Sixteen-year-old Jorge Alexander Ruiz took off alone in the middle of the night from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to escape pressure to join a gang. Sitting outside the shelter for unaccompanied minors where he was staying in Tijuana, in early December, waiting for a chance to request asylum at the U.S. port of entry, he recalled the menacing words that drove him to catch a 1:30 a.m. bus to Guatemala. “‘You’re going to work for us for free,’” a gang member threatened him. “‘Or you want to die? Choose one of the two.’”
Jorge grew up in a neighborhood that has long served as a drug dealing hub. The barrio splashed local headlines a few years ago as one of the most crime-ridden areas in Honduras’s second-largest city, San Pedro Sula, though family members say violence has calmed down since then. Jorge described daily life there as a “strange” existence, confined by territorial lines where the local clique butts against rival turf. “A lot of people don’t have work,” he told us. “Many don’t go very far, because if you pass the boundary …”
A friend he met in Mexico, a 17-year-old asylum-seeker from a town outside San Pedro Sula, jumped in to finish Jorge’s thought. “We can’t go just anywhere, for fear of getting killed,” he blurted out.
Some 2,700 miles from home, Jorge was optimistic about his asylum case and relieved to have left both the gang threats in Honduras and the dangers of the migrant trail behind him. A cough nagged him, a souvenir from his journey. He headed to Mexico weeks before the first big Central American caravan formed in Honduras last October.
Jorge’s story lays bare the potentially deadly dangers that drive teens to leave home alone — and those that can befall them on their way. In fiscal year 2018, more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the U.S. border, and in January 2019, apprehensions of minors traveling alone increased 40 percent from the same period last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Slow processing times to request asylum at the border have thrown thousands of Central Americans into uncertainty.
But despite the bottleneck in Tijuana, Jorge didn’t entertain the idea of returning to Honduras. “I don’t want to let down my family,” he told us. “Because if I go back, they won’t even have enough for my coffin.”
A week after we spoke outside the shelter, Jorge’s body was found with 37 stab wounds and strangle marks around his neck, dumped alongside a second victim, a 17-year-old from Honduras. A third Honduran teenager managed to escape alive. The boys were on their way from the youth shelter where they stayed to visit a camp of migrants in central Tijuana on December 15, when assailants lured them to a room, demanded money, and — finding they had none — brutalized them.
Back at his home in Honduras, Jorge’s grandmother, Amalia Díaz, hadn’t heard from him in four days. She was worried. She was mamá to Jorge, having raised him since he was a small child. His mother was absent from his life, and his father died years ago. When Amalia finally got a call, it was her nephew, Fernando Díaz, who has lived in the United States for 25 years. “Auntie, what’s Jorge’s full name?” he asked, needing to confirm. The next words gutted her. “Don’t panic — Jorge was killed.”
Uriel Gonzalez, general coordinator of the shelter for unaccompanied minors in Tijuana, didn’t mince words when he said the boys were “kidnapped, extorted, tortured, and executed.” Police arrested three suspects, and the surviving victim will remain under protection in Mexico until the case is resolved. “It’s a clear message of the vulnerability of the migrant population in general — above all, adolescents,” Gonzalez said of the killings.
Nearly two months passed before Jorge’s family found some semblance of closure when they finally received his body and held a humble funeral and burial.
Leaving the Barrio
Sitting in the living room of Jorge’s childhood home, Amalia’s bright, clear eyes — identical to Jorge’s — welled up with tears. “He had so many hopes that were dashed,” she said in a wavering voice. She handed us a pair of photos of Jorge and his father, Alexander, who look so much alike they could easily be mistaken for the same person. Alexander died of a lung infection in 2011, when Jorge was 9 years old. He was a circus clown who had hit the road with the show after surviving an attack that left him with five gunshot wounds in 2003, when Jorge was just a baby, following pressure to join a gang. “God took my son from me, but he left me a replacement,” Amalia had thought at the time.
Jorge’s great-grandmother, Amalia Reyes, said with anguish in her voice that Jorge’s murder hit the family hard. The 93-year-old maintains a strong facade, but she admitted that she hardly manages to sleep. Amalia, 63, said that Amalia Reyes’s blood pressure has spiked since they got the news. She had never wanted Jorge to go. “‘Ay my boy,’ I told him, ‘you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, but for me, what you’re thinking about doing is not good.’”
Jorge didn’t tell his grandmothers why he wanted to flee. “Mamá, I’m leaving tonight,” Amalia remembered him saying. “When I saw him ready to leave, I said to him, ‘Jorge, is there some kind of problem? You look worried to me.’” She assured him if he was failing in school, she wouldn’t be mad. But Jorge brushed off the questions.
Jorge’s great-uncle, Luis Alonso, also was suspicious. “The thing that worried me is that he spent two days shut up inside,” he said. “I said to him, ‘What’s up with you? You haven’t been out.’ And he said, ‘Tomorrow.’ But next day, same thing. Then he left.” Their best guess is that Jorge ran into trouble visiting relatives in a nearby neighborhood with a rough reputation. That area is controlled by the Barrio 18 gang, a rival to the MS-13 gang operating where Jorge’s family lives.
Amalia, a nurse, is respected in the community. While we chatted, a neighbor came to the door seeking help with an injection, a common method for administering routine medicines in Honduras, and Amalia collected 30 lempiras, just over $1, for giving her the needle. Local gang members and their families benefit from her health services, too. She doubts that Jorge ran into problems near home, but his relatives’ neighborhood could be another story. “We’re losing most of our youth, because it’s as if there was a decree of death for young people,” she lamented.
At 11:30 p.m. one night in late September, Jorge stuffed the pants from his school uniform and a few other clothes into a small backpack. Beyond his immediate family, he didn’t tell anyone he was leaving. “I gave him a hug and my blessing,” Amalia said. “My mom didn’t want to see him when he left.”
After taking the bus, Jorge traveled on foot into Guatemala to dodge the border checkpoint. While a Central American immigration agreement allows citizens to travel freely between the two countries, unaccompanied minors require special documentation to cross. From there, he walked and caught rides to Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. Calling from Tapachula, Chiapas, two days after leaving home, he told Amalia he planned to pick up a few days of work to scrape together cash to continue his trek.
“How are you, son? TKM and I miss you,” Amalia wrote to Jorge a week later, saying “I love you” in Spanish shorthand. “Bad, mamá, I don’t see the point here,” Jorge responded. It was October 8, and he was struggling, working as a security guard at a Domino’s Pizza in Tapachula. But he had heard a migrant caravan was set to leave from Honduras just days later. He planned to tag along.
Jorge caught a train to head farther north in Chiapas. He tied himself to the top, afraid that La Bestia, or “The Beast,” as the freight train is known, might lurch him off. When we spoke in Tijuana, he recalled seeing, in awe, thieves come on board and toss an old man off the side of the train when he lied about not having valuables. It was a warning to the rest to cough up their goods. When they got to Jorge, he shivered in the cold as they stripped him down to his underwear, only to find that he was indeed empty-handed. He hadn’t brought a sweater, and weathering the cold between the wind overhead and the metal train under his body exhausted him. “When we got to the caravan, we were even more tired than them,” he told us of those who rode La Bestia.
In late October, as Jorge joined the caravan after passing a few days in Mapastepec, his grandmother was pleased to hear he wasn’t traveling alone anymore. He had a girlfriend, a young Honduran woman from Santa Barbara. Amalia broke into a smile as she looked through the messages. “He confided in me a lot,” she laughed. Jorge and the girl went their separate ways, but he made another Honduran friend with whom he caught rides to Mexico City.
“He wasn’t afraid,” Amalia told us. Jorge was tall, and because he was mistaken for an adult, he had to endure tough conditions, like not being allowed to sleep in shelter areas reserved for children and families. Like many others traveling with the caravan, Jorge caught a bad cough that still rattled his chest weeks after getting to Tijuana.
“In three days I’ll be in Tijuana, but [I’m] going without anything, and I haven’t eaten in three days,” he wrote to his grandmother on November 25. “Ay son, but where are you now?” she replied. “In Mexicali,” he said. “We’re three hours away by car.”
Two days later, he had made it. “I’m in Tijuana,” he wrote to her. “In front of the border.”
“Did you find food?” she asked. It pained her to think of him not eating. But she admired his courage to travel with a mass of total strangers in the caravan. “Yes, some tortillas,” he told her. “Tortillas with beans?” she asked. “No just tortillas,” Jorge replied.
Once in Tijuana, Jorge got in touch with his uncle Fernando in the United States. Fernando sent him money and made sure he got to the shelter for underaged migrants. Jorge spoke to a lawyer and found he had a case for asylum. Amalia was consoled knowing her grandson was eating well again, treating his cold, and sleeping with a roof over his head.
On December 14, the day before the murder, Amalia got a call from Jorge in high spirits. “They’re going to give me asylum,” he told her, clearly optimistic about his case. He had asked her to send him a photo of his birth certificate to get his papers in order. She was relieved. “Take advantage if they give you that opportunity,” she encouraged him. It was the last time they spoke.
On Christmas Day, Amalia wrote “Hola” to Jorge one last time. She had known for a week he was dead. She recites their messages by heart, having scrolled through the conversation countless times, moved to tears every time.
Amalia Reyes was more critical. “We have to know that he died and he’s not coming back,” she said. “I tell her that’s not going to solve anything at all.” She mimicked her daughter glued to her phone reviewing the messages. Amalia said her mother is just stronger than she is. “No, it’s not that,” Amalia Reyes said. “I think clearly.”
Four generations live in the house, from Jorge’s 93-year-old great-grandmother to the tiny 2-year-old Fernanda, Amalia’s great-granddaughter, whom she takes care of along with five other grandchildren. She’s also the sole caregiver of her ex-husband, who became paralyzed years after they separated. With her grandchildren, she’s patient and kind; they’re well-behaved and respectful, addressing her politely as “Mamá Amalia.”
Jorge was the oldest of the bunch. “He was a jokester. He was always just a kid to me,” Amalia said. “Humble, helpful.” Amalia Reyes taught Jorge to make baleadas, Honduran handmade flour tortillas with savory fillings, adamant that he should learn to take care of himself. “He made them better than me,” she conceded. “He became a man here.”
Jorge earned pocket change by running errands for neighbors. If someone sent him to the market only to realize they’d forgotten to ask him for something, he would race back a second or third time without protest. “I preferred him doing errands for 15 or 20 lempiras” — less than $1 — “and not taking what wasn’t his,” Amalia said. “I always told him not to take what wasn’t his.”
She chokes up thinking about a time she and Amalia Reyes burned his hands when he was 8 years old, as punishment for stealing. It turned out he had been telling the truth all along — the cellphone a neighbor accused him of taking soon turned up. Amalia was mortified she had chastised him for no reason. The regret still weighs on her.
When he was older, Jorge wanted to drop out of high school and get a job to help the family. But his grandmother wouldn’t let him. “He wasn’t very intelligent, he struggled in school. I never wanted to get him a permit to get a job, because I didn’t want him to feel obligated to work,” she said, standing beside the bed that Jorge shared with her until he was 15 years old, leaving a dent in the mattress next to the wall. She glances at that impression fondly now, a small memory of her boy, she said.
In Tijuana, we asked Jorge what kept him going through the challenging parts of his journey. “I thought about getting my family out of where they live,” he said. He worried gang threats could befall them after he disappeared and was especially concerned about his great-grandmother. “It’s the only thing I thought about.”
Life or Death
Sitting on the steps outside their shelter in Tijuana, we asked Jorge and his friend what it’s like to be a teenager in San Pedro Sula. “Being a survivor,” Jorge proclaimed, singing every syllable. They laughed in unison.
“The life of a young person is in danger because the gangs want to recruit you to make you work with them,” said his friend, Byron (not his real name). “And if you don’t want to,” Jorge chimed in, “two options: life or death.”
Both grew up in neighborhoods controlled by the MS-13 street gang. They said that because a kid with a backpack can pass as a student on the way to school, the gang often exploits young boys as drug mules. But if the child gets caught, or something happens to “the product,” consequences could be deadly. Neither let on if they personally had been victims of the scheme.
Amid generalized lawlessness in the wake of a U.S.-backed military coup in 2009, Honduras shot into international headlines with a new moniker: murder capital of the world. San Pedro Sula was most notorious, hitting a staggering 169 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012. The rate was three times that of the deadliest U.S. city that year, New Orleans, which suffered 56 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
Dany Pacheco, an evangelical pastor who works with at-risk and gang-involved youth in San Pedro Sula, agreed that survival can be a battle for marginalized youth. He noted that suicide rates among young people are on the rise, a trend documented by the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
“This should raise an alarm,” Pacheco said. “Our youth have reached a point of disillusionment.” But he’s observed another troubling shift, too: More young people are joining gangs by choice, not by force. With scarce job opportunities and little hope for a comfortable future, even youths striving to chart themselves on a different path can become desperate and turn to crime. “I’m not saying that they don’t leave because they’re in danger — that happens,” he said. “But not in the numbers we expect. The majority leave due to lack of opportunities.”
Poverty and unemployment spiked after the 2009 coup, and Honduras remains one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, according to the World Bank. The post-coup governments cut social spending while pouring resources into the military and police. In 2017, a widely condemned presidential election set off a fresh crisis. Anecdotally, for the thousands of Hondurans in exodus in recent months, life at home is untenable.
Tough-on-crime policing, ramped up with the creation of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s military police force, only increases pressures on youth, Pacheco said. While young men navigate gang threats, they’re also profiled as potential gang members by police keen to deliver results in the war on crime.
While we talked, the pastor took an urgent phone call. In one of the communities where he works, police had taken a young man to identify where the local gang dumped a body. It’s a virtual suicide mission, Pacheco said, certain the gang would hunt down the informant. But defying police also would have had consequences. “We’ve reached the point in this country that it’s a crime to be young,” he said.
In the Balance at the Border
The murders of the two teenagers in Tijuana cast into stark relief the dangers that migrants and refugees — especially unaccompanied minors — may face while stranded at the border. Artificially slow processing times at official points of entry, justified by highly questionable claims of maxed-out capacity, extend wait times and compound the risks.
“Tijuana is one of the most dangerous cities in the world for anyone. Putting children there, unaccompanied, without their families and their parents, puts them in serious danger,” said Kara Lynum, an immigration lawyer who visited Tijuana late last year and camped out with a group of Hondurans to pressure border officials to allow asylum-seekers, including eight unaccompanied minors, to pass. “If the law was being followed, these kids wouldn’t be in Mexico, they would be in the U.S. system — which is a very imperfect system, too, for unaccompanied children.”
Jorge had told his family that he would likely spend months in limbo in Tijuana. Once across the border, his uncle Fernando would take him in. Fernando told us by phone that he encouraged his nephew to consider returning to Honduras, but Jorge insisted it wasn’t an option. When Jorge boasted that he had learned to navigate bus routes in Tijuana, his uncle scolded him. “Listen to me please — don’t go out,” he told his nephew. The last time they spoke, around 3 p.m. on December 15, Fernando rattled off his usual pleas for caution. Hours later, Jorge no longer responded.
Gonzalez, the general coordinator of the shelter where the boys stayed, believes Mexico has a responsibility to protect vulnerable migrants, but lacks capacity to do so. “Unaccompanied migrants are the most vulnerable among the flow of migrants,” he said. “They should be a priority to be given access.”
Immigration advocates have warned that the Trump administration’s new “migrant protection protocols” for asylum-seekers, known as “remain in Mexico,” will thrust more Central Americans into vulnerable situations. Under the policy, asylum-seekers who pass a credible fear test to be able to make their case for asylum must wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court. Unaccompanied minors are exempt from the program, but recent events at the border have not inspired confidence that officials will abide by the law.
“On paper, unaccompanied minors are exempted from it,” Lynum said. “But since [immigration officials] have already shown disregard for the law with allowing unaccompanied minors to apply for asylum, I’m not confident that that will be followed either.”
Jorge’s friend Byron, who sat by his side in Tijuana recounting the perils of barreling atop La Bestia and skirting gangs at home in Honduras, managed to enter the United States. With his 18th birthday approaching, he received priority legal assistance to request asylum, according to a supervisor at the shelter.
Ruminating on their futures, Byron lamented that he never had managed to pick up much English. Neither had Jorge. “It’s something that excites me, because it’s a dream I couldn’t realize in Honduras,” Jorge said. “United States, for us, is the country of dreams, you know.”
He wanted to master English to be able to translate, become a mechanic, a flight attendant, or work on a ship crew. Amalia chuckled softly when we mentioned this to her, appearing to retreat into her thoughts. Jorge also wanted to be a chef or a clown, she recalled. “Poor thing,” she sighed, sifting through a drawer of photos and drawings. “He sure did dream.”
As Amalia poured over the memories, Amalia Reyes swayed in a rocking chair beside the front door. After losing a son, a grandson, and now her great-grandson, she tries not to dwell on the past. “Most who make the effort to leave don’t realize their dreams,” she remembered telling Jorge before he left. She had the same message for him as she had years earlier for her own son, who left to work as a ship hand and ended up dying at sea: “Don’t go,” she told them both.
In Jorge’s recollection, the 93-year-old’s parting words were even more stern. “‘Remember,’” he recalled her saying, “‘I don’t even have enough to bury myself, let alone bury you.’”
Reporting in Tijuana for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.