The Harrowing Lives and Traumas of Central American Refugees

Children sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18, 2014.

Since 2014, tens of thousands of children and families from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, also known as the Northern Triangle region of Central America, have fled to the United States and neighboring countries to escape extreme violence and poverty. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are among the most violent countries in the world and the poorest in the Americas. El Salvador in particular has recently become the homicide capital of the world—a distinction previously held by Honduras—and its capital, San Salvador, averaged one murder every hour in 2015. In 2015, more than 1,000 children were violently killed in Honduras, and 153 children were killed just in the first five months of 2016.

Women and girls have reported being raped, assaulted, and threatened by gang members, in addition to facing domestic violence at home. In fact, from 2000 to 2012, the three Northern Triangle countries ranked globally in the top four for femicide, the killing of women and girls. Gangs and drug cartels are a rampant problem in these countries. Children are forced to make an impossible choice between either joining these gangs or being murdered, or having a family member murdered. Families are forced to pay extortion money and, if unable to do so, risk losing everything, including their lives. Citizens of these three countries pay an estimated $661 million in extortion money annually.

This violence is further exacerbated by extreme poverty, lack of opportunity, and often-dysfunctional justice systems. In addition to being among the most violent countries in the world, these countries are ranked among the very poorest in Latin America and the Caribbean, alongside Haiti. Furthermore, countries in the Northern Triangle deny justice and due process for many victims of crime due to a judicial system and magistrates that are influenced by gangs, cartels, bribery, and/or threats, which increases people’s sense of insecurity and further pushes them to seek security elsewhere.

Since the beginning of fiscal year 2014, more than 150,000 children and 160,000 parents with children have come to the United States seeking refuge. In the midst of this growing refugee crisis, the White House announced in July that the United States will work with the United Nations, as well as Mexico and countries in Central America, to expand refugee identification and processing in the region while increasing protection and resettlement efforts. Although this initiative is a step in the right direction, more action will be needed in the years ahead to protect children and families from unspeakable violence and death in their home countries.

This month, leaders from around the world will attend the U.N. General Assembly Summit on Large Movements of Migrants and Refugees, followed by President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis in New York. As representatives from around the world prepare to discuss how to meet the needs of the global refugee situation, it is critical that the stories of extreme violence and danger faced by Central American refugees be part of the narrative.

The following is a collection of stories reported in the press and by nongovernmental organizations from 2014 to 2016 describing violence faced by children, women, and men in the Northern Triangle.*

Honduras

  • Andrea Abigail Argeñal Martínez, 13, was kidnapped, repeatedly raped over numerous days, and eventually cut to death by members of the Ponce gang in Honduras, while her mother was forced to listen to her screams as gang members cut her. Her death was a result of her family’s inability to pay the “war tax,” a monthly payment enforced on small businesses by gangs. (The New York Times, August 11, 2016)
  • Carlos, 13, fled Honduras after he was forced to choose between becoming a lookout for a local gang or face losing his and his 6-year-old brother’s lives. Two of Carlos’ 14-year-old classmates were killed after refusing to join the gangs. Their corpses were found with the number 13 carved into their chests, referencing the name of the gang that murdered them. Faced with the fear of losing their lives and the lives of their loved ones, many children are left with no choice but to join the gangs. Although Carlos is safe now in Mexico, he has no doubt that if he is deported back to Honduras, “they will kill me for sure.” (The New York Times, June 25, 2016)
  • Katherine Ávila González, 17, was found dead in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Katherine and her sister were taken from their home by force at around two in the morning and put into a car. Her sister was able to jump from the car and escape the criminals, but Katherine’s body was found in a street later that morning, with multiple fatal gunshot wounds. (El Heraldo, March 28, 2016)
  • Kimberly Pamela Cáceres Mejía, 27, was killed in front of her three children, ages 2, 3, and 8, while she was breastfeeding the 2-year-old in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. At least nine hooded men entered Kimberly’s home and committed the murder. The children’s father died a few months earlier under similar circumstances, and the children are now orphans. (Tiempo, February 17, 2016)
  • Francisco Humberto Ruiz Guerrero, 18; Eduardo Ernesto Méndez Gómez, 20; and Noé Israel Velásquez Vega, 31, were killed during massacres that occurred in the community of Hato de Enmedio, Honduras, due to gang disputes over the territory. Earlier that year, five children, including three sisters, were killed in the same area in a similar massacre. (El Heraldo, February 17, 2016)
  • Sara Gissel López Valladares, 16; Dulce María Valladares González, 13; Ana Yanci Valladares González, 14; Luis Carlos Menocal González, 15; and Abel de Jesús Ramírez Salgado, 35, were shot dead by armed Barrio 18 gang members in the neighborhood of Hato de Enmedio, east of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. It is believed that one of the victims was pregnant. All of the victims were relatives and were out collecting trash in order to recycle, their main form of income for survival. (La Prensa, February 12, 2016, and La Prensa, February 15, 2016)
  • Cristhofer Rivera, 18, was killed by unidentified suspects who entered his home in Honduras in an attempted robbery. His body was found thrown over a piece of furniture, shot in the head. He died resisting the intruders and protecting his young nephews. (La Prensa, February 12, 2016)
  • Digna Hernández Turcios, 13, witnessed the murder of her uncle when three men broke into her family’s home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Christmas Day. According to her mother, Damaris Yamileth Turcios Lara, 30, he was murdered because he refused to join the Barrio 18 gang. Fearing for their lives as well, the family fled to Mexico. “There are no human rights in my country,” Damaris said. “The only thing you can do is run.” (The Guardian, February 10, 2016)
  • José Ezequiel Bardales García, 5, was shot to death by a stray bullet in Honduras when two men engaged in a shootout in front of his mother’s home late one night. One of the bullets killed José, while others injured his father and grandfather. (La Prensa, January 14, 2016)
  • María Elena Medina Martínez, 20, was murdered in Honduras with no public knowledge of how or why. Martinez’s body was found in an African palm tree plantation in the small village of Zamora, about 16 hours after being shot in the head. She was a law student at a private university in the city of Tocoa. (El Heraldo, December 16, 2015)
  • Ángel Antonio Pérez, a second-year student; Yenny Panyagua, owner of a car repair shop; and two men identified only as Ariel and César were murdered by a group of people who got out of a car and shot them dead in the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (La Prensa, December 15, 2015)
  • At least six people, three of whom were children, were found dead in the northeast part of Honduras in the third massacre in a single week. The first massacre occurred when eight public transportation workers were shot and killed in a bus terminal by suspected gang members for refusing to pay “war taxes.” The second occurred in Los Laureles, where seven people were killed by suspected gang members in order to terrorize the community in the area where they sell drugs. In the third massacre, both guns and machetes were used as murder weapons. (La Prensa, November 28, 2015)
  • Katherine Milagros Cerrato Matute, 12; Joselyn Fabiola Godoy Flores, 13; and Fernanda Alejandra Petit Reyes, 13, were found dead in black bags in the community of Los Llanos, Honduras. Each bag had a photo, supposedly of the murdered girl inside, taped onto it. The girls appeared to have been strangled to death. (El Heraldo, November 29, 2015)
  • José Marvin Martínez, 17 or 18, was killed by a drive-by shooter; Ángel Díaz, 26, was shot and killed on a local bus; and Juan Francisco Díaz was found dead in an alley. All three had successfully fled Honduras to the United States after their family members were killed or threatened by gang members. All three were detained and deported back to Honduras, where within months of their arrival they were killed. José, Ángel, and Juan are three out of at least 45 deportees to the Northern Triangle region since January 2014 who have been murdered upon their return. (The Guardian, October 12, 2015)
  • Jeffrey Rodriguez, 13, and Alejandro Rodriguez, 15, fled from Honduras to the United States after seven or eight children in their hometown of San Pedro Sula were tortured and killed by gang members who then threatened to kill them too if they did not join the gang. The brothers also witnessed their uncle’s murder from under a car, where they hid when armed men arrived on motorcycles at their grandmother’s house in San Pedro Sula and opened fire. (The New York Times, December 5, 2014)
  • Christopher Yurem Mejía Reconco, 6, was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between two men that occurred in front of his father’s tire shop in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Christopher was playing in the tire shop’s patio when one of the bullets hit him, and he died in the emergency room of a local hospital. (La Prensa, November 29, 2014)
  • Christian Omar Reyes, 11, lives in hopes that his mother will send money for him to join her in Florida, where she fled after gang members robbed and murdered Christian’s father while he was working as a security guard for a pastry business. Since then, three other acquaintances of Christian’s have been murdered, including a girl his age whose body was found in a ravine across from his house with her throat cut and stuffed with her underwear, after she resisted being robbed of $5. (The New York Times, July 11, 2014)
  • After Anthony O. Castellanos, 13, disappeared, his younger brother, Kenneth Castellanos, 7, went looking for him. Both brothers were later found dead. Kenneth had been tortured and beaten with rocks and sticks while Anthony and a friend of his had been shot in the head. Anthony and Kenneth were two of seven children murdered in April 2014 as a result of intense gang violence in the La Pradera neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (The New York Times, July 9, 2014)
  • Wilmer Daniel Alvarado Sánchez, 11, died when he was struck in the head by a stray bullet outside of his school in Honduras. Three men had just dropped off their children and were driving away when their car was ambushed by various individuals using AK-47 assault rifles, .45-caliber pistols, and 9 mm guns. The shootout was believed to have been the result of a territory dispute between rival gangs, including the Mara 18. (La Prensa, April 17, 2014)

El Salvador

  • Moses Aguirre, 17, successfully made it to Portland, Oregon, after fleeing life-threatening gang violence in El Salvador. However, to avoid going through deportation proceedings, Moses returned to El Salvador. When he got back, he was killed by gang members who shot him 16 times. According to Moses’ father, Frank Aguirre, Moses was killed because he refused to be extorted, and police officers were only two blocks away during the incident but they ran away instead of helping. (Jefferson Public Radio, June 28, 2016)
  • Katerine Hernández, 19, was attacked and murdered by gang members who were waiting for her in a street in Soyapango, El Salvador. It is believed that her rejection of one of the gang member’s advances led to her murder. (La Prensa Gráfica, March 10, 2016)
  • Menor Oswaldo A., Dagoberto Armando Contreras Gómez, and Gerson A., all 16, were three of 51 homicides that occurred over only two days throughout the country. Menor was killed in La Libertad, Dagoberto was murdered 150 meters from his home in San Miguel, and Gerson was found dead in residential Villa Lourdes in Colon. (La Prensa Gráfica, March 23, 2016)
  • Pedro Salmeron, 19, fled El Salvador after being brutally beaten by members of a gang when he refused to join. Three weeks after he filed a complaint with the police against the gang members, his cousin was shot and mutilated by the gang. Once in the United States, Pedro was arrested at his father’s shop by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. He remains in an immigration detention center and is facing deportation. His mother says that if Pedro is sent back his life would be in great danger because the gang members are awaiting his arrival. (Creative Loafing Charlotte, March 2, 2016)
  • Katherine Roxana Motto Cañas, 14, was shot to death in Altavista, El Salvador, when she went to buy food for dinner at a shop down the street from her house. While in the store, she was shot twice in the back by gang members attempting to kill a supposed rival gang member. Her mother ran outside after hearing the gunshots and found her daughter facedown. Katherine died within minutes of her arrival at a local hospital. (El Diario de Hoy, February 10, 2016)
  • Carlos Martínez, 16, was killed on the streets of Usulután, El Salvador. Fearing for the lives of her two other children, Carlos’ mother, Norma Alicia Martínez, fled the country with her 8-year-old son Wilber and 10-year-old daughter Liliana, eventually reaching a migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico. “My only concern is getting my remaining children as far away from the gangs as humanly possible,” Norma said. (The Guardian, February 10, 2016)
  • Ángel Ulises Ortiz, 17, was shot and killed by armed men in a surprise attack while he was carrying water back to his home in rural Panchimalco, El Salvador. Manuel, 17, also from Panchimalco, is afraid of walking to and from school because rival gangs have demanded that he transport guns for them in his backpack. He is unsure whether or not he can continue his education because threats became more frequent at the end of the school year, he has not wanted to carry the guns, and he is afraid for his safety along the route to school. (La Prensa Gráfica, February 8, 2016)
  • An unnamed Salvadoran teenager, 17, fled the country as the violence got worse. His parents and two sisters remain in El Salvador. His father and uncle paid a smuggler $5,000 to get him to the United States after gang members increasingly targeted children and murdered several of his friends. (The Boston Globe, February 3, 2016)
  • Manuel Alejandro González, 18, is waiting to be reunited with his mother, Glenda González, whom he has not seen for 13 years. Glenda left Manuel in El Salvador with his grandmother when he was just 5 years old and came to the United States. Recently, Manuel’s father, a bus driver, was shot in El Salvador by members of a gang after he did not pay them extortion money. This created a dangerous situation for Manuel because many people know that his mother lives in the United States and demand money from him because of it. He is hoping to be reunited with his mother through a refugee program for children from the Northern Triangle who are under threat of violence. (La Opinión, February 3, 2016)

Guatemala

  • “María,” 22, is a survivor of 12 years of sexual violence, starting when she began being sexually abused by family members at the age of 5. By the time she was 17 years old, her family had even rented her body to prisoners. La Alianza, an organization founded in 2010 to protect victims of sexual violence in Guatemala, has given her refuge for four years. (El País, March 11, 2016)
  • Tomás Donaldo Panjo Morales, 16, fled his village of Quiché, Guatemala, due to threats and violence from a local gang. For five years, he was repeatedly pressured to join the gang; members would wait for him outside of school, and when he rejected their offer, they would threaten to kill him and take his belongings or beat him. They also threatened to kill Tomás’ mother and younger sister. (La Opinión, February 1, 2016)
  • Michelle was raped twice at the age of 13, resulting in the birth of her first child. Two years later, her mother sold her to an older man in exchange for a bed, and Michelle became pregnant again. According to UNICEF, more than 4,300 girls between ages 10 and 14 gave birth as a result of rape in Guatemala in 2013 alone. (The Washington Post, August 19, 2015)
  • A 16-year-old girl was beaten and burned alive in Rio Bravo, Guatemala, after she was accused of being involved in the killing of a taxi driver. Several men and women slammed her face into the ground, kicked her in the head, and set her on fire. One person yelled, “Add more gasoline.” (CNN, May 29, 2015)

* The Center for American Progress cannot verify any of the stories listed in this report.  

Sanam M. Malik is a Research Assistant for the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Kayla Lee, Cesar Maximiliano Estrada, and Araceli Alvarez, former interns with CAP’s Immigration Policy team, as well as Rafael Medina, Ethnic Media Associate at the Center for American Progress, for their contributions to this collection of stories.