Terror of gang violence drives migrant caravans northward

PHOTO: A member of MS-13 street gang looks out from a house as police patrol the street outside, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras Sept. 29, 2018.PlayGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
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Former Honduran policeman Ivan says he moved homes so many times to escape the street gangs that terrorize his Central American country that he lost count. Fearful his sons would have to join the gangs or be killed, he eventually joined thousands of Hondurans fleeing to the United States.

PHOTO: Fransisca Sislavas sits next to her daughter Brittany and her son Rony near the vehicle after an unidentified gunman killed her husband in a taxi in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 26, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Fransisca Sislavas sits next to her daughter Brittany and her son Rony near the vehicle after an unidentified gunman killed her husband in a taxi in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 26, 2018.

The 45-year-old, who asked to be identified only by his first name, is journeying through Mexico in a caravan of several thousand mostly Honduran migrants who are fleeing violence and poverty for a better life in the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump has declared the caravans an "invasion," and has sent some 5,800 troops to "harden" the border, including with barbed wire.

PHOTO: The friends of two men who were killed in gang violence cry at the crime scene in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 24, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
The friends of two men who were killed in gang violence cry at the crime scene in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 24, 2018.

Ivan, fearful to tell his story, is watchful for gang tattoos or slang that might suggest fellow migrants were associated with his persecutors back home. The former policemen said the final straw in Honduras came when gang members put a gun to his 15-year-old son Yostin's head.

PHOTO: A woman cries at a crime scene after two men were killed in gang violence in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 13, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A woman cries at a crime scene after two men were killed in gang violence in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 13, 2018.

They wanted Yostin and younger brother Julio, 13, to join them, threatening death if they refused, Ivan said during a break in the caravan's northward journey at temporary camp in a Mexico City stadium.

So when a caravan set off on Oct. 13 from the crime-racked Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, where the family was hiding with friends, they never hesitated. Reuters was not able to independently verify their story.

PHOTO: The body of a man killed in gang violence lies in a pick-up truck in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 22, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
The body of a man killed in gang violence lies in a pick-up truck in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, July 22, 2018.

However, their motives echo others in the caravan and are a reminder of the influence the gangs called 'maras' wield across El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala despite almost 20 years of efforts to crush them.

Homicide rates have fallen in Honduras since 2016, as a consequence of initiatives that include prison reform, the creation of a specialized anti-gang security force, and increased resources for law enforcement.

PHOTO: A rooster walks past the dead body of a Barrio-18 gang member in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 28, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A rooster walks past the dead body of a Barrio-18 gang member in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 28, 2018.

In 2017 there were 42 murders per 100,000 residents in Honduras, compared to 57 per 100,000 in the prior year, according to statistics from the government and the World Bank.

Still, the murder rate in Honduras remains one of the highest in the world and catastrophic. Some international aid organizations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council operate in the country with the same precautions as in war zones, and say inhabitants face the same dangers.

At the U.S. border barbed wire laid by soldiers deployed by Trump awaits the caravan to dissuade the migrants from crossing illegally. New rules curtailing asylum claims also increase the chances they will be deported.

PHOTO: An MS-13 gang member poses for a photograph as he holds a gun and a bag of marijuana in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Oct 6, 2018. The gang member described himself as a drug dealer and assassin.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
An MS-13 gang member poses for a photograph as he holds a gun and a bag of marijuana in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Oct 6, 2018. The gang member described himself as a drug dealer and assassin.

A return home terrifies many, including Ivan. Removed from his job of 27 years in a police purge two years ago, he says he fears death in Honduras.

The purge removed more than 4,000 officers, or close to a third of what is currently a 14,000 strong force, according to Commissioner Jair Meza, spokesperson for the Honduran Security Ministry.

PHOTO: A 15-year-old girl smokes marijuana with MS-13 gang members in a house in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 29, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A 15-year-old girl smokes marijuana with MS-13 gang members in a house in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 29, 2018.

Ivan says the purge removed good police as well as bad, while leaving the former officers exposed to revenge attacks from gangs they once pursued.

"They know us and so they hunt us down," he said.

Meza said police who were removed were subject to polygraph tests and background checks before being selected. Age and performance were other considerations.

In Honduras, violence can strike at any time.

PHOTO: Blood is seen on a wall next to Barrio-18 graffiti in a so-called Crazy House in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 27, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Blood is seen on a wall next to Barrio-18 graffiti in a so-called Crazy House in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 27, 2018.

On the cocaine transit corridor to the nearby port of Puerto Cortes, San Pedro Sula was for years one of the world's most dangerous cities. Its morgue was so full of corpses that locals said their smell permeated the streets.

On a night in late July, a family sat on the side of a highway in San Pedro Sula, a few feet from a crime scene.

PHOTO: A Barrio-18 gang member holds a gun in a house in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 20, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A Barrio-18 gang member holds a gun in a house in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept. 20, 2018.

Fransisca Sislavas waited stone-faced between her son, Rony, 2, and her daughter, Brittany, 4. The girl's ankle was splattered with her father's blood.

Minutes earlier, Sislavas had been sitting beside her partner and their children in a taxi. She struggled to explain his death.

"I don't know. Why? How? I just don't know," she said.

PHOTO: Prisoners play cards in Puerto Cortes jail, Honduras, July 31, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Prisoners play cards in Puerto Cortes jail, Honduras, July 31, 2018.

For some Hondurans who fail in their pursuit of the American Dream, deportation can mean an entrance into gang life.

Henry Fernando, (not pictured), an active member of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, said he walked more than 3,000 miles and almost died in the desert crossing from Mexico to find his mother, who had left him for Virginia.

PHOTO: The body of man killed in gang violence floats in a canal in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept 24, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
The body of man killed in gang violence floats in a canal in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Sept 24, 2018.

Quickly deported, MS-13 was the only home he found, he said, recalling the girlfriends, or "jainas", that leaders offered, serving as payment for the marijuana and crack cocaine he sold. Reuters was not able to independently verify his story.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it was unable to trace Fernando's deportation based on the information Reuters was able to provide.

PHOTO: A member of MS-13 street gang looks out from a house as police patrol the street outside, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras Sept. 29, 2018.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A member of MS-13 street gang looks out from a house as police patrol the street outside, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras Sept. 29, 2018.

Nine years later, now 28, he has a young son, and dreams of leaving the gang. His home, visited by Reuters, was a rented room barely wider than his mattress, up a rickety ladder in the middle of a pigsty. He had moved up the MS-13 ranks, but remains mired in poverty.

Fifteen people interviewed by Reuters, either active in the gangs or in stages of reforming, described only two ways out: join an Evangelical church or death.

All of them said they joined the gangs as boys from broken homes in broken neighborhoods.

Story by Delphine Schrank

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