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The Children of the Drug Wars A Refugee Crisis, Not an Immigration Crisis


Jul 11, 2014

"CRISTIAN OMAR REYES, an 11-year-old sixth grader in the neighborhood of Nueva Suyapa, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, tells me he has to get out of Honduras soon — “no matter what.”

In March, his father was robbed and murdered by gangs while working as a security guard protecting a pastry truck. His mother used the life insurance payout to hire a smuggler to take her to Florida. She promised to send for him quickly, but she has not.

Three people he knows were murdered this year. Four others were gunned down on a nearby corner in the span of two weeks at the beginning of this year. A girl his age resisted being robbed of $5. She was clubbed over the head and dragged off by two men who cut a hole in her throat, stuffed her panties in it, and left her body in a ravine across the street from Cristian’s house.

I last went to Nueva Suyapa in 2003, to write about another boy, Luis Enrique Motiño Pineda, who had grown up there and left to find his mother in the United States. Children from Central America have been making that journey, often without their parents, for two decades. But lately something has changed, and the predictable flow has turned into an exodus. Three years ago, about 6,800 children were detained by United States immigration authorities and placed in federal custody; this year, as many as 90,000 children are expected to be picked up. Around a quarter come from Honduras — more than from anywhere else.

Children still leave Honduras to reunite with a parent, or for better educational and economic opportunities. But, as I learned when I returned to Nueva Suyapa last month, a vast majority of child migrants are fleeing not poverty, but violence. As a result, what the United States is seeing on its borders now is not an immigration crisis. It is a refugee crisis.

Gangs arrived in force in Honduras in the 1990s, as 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha members were deported in large numbers from Los Angeles to Central America, joining homegrown groups like Los Puchos. But the dominance in the past few years of foreign drug cartels in Honduras, especially ones from Mexico, has increased the reach and viciousness of the violence. As the United States and Colombia spent billions of dollars to disrupt the movement of drugs up the Caribbean corridor, traffickers rerouted inland through Honduras, and 79 percent of cocaine-smuggling flights bound for the United States now pass through there.

Narco groups and gangs are vying for control over this turf, neighborhood by neighborhood, to gain more foot soldiers for drug sales and distribution, expand their customer base, and make money through extortion in a country left with an especially weak, corrupt government following a 2009 coup.

Enrique’s 33-year-old sister, Belky, who still lives in Nueva Suyapa, says children began leaving en masse for the United States three years ago. That was around the time that the narcos started putting serious pressure on kids to work for them. At Cristian’s school, older students working with the cartels push drugs on the younger ones — some as young as 6. If they agree, children are recruited to serve as lookouts, make deliveries in backpacks, rob people and extort businesses. They are given food, shoes and money in return. Later, they might work as traffickers or hit men.

Teachers at Cristian’s school described a 12-year-old who demanded that the school release three students one day to help him distribute crack cocaine; he brandished a pistol and threatened to kill a teacher when she tried to question him.

At Nueva Suyapa’s only public high school, narcos “recruit inside the school,” says Yadira Sauceda, a counselor there. Until he was killed a few weeks ago, a 23-year-old “student” controlled the school. Each day, he was checked by security at the door, then had someone sneak his gun to him over the school wall. Five students, mostly 12- and 13-year-olds, tearfully told Ms. Sauceda that the man had ordered them to use and distribute drugs or he would kill their parents. By March, one month into the new school year, 67 of 450 students had left the school.

Carlos Baquedano Sánchez, a slender 14-year-old with hair sticking straight up, explained how hard it was to stay away from the cartels. He lives in a shack made of corrugated tin in a neighborhood in Nueva Suyapa called El Infiernito — Little Hell — and usually doesn’t have anything to eat one out of every three days. He started working in a dump when he was 7, picking out iron or copper to recycle, for $1 or $2 a day. But bigger boys often beat him to steal his haul, and he quit a year ago when an older man nearly killed him for a coveted car-engine piston. Now he sells scrap wood. - To Read More Articles from The New York Times, Please Click Here.

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