Soon after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala, 17-year-old Ana became separated from the group of Hondurans with whom she had been traveling. She wound up alone in a mountain cottage where she was repeatedly raped by strangers.
“They threatened me, saying that if I ever said something about this they were going to kill me,” Ana said amid tears during an interview in a Little Havana home. “The only thing I begged them was not to harm me. The only thing I was thinking was that they were going to kill me, that I was going to die.”
Ana’s ordeal was the most extraordinary in a series of harrowing stories told by minors from Central America, part of the unprecedented exodus of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into the United States.
Miami is one of 10 cities where the children are being sent for immigration proceedings as border shelters fill up.
Though unaccompanied children have arrived in the United States for decades, the number has reached levels never seen before — with the majority coming from Central America, largely Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The number of unaccompanied children jumped from an annual average of 6,800 from fiscal years 2004 to 2011 to more than 13,000 in 2012 and to more than 24,000 in 2013, according to a November 2013 report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. About 50,000 unaccompanied children have arrived since Oct. 1, according to U.S. officials.
While each child might have his or her own reasons for making the perilous journey, immigration attorneys and activists who represent the children say the main reason they are fleeing is intensified gang violence in their home countries as well as abuse and physical violence in their own homes.
Karen, another Honduran teen, said physical violence by her father and threats from gangs propelled her to leave her country. She said she tried to find safety by moving out of her hometown to other parts of Honduras, but she concluded that the United States was the only safe place for her.
Gangs in Honduras and other Central American countries are widespread, posing national-security threats because they have become efficient criminal organizations similar to the Mexican drug-trafficking cartels.
Interviews in Miami last week with half a dozen unaccompanied minors who reached the United States show that escaping gang violence is a prime factor in the exodus. Some, like Andrea from El Salvador, also hoped to join parents who had emigrated earlier.
But Andrea herself also cited gang threats as the primary reason for her trip. All of the minors interviewed asked that their last names not be published because of the sensitivity of their cases and pending immigration proceedings.
Ana’s fateful journey began in Honduras in February.
“I was threatened by the gangs of Honduras and, because of the gangs, my 17-year-old brother was killed three years ago,” Ana recalled. “The gangs also threatened to kill me if I didn’t join them.”
Ana was the youngest in a group of 12 Hondurans, including adults, who boarded buses and cars to reach the U.S. border.
After crossing into Mexico from Guatemala, Ana suffered the worst experience of her young life — the rape by several men who abducted her after she became separated from her group.
“It was early morning and dark, and when we reached a cottage in a mountain, the men grabbed me after my group disappeared,” she recalled.
After raping her, the attackers left. At sunrise, her group found her, and resumed their trip toward the U.S. border.
The group reached the Rio Grande on the Mexico-Texas border one morning in February, and crossed to the U.S. side on a raft made of inner tubes.
“We got out of the raft and walked for about 10 minutes, and then the Border Patrol stopped us,” she said.
She arrived later in Miami, where she rejoined her older sister. She is now seeking asylum, and is represented by Miami immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen.
She is also receiving assistance from the Independent Honduran Unity organization.
Karen, the other Honduran teen, is represented by Elizabeth Sánchez Kennedy, staff attorney at Catholic Legal Services in Miami.
In an interview at the Catholic Legal Services office in downtown Miami, Karen recounted her trip.
She, too, crossed the Rio Grande on a raft one cold, moonlit night when she was 17.
She traveled on foot, buses and vans through Guatemala and Mexico to reach a border point near Reynosa, Mexico, which is across from McAllen, Texas.
In her own words, this is how Karen, now 19, describes her reasons for leaving Honduras:
“I was fearful of my father’s physical mistreatment of me, and fearful of the gangs. They killed my cousin and my aunt,” she said.
“I think it’s very important for people to understand that this young lady’s case is a very typical case, and that they embark on this very perilous and dangerous journey only as a last resort,” said Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami.
“She really tried to seek safety in her own country on many different occasions,” he said. “She didn’t take this journey lightly. She didn’t take it on the promise of a work permit. She took it to save her life.”
While many of the unaccompanied children are arriving from Honduras, there are also significant numbers from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Andrea, who was 14 when she crossed the border, traveled from Sensuntepque, about 40 miles northeast of the capital, San Salvador.
She said she fled El Salvador because gang members were pressuring her to join. Andrea’s mother, Sandra, said she encouraged her daughter to come to the United States so the family could be together.
“It is very hard for us as parents to expose our children to the dangers of these journeys,” Sandra told reporters in explaining why she had allowed her daughter to come to the United States by herself. “It is not easy for a parent to do this, but it is necessary to keep a family together.”
Andrea, now 15, said that for a month earlier this year she endured hunger, cold and seemingly interminable walks to make it across the border at last.
“I was very scared,” said Andrea. “I thought I was never going to arrive, that something bad was going to happen to me.”
After being detained in a shelter near the border, immigration authorities released her. She flew to Miami and rejoined her mother at Miami International Airport.
Andrea said her goal now is to stay in the United States, study hard and “achieve something in life.”
Other South Florida parents are still awaiting the arrival of children who recently crossed the border.
Last week, Denia Vanessa Zelaya, a 31-year-old Honduran, showed up at the Francisco Morazán Honduran Organization office in Little Havana seeking help in finding her 16-year-old daughter, Ana Vanessa Medina Zelaya, and her 3-year-old granddaughter, Emily Yailín Medina Zelaya.
Denia said she got a call from an immigration official recently saying that both Ana Vanessa and Emily Yailín were in a detention center near McAllen, Texas, but she said she had not heard from them directly and did not know when they might be released.