum Division headquarters is currently reviewing the decision.

“Things have changed very much, being in this country. When we came, my cousin had been recently killed, and whenever we closed our eyes, we could see the box where he was buried,” said Juan.

“We live with that fear of having to go back to that country. Because the threats against us were made good against our cousin. They told us that we were next.”