CNN films migrants crossing Rio Grande

CNN's Nick Valencia speaks with a group of migrants intercepted at the US-Mexico border who say they fled Central America to escape extortion and death threats.

Posted: Jun 29, 2018 1:47 PM
Updated: Jun 29, 2018 1:49 PM

The woman says she had a "normal' life in Honduras' capitol -- a home, a job and a son she'd do anything to protect.

The threat of gangs was always present, she said: in the past year, three boys from her neighborhood were killed for refusing to join MS-13. Then the violence came into her home and threatened to take her son, she said, leaving her no choice but to flee to the United States.

Less than a week later, they were captured on the banks of the Rio Grande by an agent with US Customs and Border Protection.

CNN was with a CBP agent when he encountered the mother and her son with four other migrants -- a man and his three-year-old son and two unaccompanied minors. Per CBP's order, CNN is not naming the migrants.

They are among many families coming across the border each day, seemingly unaware of the political furor over their fate as they leave their homes fearing for their lives. Their clean clothes and relatively fresh appearance suggest they intended to cross legally and may not have been trying to evade capture, agent Robert Rodriguez said.

But their future remains unclear amid the fluid conditions created by the administration's zero tolerance approach to prosecuting illegal border entry. While the Justice Department will continue to prosecute adults in federal court who cross the border illegally, President Donald Trump's executive order asks that families be housed together "where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources."

The CBP agent followed a raft upstream carrying the group to a landing. He encountered them in a thicket of tall grass and trees, and told them he would bring them to a central processing center in McAllen, Texas. After he brought them to a vehicle, he gave them water and asked several questions to ensure they were OK.

Before they began the next part of their journey, they shared some details of the life-or-death choices that brought them to this point.

'I would never let my son be captured'

Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, originated decades ago among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, using violent crime to intimidate rival gangs, law enforcement and the public. The gang has expanded its network through recruitment and migration in the United States and Central America, often targeting for recruitment boys the same as this woman's son.

The woman and her son sit in the back of the car on a dusty road as she relays her account, both of them wearing black and white soccer jerseys.

Members of MS-13 routinely prowl the Tegucigalpa neighborhood where they lived, she says. The gang uses them as "halcones," or look-outs, she said. They give them guns and post them around their territory, grooming them to become gang members, she said.

On Saturday, gang members came to her home with an ultimatum, she said, tears rolling down her face: Give up her son to them or they would both be killed.

They fled the next morning, she said. Her son is an American citizen, born in Dallas, Texas, and she hoped they would find safety, along with medical care for an untreated tumor in his nose.

Her son starts to cry as he hears her story. He didn't want to leave Honduras, he says, and he's sorry for putting them in this position.

She says she had no idea that, until recently, families were being separated at the border. But she still would have come even if she knew, she said. It was her son's wish that they leave.

"For me, it was very difficult. I had a normal life," she said. "Of course, I would never let my son be captured."

A life-or-death choice

The man in the group describes equally dire circumstances. His three-year-old son squirms next to him as he shares his story.

He's says he's here from Honduras because he's a victim of extortion. Strangers would show up to his house and ask for money, threatening to kill him and his sons, he said. He told police but they did nothing, leaving him wondering if they were possibly involved, he said.

He had to leave and seek asylum at the border, he said. He left behind a one-year-old in a place where he hopes he'll be safe. The journey with a child was difficult, he said, with many sleepless nights.

He also says he did not know about the family separation policy when he left. But he said he would prefer, "a million times" over, a few days struggling in the United States than one more in Honduras under the threat of death.

What does he think of people who might say he doesn't belong in the United States? Those who think he's a criminal who should be detained and deported?

"Those people are people who maybe haven't lived what one (like me) lives through."

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