The day a child leaves home is rarely easy for any loving parent, but it is hard to imagine the moment comes with as much sadness and anxiety as in El Salvador, where families entrust their sons and daughters to strangers for the perilous and illegal journey to the United States.
Linda BenÃtez sobs as she recalls the morning her 17-year-old daughter Marilyn set off with a cousin to join a â€œcoyoteâ€ smuggler, who promised to take her through Guatemala and Mexico â€“ two of the worldâ€™s most violent countries â€“ and then across the border to Texas or Arizona.
The entire family â€“ siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles â€“ woke before dawn to see her off from their farmhouse in Rosario de Mora, a rural area set in rolling hills about an hourâ€™s drive from the capital, San Salvador. The mother wasnâ€™t sure they would ever met again. â€œIt was terrible,â€ she remembers.
Her evident suffering is at odds with the image often portrayed in the US media of uncaring or irresponsible Salvadorean parents who are behind a surge in migration because they recklessly send their children into danger.
But this image is as misleading as the suggestion that the â€œunaccompanied alien childrenâ€ â€“ as they are officially termed â€“ are motivated primarily by the lure of a wealthier lifestyle.
Instead it is more likely to be fear driving the children from their homes.
Marilynâ€™s father, Pablo, who drove his daughter that morning in a borrowed truck to meet the coyote, said the decision to let her leave was rational because gang wars are turning playgrounds into killing zones.
In recent years at least half a dozen children have been murdered at Marilynâ€™s school, according to the family. One of her closest friends is presumed to be among them after she went missing earlier this year. Nobody knows who will be next.
â€œShe is at risk if she goes and at risks if she stays. Itâ€™s a terrible situation. Nobody wants to leave their home and family. We want to be together. But we support her decision. There is a lot of pressure from the gangs. She needs to leave,â€ he said.
The dilemma is all too common in El Salvador, which is on course this year to become the worldâ€™s most murderous nation. Most of the victims are in their teens are early 20s. Rather than get sucked in, an increasing number of children seek the relative sanctuary of the US.
The number of unaccompanied Salvadorean minors apprehended in the US jumped to 17,019 last year from 1,466 in 2011, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Nobody knows how many successfully make the journey. But it is all too easy to find those who fail: you simply wait for the buses that arrive each Tuesday and Thursday at the office of foreign affairs and migration in central San Salvador.
If the United States is the promised land, this is the terminus of interrupted dreams, where minors who are caught on the road get repatriated, debriefed and returned to their relatives.
It is a place of weary children, worried relatives and grim tales. Mauricio Silva, a communications official at the centre, said he had seen babies as young as two months old who had been left in the care of coyotes, heard of young teens who were raped on the journey, and parents who were murdered in the place of an escaping child.
An NGO worker told of children being killed so their organs could be harvested for sale, minors forced into sexual slavery, teens recruited as drug mules and youths who die of dehydration on the hike through the desert border with the US.
But despite these horror stories, the vast majority of returnees planned to try again.
The Guardian spoke to more than a dozen among the six busloads who were sent home from Mexico on a single day earlier this month. Almost all were more afraid of gang violence in their neighbourhoods and schools than the risks of the road. The vast majority personally knew several people who had been killed and many more who had fled to the US.
Luciana LÃ³pez from Guatajiagua greeted her two grandsons with the news that their father had been murdered while they were away. He was stopped on the road and slashed to death five days before they returned.
The killers are believed to be gangsters from the Mara Salvatrucha, who had earlier threatened to kill everyone in the family in revenge for an attack on one of their members.
The dead manâ€™s teenage sons had tried to flee to the US with an uncle. Repatriated from Mexico, they said they were afraid to return home and would probably stay in a motel, then try again.
â€œI wish they could stay,â€ Luciana says. â€œBut Iâ€™m afraid of what will happen to them so I would rather they left the country.â€
The returnees are discouraged from trying again.
When they arrive, they receive two pupusas, a bar of chocolate and a drink. They are then interviewed in a room full of peers and officials.
Later, in a group session, a psychologist deftly debriefs the adolescents with a series of games, then warns them of the dangers of a fresh attempt to head north. â€œI canâ€™t tell you not to try again. That decision is for you and your families. But you need to know the risks. The roads you go through are the most dangerous in the world because of organised crime. Mexico has narco-cartels that control every step of the way, she says.
Government adverts on TV reinforce this message, but these do not appear to be working.
Mauricio Silva, an immigration ministry official, said the number of minors repatriated in the first seven months of this year was 3,661, an increase of almost 30% compared to the same period in 2014.
Most repatriations were now from Mexico, while the number from the United States has dropped â€“ a sign, he said, that Washingtonâ€™s support for its southern neighbourâ€™s migration authorities had effectively pushed the US border controls south. â€œMexico is now the invisible wall for migrants,â€ he said. On the day, we visit, six buses arrive with up to 37 repatriated people in each.
Few will stay long in El Salvador. In most cases, their payments to the coyotes â€“ which ranged in price from $1,500 to $9,000 â€“ bought a â€œtry one, get two freeâ€ package deal of three attempts.
Others, who already know the route well, plan to go solo. A man in his 20s who gives only his nickname, Willy, claims he has been deported twice from the US and once from Mexico. With a gang tattoo on his arm, no coyote will take him so he aims to go it alone.
â€œI walk and hitchhike. I beg on the street and dance for money,â€ he says. Whether this or robbery, it is risky. He shows scars on his neck and head that he said came from an attack with machetes in Mexico. He has also been jailed in Mexico for four days, but he is undaunted because he wanted to be reunited with his three children in Los Angeles.
â€œI will try again in a few days, as soon as I have done my laundry,â€ he grins. â€œI only have 800 Mexican pesos, but I will beg the rest.â€
Join a gang, or be killed
There has long been economic migration to the US. El Salvador is one of the poorest countries in the region and its rural population has been badly hit by a prolonged drought and the spread of the coffee rust fungus. Many also leave to be with family members who are already in the US.
But Ludin ChÃ¡vez, programme director for Save the Children in El Salvador, said violence had overtaken poverty in the past two years as the major driver for migration by minors.
â€œWe had a few cases before, but we have never seen such a huge wave and the age of the kids is getting lower and lower,â€ said ChÃ¡vez, who will raise the issue on 11 September at a session on migrant children at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. â€œThe saddest thing is that the kids say they have no option. If they donâ€™t join a gang, they will be killed.â€
To understand such fears, the Guardian visited the homes of several of the repatriated children, many of whom live in known gang areas. To protect the families from repercussions, all of the names of children and their parents in this article have been changed.
Francisco SÃ¡nchez, a 16-year-old from Ilopango, lives in a suburb about an hourâ€™s drive north of San Salvador. His home suggests he is not leaving because of poverty or a lack of love. The family are better off than many in their neighbourhood. Their second-floor home is spacious. There is a wide-screen plasma TV and a giant speaker system in the living room, which is decorated with huge portraits of the children.
But outside there are dangers. The house is inside the territory of the Barrio 18 gang. A short distance away is an area controlled by the rival Mara Salvatrucha. The border between the two is a nearby bridge. Crossing it â€“ even for a shopping trip or a football game â€“ can result in death. The previous month, an outsider was beaten with a steel pipe and then shot three times because he had wandered into the neighbourhood to see his girlfriend.
â€œItâ€™s crazy,â€ admits Franciscoâ€™s mother Clarissa, who has to pay extortion money â€“ either in cash or in kind â€“ to the gang. A 14-year-old girl comes to pick up the payments. â€œEveryone in the community has to chip in. They call it collaboration,â€ she says.
The threat level was raised a few months ago, when the mother heard that Barrio 18 planned to recruit Francisco. Joining is brutal. A senior gang figure told the Guardian that the initiation ceremony is a fight against four members to prove the newcomerâ€™s courage. If they survive, they are sometimes then ordered to kill to prove their loyalty. Leaving is not an option.
To avoid this, Clarissa took her son out of school and tried to apply for asylum for him through the US consulate, but the process looked set to drag on for years. Faced by the urgent threat, Francisco decided to contact a coyote.
â€œHe needs to go,â€ Clarissa said sadly. â€œIf he stays, heâ€™d either be murdered or he would have to join the gang and rob and kill. He doesnâ€™t have the heart for that.â€
So she packed him off at 4am on the 26 July with three changes of clothes, six sets of underwear, a hand towel, travel sickness pills, a packet of biscuits and his birth certificate.
Clarissa knew the dangers all too well. She had made the journey herself in 2006, when she was smuggled across the border in a heavy goods lorry. She and more than 150 others had to crawl through a hole in the floor of a container to get inside a secret compartment, which was covered in merchandise so it would not be noticed by inspectors. For three days, they remained cramped inside. To keep from going to the toilet, they were told to eat nothing except apples and to take pills that made them constipated. They slept squatting or lying on top of one another.
â€œIt was very dangerous,â€ Clarissa recalls. â€œThe air didnâ€™t circulate so it was hard to breathe.â€ Her one piece of advice to her son before he set off was that he should always find a seat near a window.
Clarissa walked the final stretch of her journey across the border into Arizona. One of her group was lost during the gruelling hike through the desert. â€œI wasnâ€™t sure I would survive,â€ she recalls.
She remained in the US for six years, sending back half the salary she made as an undocumented worker at a McDonaldâ€™s in Tennessee for house improvements and Franciscoâ€™s future. But she missed her son so much that she decided to return.
Now she is having to part with him again and using whatâ€™s left of the money she earned in the US to pay for his journey north to try to reach a cousin in Houston.
Francisco set out with a 15-year-old girl. â€œIt was the first time I have been away from home,â€ he said. The coyote put them and another 17 youths in a pick-up truck that took them on a back road across the border with Guatemala to avoid immigration controls. On the other side, they stopped briefly at a house, had a meal and then switched to a minibus for a long drive to an overnight lodge close to the Mexican border.
How they crossed is uncertain. The teenager was wary of revealing too much detail because he wants to try again. Another youth who was with him said they had to hike overland for more than a day before being picked up by another minibus. That second night, they stayed in a hotel with air conditioning and internet access, then took a public bus that was supposed to take them to the Federal District close to Mexico City. From there, the plan was to head up to the border and get a boat across the Rio Bravo and into Texas.
Instead, however, immigration caught them at a roadblock. They were taken to a detention centre at Acayucan, in Veracruz, where they remained for almost two weeks before being repatriated. Francisco plans to try again next week.
â€˜I heard the stories of people dying â€¦ but I wanted to go anywayâ€™
The pressure to get away is all too apparent.
As we leave the SÃ¡nchez home, two young esquineros (kids who keep watch for the local gang) keep an eye on his house in the park outside. A short distance away, near the bridge that divides the gang territories, soldiers with guns at the ready patrol both sides of the road checking IDs.
Yet, some still believe fears are exaggerated. Speaking privately, one immigration official at the centre was scornful. â€œIn many cases, I think people use fear of violence as an excuse,â€ he said. â€œThey can rarely prove why they are scared.â€
A senior member of Barrio 18, who asked to be known only by the name Santiago, claimed families lied about forced recruitment so their children will be granted asylum in the US.
â€œWe are being stigmatised, but that is OK because we hope that the mothers and grandmothers who tell these lies to the US will be able to secure a better life for their families,â€ he said. â€œI donâ€™t want my children to be gang members. Maybe I will also lie one day to the US government so they can have a better opportunity in a better country.â€
Others, however, who are close to the gangs say teenagers are rarely given a choice â€“ either because of threats or a lack of other opportunities in a poor and extremely unequal society.
Many of El Salvadorâ€™s problems were made in the United States, which has interfered in the politics and economics of this small Central American nation for more than a century. The devastating civil war of the 1980s and 90s was prolonged by the Carter and Reagan administrationâ€™s support for the military government. The gang wars that followed had their origins in the turf battles of Los Angeles.
Yet rather than blame their northern neighbour, most people appear to want to emigrate there.
The obstacle is not just the border, but a lack of money to pay for coyotes. Marilynâ€™s family â€“ who live nearby â€“ have been struck repeatedly by misfortune. In the early 1990s, they fled one home because it was shelled in the civil war. Their next house was destroyed by an earthquake in 2001.
Finding the $3,000 charged by the coyote was tough. The family had to put up their harvest as collateral for a loan. With little rain this year, they will probably still be paying back the money with next yearâ€™s crop.
They may soon have to borrow more. Marilynâ€™s younger brother now also wants to leave. Their mother is resigned to his departure.
â€œI canâ€™t send him yet because we donâ€™t have enough money,â€ said Linda. â€œBut Iâ€™m worried about him. He doesnâ€™t tell me what goes on at school because he doesnâ€™t want to upset me, but I heard the gangs are watching him.â€
It is no idle threat. A radio bulletin reveals later that while we were talking, four young men were gunned down in the neighbouring town by police. Thirty-six others were murdered elsewhere the same day â€“ the highest number up to that point this year.
Marilyn, who was caught and repatriated, is determined to escape and help her family by making it to the US, working in a fast-food restaurant and sending back some of her salary. Failing once has only spurred her on.
â€œI knew the journey would be difficult. I heard the stories of people dying in the desert or drowning in swamps, but I wanted to go anyway. I want a better life,â€ she said. She plans to try again this weekend.
Additional reporting by Patricia Carias. Additional research by Mahita Gajanan.