Teenaged siblings Mariela* and Cesar* were catching up with friends on their front porch when two young men approached the group. The men, members of a notorious local gang, shot one friend dead then strolled away without saying a word.

In recent years, Honduras – part of Northern Central America along with El Salvador and Guatemala – has experienced a dramatic escalation in violence by organised criminal gangs called maras. Murders and beatings are everyday occurrences and are often witnessed by children.

Since 2011, the number of people fleeing from Central America to neighbouring countries has grown ten-fold. At the heart of this silent crisis is an unprecedented number of children who have no choice but to run for their lives.

For Mariela and Cesar, witnessing their friend’s murder was just the beginning of their terrifying ordeal. Gang members began to threaten them as they made the journey to and from school.

“At school, outside, they threatened to kill us,” says Mariela.

Mariela and Cesar were teenagers when a street gang threatened their lives. Image modified to protect identities.

 

In Honduras, the maras carve up cities and towns into patchworks of fiefdoms. Teenagers and even young boys are menaced until they join, given 24 hours to choose between recruitment and death. Girls are pressured into becoming “girlfriends” to gang members – in effect, their sex slaves. Hundreds of young people have been killed over the past few years.

Anabel*, Mariela and Cesar’s mother, was desperate to keep her children safe. Though she was reluctant to interrupt their schooling, she made them stay at home and keep out of sight.

Eventually, she decided that they had no choice but to flee Honduras.

“They threatened them [my children] many times. I had to run for my children’s sake,” Anabel says.

Mariela agrees. “I was afraid,” she says, pointing at her brother – “afraid of him being killed for no reason.”

Anabel and her two children made the long journey to Mexico, where they received support from UNHCR and were recently granted asylum.

Once they are settled in their new home, Mariela and Cesar will be able to think about resuming their education for the first time since they were forced to drop out almost a year ago.

The siblings both say their goal is to finish school, but after that they have very different ambitions. Cesar has his heart set on being a dancer; Mariela aims to become a doctor.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” she says.

* Names changed to protect identities.

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