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At a Mexican shelter, migrants who fled death threats prepare for 'zero tolerance' at the border

Lourdes Cruz and her 5-year-old son, Jorge Luis, arrived at the Frontera Digna shelter on Tuesday night after traveling from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Cruz is fleeing from gangs that threatened to kill her if she didn't give them half of her paychecks. [LAURA MOREL   | Times]
Lourdes Cruz and her 5-year-old son, Jorge Luis, arrived at the Frontera Digna shelter on Tuesday night after traveling from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Cruz is fleeing from gangs that threatened to kill her if she didn't give them half of her paychecks. [LAURA MOREL | Times]
Published Jun. 22, 2018

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico — In Honduras, their lives were surrounded by death.

Lourdes Cruz had just started a new job when the maras, the deadly gangs plaguing Central America, demanded half of her paycheck. She quit her job, but they found her number and called to tell her: pay up or die.

Luis German Ruiz's brother was robbed and killed seven years ago. In April, his cousin was shot dead. His uncle, a taxi driver, was gunned down a few weeks later. The killers told Ruiz he was next, because he could identify them.

In the last month, they each made the journey north with their sons, getting off buses in this Mexican border town and finding refuge at a temporary shelter. They had planned to walk the nine blocks to the bridge that connects Mexico to Eagle Pass, Texas. When they reached the U.S. side, they would ask for asylum.

But the aggressive enforcement at the border, which culminated in recent weeks with the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy to prosecute everyone who crosses, awaits them.

They are grappling with that uncertainty, but going back isn't an option. They know what's behind them.

***

The shelter is called Frontera Digna. Border with dignity.

Elizabeth Cardenas Mendoza has worked there eight years and welcomes newcomers to her office. Under the glass top of her desk, a map of the United States peeks from under binders and papers.

"This is a place of God," a poster reads, "where you will find a few days of peace and rest."

For three days and two nights, migrants get breakfast, dinner, a TV, phones, clean bathrooms. There are about 35 beds. Plastic chairs are scattered across the courtyard, where people gather to play dominoes or checkers. Clothing lines hang in the back, next to a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Usually, two or three new migrants show up at the shelter's iron door every day. But lately, Cardenas said, that number has reached up to 20. The numbers are driven by what's happening in their home countries, by gang violence, by slain loved ones, by extortion. Some people are escaping poverty.

They come from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala.

They worry most about fleeing, not about what comes next and what's happening in America.

"All of this migration is tied to the problems in other countries," Cardenas said.

They tell her that they have no choice but to risk it all.

***

On Wednesday morning, Cruz sat in the courtyard with her 5-year-old son. Jorge Luis squirmed and smiled at his mom, asking her politely to open a bag of muffins.

They arrived at the shelter the night before, after traveling for 10 days from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, a distance of more than 1,900 miles.

Earlier this year, she had started a new job at a well-known Honduran cleaning company, making less than $400 a month. Soon after, a man visited her at work and pretended to know her. He was a gang member. From now on, he told her, she had to give them half of her earnings.

For three months, they collected the cash. But Cruz decided to quit, preferring to make less selling tamales and tortillas than being accosted by gangs.

They persisted, threatening to kill her.

"You give them the money or they take your life," she said. "And if you give them the money, you can't feed your children."

She feared the maras would keep their promise and decided to flee. Cruz, 32, left her two daughters, ages 12 and 15, with her mother in a safer town outside of the capital. She worried that the gang would follow her, so she boarded a bus, carrying only a purse containing one change of clothing for her and her son.

On the way to Mexico, a friend warned her about immigration officials tearing children away from parents who crossed the border.

She couldn't imagine.

"What are they doing to these kids?" she asked, her eyes wide before glancing at her son.

For Cruz, her next decision will determine the course of her life. She could stay in Mexico and find work or finish her journey as she intended: reaching the United States. For so many, that is the promised land.

Cruz will have to make a choice soon. By this weekend, her three-day stay at the shelter ends.

***

On a recent afternoon, Ruiz sat under the shade of a tree, scrolling through phone messages from his mother in Honduras. In a few days, he would receive an envelope with copies of death certificates for his loved ones.

Then, armed with proof of the violence he left behind, Ruiz, 46, plans to seek asylum at the border with his 9-year-old son, Luis Fernando.

They arrived at Frontera Digna after taking about 15 bus routes to Piedras Negras. Ruiz, who made $8 a day by selling home goods, sold his motorcycle, stove, TV and bed to afford the trip.

He'd heard of the crackdown at the border. But he has a cousin in Houston, who they could stay with, and he can find work at a friend's landscaping business.

Ruiz looked at his son, sitting on a tree trunk, his fingers sticky from eating Cheetos.

"I'm scared, but I'm more scared of returning to Honduras. I will lose his life and mine," Ruiz said. "I need to find refuge."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.