The Surge | Dallas Observer


The Surge

If you've stumbled on the nightly news or a daily paper of late, you've heard of the Surge: the wave of Central American children who are arriving, often alone, at the Texas border, and walking right into the arms of Border Patrol agents.

To follow the news is to believe that they started coming last fall, in response to some invitation on heavy card stock and stamped with the presidential seal. The truth is more complicated: Since 2011, as Guatemala, El Salvador and especially Honduras have become overpowered by cartel-controlled gangs, and poverty and violence have gripped their towns and villages, kids as young as 7 and 8 have been making the trek at rates that double every year, sometimes with coyotes and often alone. Many have legal grounds to stay, under laws designed to protect victims of violence and persecution; others don't but choose to make the journey anyway, hoping to somehow avoid deportation or disappear before it comes. Many are reunified with family in Texas — more than 4,000 this year alone, and many more thousands before that — and some wind up in foster care.

We began writing about these kids in April, before their plight ever graced Brian Williams' teleprompter. We've been writing about them since. What follows are a handful of the stories we've written, in print and at, that we hope will help explain what causes the kids to flee, what happens when they get here, and what Dallas is doing in response. Joe Tone, editor

How They Get Here

By Obed Manuel

One day in the summer of 2011, Elvin and Helmer Villanueva were sitting at the kitchen table with their mother and father at their home in Honduras. It was a good day, a stable one during a period of instability. Hermenegildo Villanueva, the boys' father, had been targeted by MS-13, the notorious gang that rules the slums of Central America and has helped make Honduras the world's most murderous country. They'd demanded a "war tax" from his shoe sale business for several weeks, but he continually refused to pay. For the moment, anyway, things seemed to have calmed down some.

Then the bullets came. They crashed through a small window and found their target, the boys' dad. They watched him die, and then they fled.

First they went into hiding in Honduras and then, when that proved impossible, the brothers joined their brother-in-law on a charter bus to the Mexico-Guatemala border. They sneaked into Mexico, hiking through a mountainous forest and facing the elements, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, snakes, blazing days and freezing nights. "If something stung us or we ran out of food, we would have died there," Elvin says. "There was nothing there."

The payoff came when they arrived at Tenosique, Tabasco, home to one of the first major loading stations for their ride north: La Bestia, or "The Beast," a train — a network of them, actually — that rambles through Mexico and is used by migrants to travel north. The train station was heavily guarded, so they boarded at 2 a.m., while it was already on its way out of the city. Elmer and his brother-in-law got on first as Elvin ran alongside, trying to keep up. His sweaty palms reached out for a handle or a railing or anything. He jumped and grabbed on. His legs dangled dangerously close to the wheels, but a hand reached out and pulled him up.

"If you're lucky, you get on. If not, you stay and wait for the next one," Elvin says. "For someone getting on for the first time, it's very dangerous because you don't know what to hold on to and you don't know how difficult it is to hang on."

The train chugged toward Mexico City, its rooftop covered by travelers. They stopped between Coatzacoalcos and Tierra Blanca for three days while the railroad was repaired. When it suddenly rumbled back to life, they say, it sliced the legs off a man who was lying on the tracks. "He stayed there," Elvin says. "We were in the middle of nowhere, so who knows what happened to him?"

Between Orizaba and Tierra Blanca, a man stood up to stretch his legs. A tree branch caught him and he fell between two cars and onto the tracks to be crushed and sliced by the wheels. And then they arrived at the Lecheria Station, near Mexico City, the most perilous stop yet.

The powerful Zetas cartel is known to kidnap unwary migrants at that station, to be held for ransom or murdered as a show of force. Knowing this, the boys slipped off the train and quickly made their way to some hills near the station, to hide until the train was ready to take off. From there, they say, they looked on as three black trucks carrying Zetas drove up to the tracks. Several armed men then derailed a cart and kidnapped at least 50 migrants.