CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO—Some people gaze across the border full of hope, but just looking out the front door is painful for 16-year-old Lionel González. From his grandmother’s porch in a northern Mexico border city, he can see the tall buildings of El Paso, Texas, glimmering in the distance. About 600 miles farther north is Denver, now home to all the people he loves. “My entire family lives there,” says Lionel, a quiet, skinny kid with a scar where he once had a cleft lip. “My parents, my brothers and sisters, everyone.”
The border fence separating Mexico from the United States keeps him from being with his family. He has no visa and no way to cross legally, so four months ago, his grandmother paid a pollero, a human trafficker, $800 to help her grandson jump the fence. But Border Patrol caught him and sent him back. It was his third try in seven years, and his third failure.
Lionel is one of countless Mexican and Central American teenagers dreaming of a life in the United States. The number of kids trying to cross the border has spiked in recent years, and they are increasingly doing it by themselves, without a parent or guardian. If the many dangers along the road weren’t enough, human traffickers are increasingly abandoning young migrants after being paid.
U.S. authorities caught more than 21,000 unaccompanied minors last year as they tried to cross the border. The number has doubled in the last three years, a surge felt everywhere in the border region. In El Paso alone, almost 800 unsupervised underage migrants were caught in 2013, say Border Patrol officials. The city’s four detention centers for minors now hold nearly 300 teens, 90% of whom were found traveling solo.
The surge includes both Mexican and Central American minors. Crime in Central America, which is now the most violent region in the world (not counting war zones), pushes more and more kids like Lionel to the United States. The DREAM Act—a proposed piece of legislation that would allow some undocumented migrants arriving in the U.S. as minors to become legalized—appears be another powerful draw.
Lionel dreams of studying in the United States. “I heard it will soon be much easier for someone like to me to get a good education,” he says. But the road to the U.S. is one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world, especially for young Central Americans who have to cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border. They endure hunger, injuries and cold, and are at the mercy of corrupt immigration officials and criminal gangs who prey on them along the way. The majority of migrants are victims of kidnapping, extortion or rape.
The actual border crossing is the final hurdle, and increasingly the most dangerous. Two weeks ago, Mexican authorities reported that they had found 370 underage migrants across the country. At least 163 were traveling alone, without adult family members. Traffickers had already been paid fees between $3,000 and $5,000 to take them to the United States, but instead they abandoned the kids on the way, pocketing the cash. Most of the teens were suffering from dehydration, fatigue and injuries to their feet.
“The number of minors trying to cross the border by themselves with only a trafficker as their guide is rising fast,” says Jesús Tavizón, who runs an Evangelical Christian community center in Ciudad Juárez, near the principal bridge connecting Juárez to El Paso. He offers food and rest to tired and hungry migrants and helps them find shelter. “But I see a lot more abuses than in the past. The kids have often suffered terribly during the trip. What’s worrying is that so many of them are taken advantage of by the polleros; the traffickers simply take the money and run. Minors are easy victims.”
That’s due in no small part to the involvement of organized crime. In Ciudad Juárez, human trafficking has been taken over by the La Línea gang, an offshoot of the local Juárez cartel. “Polleros used to work alone, but ever since La Línea moved in, the entire human trafficking business has become organized,” says Tavizón. “This new generation of polleros consists of members of the cartel and is more violent, often simply taking the migrants’ money and abandoning them.”
“There’s no more decency in the business,” says Ricky Martín (an alias), a 49-year-old pollero who lives in Colonia Pancho Villa, a dusty working-class neighborhood built against a hill overlooking the border fence. Ricky is an old-school trafficker, who has helped migrants cross the border for over two decades. Dressed in a bright orange football shirt and wearing a baseball cap, he says his friends named him after the Puerto Rican superstar because of his long, dark blond hair.
“It used to be a relatively easy line of work,” he says. “I’d get a call from a contact telling me there was a group of two or three migrants coming my way. Once they arrived here, I’d charge them a fee. The next day, usually at 10 o’clock in the morning, I’d take them to the border. We’d jump the fence with a ladder and that was that.”
But with La Línea taking over the business, everything has changed. “These are not good people,” Martín says. “They have no ethics. They extort other polleros and don’t care about the safety of the migrants.”
Martín says he now has to pay $150 to the cartel for every migrant he takes across the border. Most older generation polleros like him refuse to pay, putting themselves out of business. “These guys will use violence if you don’t follow their rules,” he says. “Many of us have stopped taking migrants over the border. It’s not worth it anymore.”
According to both Tavizón and Martín, the cartel is also charging higher fees to migrants. Crossing the border in Juárez used to cost around $400, but La Línea can charge as much as $1,500, which comes on top of the hefty fees Central Americans have to pay to pass through Mexico.
As a Mexican growing up Chihuahua, Lionel was spared the terrors most of the Central American kids have to endure on the way, but a cartel did double-cross him in the past. “A few years ago, my family paid a trafficker to help me get across, but after he picked up the money, he never showed up.”
He says he doesn’t want to try again, even though his entire family is in Denver. “I’m too scared to cross. I don’t trust the traffickers anymore.”