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In Honduras, Gangs Tell Boys To Join Or Be Killed


Many of the unaccompanied children who have crossed the border into the U.S. have come from Guatemala and El Salvador, but the majority are from Honduras. Texas Public Radio's David Marvin Davies reports from that country's capital.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: It's a rainy Tuesday night in Tegucigalpa. And this street corner in the capitol city's downtown is literally a dump. Every night, the city dumps truckloads of garbage here. The homeless come to pick through the trash searching for recyclables that they can sell. A pickup truck followed by a bus pulls up next to the trash pile and out pours about a dozen young, American missionaries. They are here with the faith-based charity Breaking Chains Honduras to feed the homeless. Courtney Mathews is the organizer.

COURTNEY MATHEWS: This is kind of a good spot for us to come because there's a good amount of people already here. And then, kids like this that will go through the trash and look for stuff, or they will beg. Some of them steal. Things like that. But just to kind of try to get by day-to-day. So we come to just kind of pass out some food and really just kind of love on them for a little bit.

DAVIES: The 24-year-old Muncie, Indiana native has been doing this work for almost four years. And in that time, she's gotten to know many of the homeless here, especially the children, some of whom have been murdered by gangs.

MATHEWS: So we've had a few losses, mainly among the teens. And a lot of it is - the ones that we've experienced are people that live on the street or were involved in gang activity or something like that previously.

DAVIES: Honduras was branded the murder capital of the world in a 2012 United Nations' report finding 90 homicides per 100,000 people. Last week, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Americans thinking of visiting Honduras citing, quote, "critically high levels of crime and violence in the country." Not far from the garbage dump, a couple of boys are passing around a Coca-Cola bottle holding about a half an inch of brown glue. They're huffing the glue to get high. One of them, Joey, wants to talk.

JOEY: (Spanish spoken).

DAVIES: In his slurred Spanish, Joey says he's on the street because his mother drinks too much and his father beats him. His family told them to leave the house and never come back.

JOEY: (Spanish spoken).

DAVIES: Joey looks like he's about 13 years old, but he says he's 20. He says he knows that many from Honduras are leaving for the United States, and he has an uncle there too. He says he would go if something touches his heart. More than 10,000 Honduran youth have made that trip including 22-year-old Darwin Mardeana. He works at a Tegucigalpa homeless shelter. And he says Hondurans head north to find a better life.

DARWIN MARDEANA: They want to try to have a more - easy to live here. You can eat. You can have water. You can have a house. It's awesome.

DAVIES: Two years ago, with the help of a human smuggler from Mexico - a coyote - he crossed the Texas-Mexico border at Del Rio.

MARDEANA: One guy, he said don't stop. You run, run, run. Don't stop til you're there. And I don't stop when I got to Rio Grande.

DAVIES: Darwin then paid someone $500 to take him to Houston where he found work. But he says he wanted to return home. And six months later after his journey, Darwin bought a bus ticket bound for Honduras. The same images flooding U.S. media of children being warehoused in Border Patrol detention facilities are also front-page news in Honduras. No one can say why so many seem to be leaving at this time, but many point to the out-of-control gang violence, the grinding poverty and the lack of economic opportunity. Julio Melendez is a television reporter for Canal 11 in Tegucigalpa. And he's known for his coverage of the streets.

JULIO MELENDEZ: We have a very poor people here in Honduras. All the families in the colonies live with one dollar a day.

DAVIES: And, Melendez say, the years of men leaving their families in Honduras to work in the United States have wrenched families apart and left Honduran youth at a loss.

MELENDEZ: And this is the big problem because here the boys grow up without a father, without institutional support. We have here boys without fathers. And they go in into the gangs.

DAVIES: Many in Honduras say the nation has hit a tipping point. The gangs have gotten much more aggressive toward youth. Teen boys are told join the gang or be killed. To flee the threat, they flee the country. Another factor luring kids north is that Honduran parents who are already in the United States and working illegally might be better able to hire human smugglers to take their children to Texas-Mexico border. Seventeen-year-old Yanina Carranza is sitting in a Tegucigalpa park with two of her school friends. She says she doesn't want to go to the United States, but if she can't find a job here, who knows? But she's fearful.

YANIN CARRANZA: (Spanish spoken).

DAVIES: The trip to the United States is very dangerous. Some of the children never make it to the border. They suffer, die or are disappeared into the world of sex trafficking. And now the Honduran government is airing television ads warning parents of the dangers of hiring a Mexican coyote and reminding viewers that the children are the future of Honduras. For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.