By Jose Cortes
IXTEPEC Mexico (Reuters) - Driven from home by threats of gang violence and extortion and drawn to the U.S. by hopes of education and opportunity, Carlos, a 15-year-old from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is stuck in southern Mexico, living in a shelter and trying to figure out how to get to California.
He says he has an uncle there, who told him that in America he can go to school and find a job. He says that back in Honduras there's a local gang that wants to kill him. He's thinking of climbing on board "La Bestia", or "The Beast", one of the freight trains that carry thousands of illegal immigrants north through Mexico.
Speaking last week from the rail yards in the town of Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Carlos is one of the thousands of young people hoping to reach the U.S. from their impoverished and violent homes in Central America. In the eight months ended June 15, the U.S. has detained about 52,000 children at the Mexican border, double the figure the year earlier. There's no telling how many have gotten through.
Another 15-year-old Honduran, Jeffrey from the town of La Ceiba, said he was on the road because gang members wanted him to pay 500,000 Honduran lempiras, or about $24,000, not to kill him. Neither boy wanted his surname used.
"My parents had to get me out of the country," said Jeffrey, speaking from the southern Mexican city of Arriaga last week. "The gangs wanted me to become a member, and they were extorting me. In the gangs, they end up killing, and I don't want to die."
He and his father left his mother and two sisters behind and are now trying to reach friends who have already made their way to Houston. Jeffrey says he wants to be a lawyer.
They entered Mexico by skirting a border crossing on foot through the jungle, but are not sure of their next moves. They have no contacts in northern Mexico to help them and don't even know where to try to cross the U.S. border.
Still, they're taking their chances going forward rather than return to Honduras, where the murder rate is nearly 20 times higher than in the United States.
Some combination of hope and fear is driving these children, but the hope side of it is probably illusory. Human traffickers are spreading rumors that illegal immigrants will receive permits to stay in the U.S, while some news stories published in Central America reinforce the idea that children who make it to the U.S. will be treated leniently.
Cecilia Munoz, President Barack Obama's domestic policy advisor, said last week that criminal organizations and smuggling networks are deliberately misinforming people of what they can expect when they come to the U.S.
In fact, there have been some policy changes in the past few years that may be fueling the rumor mill. In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave immigration officials discretion to weigh various factors in apprehension, detention, and deportation, particularly in the case of children.
And in 2012, Obama's administration said young immigrants who had been in the United States since 2007, and never been convicted of a felony among other requirements, could apply for a two-year authorization to stay and work in the country.
Young people who received this authorization, called "deferred action," can now apply for a renewal. New arrivals, however, are not eligible.
The fear element, however, seems all too real. Both Carlos and Jeffrey said they felt their lives were threatened by gangs.
While violence has for years been a constant, Central American and U.S. officials say human smugglers, or 'coyotes,' often members of or in league with gangs, are convincing families that their children will be allowed to stay if they reach the United States.
It's big business for gangs and smugglers, who charge would-be migrants thousands of dollars a head to pass through their territory and over the border into the U.S.
Most of the coyotes are Mexican, operating along the border with Guatemala and brokering passage for migrants along drug cartel smuggling routes, said Mark Ungar, a former adviser to the Honduran police.
Migrants can pay coyotes and cartels between $1,000 and $12,000 to reach the U.S., and those who do are the lucky ones. Some end up in forced labor or the sex trade, while others are recruited to the ranks of organized crime.
After street gangs, known as "maras," push many children out of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Central American countries, they often come under the influence of Mexico's infamous drug cartels. The most notorious cartel, the Zetas, is a powerful force along the major access routes to the U.S. that pass through the states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas.
Illegal immigrants present an easy target for the Zetas, who were blamed for the massacres of scores of migrants found in mass graves in Tamaulipas between 2010 and 2011.
At war with other gangs over drug smuggling routes and markets, the Zetas, whose reach extends from the Mexican border deep into Central America, see migrants as potential new members of their crime ring, experts say.
"The biggest risk these boys face is being recruited as hitmen," said Mexican priest Alejandro Solalinde, who campaigns for migrants' rights.
(Reporting by Joanna Zuckerman; Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Simon Gardner in Mexico City and Caren Bohan in Washington; Editing by Dave Graham, Kieran Murray and John Pickering)