By Anastasia Moloney
AHUACHAPAN, El Salvador, Nov 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - W hen 18-year-old Ricardo left his home in El Salvador's western province of Ahuachapan early one morning last year, he did not look back despite his tearful mother begging him to stay.
"I knew the journey north to the U.S. would be dangerous but I didn't see any other way out of the hunger and poverty. I couldn't bear to see my mother struggle to sell tortillas in the street all day any more," said Ricardo, who did not want to use his real name.
He crossed into Guatemala and trekked for two days through the jungle before reaching Mexico.
Immigration officials there boarded his bus and arrested him. He spent 10 days in a cell where he says he was beaten by fellow undocumented immigrants before being deported back to El Salvador.
"My American dream stopped then and there. I had failed. I returned home to find my mother had been bedridden for weeks with worry," said Ricardo.
Nearly 70,000 children travelling alone - mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - have been caught crossing the U.S. border with Mexico this year, more than double the number apprehended in 2012.
The record surge in illegal child migrants reached a peak in July, sparking a political row in Washington about how to deal with a crisis U.S. President Barack Obama then called "an urgent humanitarian situation".
Lawmakers have approved only a fraction of the $3.7 billion in emergency government funds Obama asked for in July to deal with the crisis.
While the numbers of children from Central America showing up at the U.S. border has fallen since then, the root causes of the exodus remain.
Grinding poverty, few jobs, and drug-fuelled gang violence continue to drive thousands of teenagers to leave their homes.
On Thursday, Obama announced executive actions to impose sweeping immigration reform, easing the threat of deportation for about 4.7 million undocumented immigrants.
One initiative set to start next month would give refugee status to certain vulnerable children and youths from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, who are not already in the U.S. but who have a parent legally residing there.
Maria describes how her 16-year-old niece was forced to leave El Salvador after receiving threats from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang in their neighourhood in the western town of Garita Palmera.
The teenager, who made the journey to the U.S. in July, has been reunited with her mother who migrated there a decade ago.
"A gang member had his eye on my niece. We feared he would rape her. Gang members threatened us at our home. They demanded to see my niece and if I'd received remittances from her mother," said Maria, who for security reasons did not give her real name.
"It became dangerous even for her to walk to school by herself. I had to walk my niece to school and wait at the school gates. Eventually she stopped going to school."
Entire neighbourhoods in El Salvador are controlled by street gangs known as maras who number around 60,000 members.
Their presence in cities, and increasingly in rural areas, is tangible. The letters "MS" of the Mara Salvatrucha and other graffiti by rival gang Barrio 18 can be seen on buildings, marking gang territory.
Teenagers stand on street corners, checking who enters and leaves a neighbourhood, while other gang members frisk strangers and demand to see identity cards.
In recent years, the maras have expanded their reach, bolstered by alliances made with Mexican drug cartels coming into Central America.
With El Salvador's 2012 gang truce in tatters, murders are on the rise. This year on average 11 people a day were murdered, making this country of 6 million among the world's most violent.
The violence is driving families to send their children alone to the U.S., research shows. Nearly 60 percent of 404 children interviewed for a U.N. refugee agency report said they had fled abroad because they feared being recruited or faced harm by armed groups, including drug cartels, by gangs, or by state security forces.
The findings echo research by Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright researcher who interviewed 322 El Salvador children deported earlier this year.
The fear of gangs and violence was the most frequently cited reason for leaving at 58 percent, compared to 35 percent for family reunification and 27 percent for work, she said.
But the El Salvadoran government downplays gang violence as the main reason why children are leaving.
"We don't deny there's a problem linked to violence but violence is not the primordial reason. The fundamental reason for 12 to 18-year-olds migrating north to the U.S. is reunification, to be reunified with their relatives, mothers and or fathers," Tania Camila Rosa, head of human rights at El Salvador's foreign affairs ministry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Some adults want to find better economic conditions. For women, domestic violence ... is a very evident reason for their migration. We insist the reasons are multi-causal."
The government also blames the child migrant crisis on false rumours spread by human smugglers, known as coyotes, who charge around $7,000 to guide each person for the six-day journey to the U.S. border.
"Coyotes wrongly tell parents their children will be allowed to automatically stay in the U.S.. Due to the laws and processes that exist there, children aren't deported immediately," Rosa said.
To stem the exodus, the El Salvadoran government has launched a campaign to highlight the dangers children can face along the journey, including human traffickers, sexual abuse and forced labour.
A free missing persons hotline has also been set up for parents looking for their children in El Salvador, the U.S., and Mexico, while more El Salvadoran consulates have been set up in the U.S., Rosa said.
"Our responsibility is to inform families about the risks in sending their children. Not all children make it to the U.S. alive."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney. Editing by Emma Batha)
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