WORCESTER, Mass./PHOENIX, Arizona (Reuters) - Diego Canil Ordonez was just 16 years old when he realized he needed to get out of Guatemala after gang members arrived at the store where he worked to shake down his boss for money.
His boss didn't show up for work the next day, but the gang members did. They demanded cash from Canil Ordonez, who had seen his job at the store as a step up after spending years shining shoes to support his family, starting at age 9.
"They took me out of the store, and they took the money and they beat me up," Canil Ordonez, now 21, recounted in a recent interview at a social service center in Worcester, Massachusetts. "They were following me everywhere."
Fearing for his life, Canil Ordonez joined the ranks of a growing number of children from Central America to risk all on a hazardous journey to the United States, driven in part by widespread gang violence and grinding poverty.
During a harrowing trek across Mexico, his traveling companion, an 18-year-old male, was briefly kidnapped and held for ransom. The journey ended when the pair surrendered to immigration authorities in Texas; Canil Ordonez's friend could no longer walk because of injuries to his feet.
The number of such young migrants taken into custody by U.S. officials has risen dramatically in the past year, and while most are sent home, those who are fleeing abusive parents or gang-dominated communities can be granted refugee status, an October report from the Women's Refugee Commission found. The commission is a part of the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization founded in 1933 and based in the United States.
Some 13,625 such children were taken into custody and referred to children's services in the 12 months that ended in September, according to updated figures the commission provided to Reuters. That marks a sharp rise from the roughly 6,000 to 8,000 they served in each of the prior five years.
Most of these children come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the study found. They are fleeing street gangs such as MS-13, which has been accused of human trafficking, kidnapping, rape and murder, as well as crushing poverty, it said.
Central American children are caught between gang members who threaten to kill those who will not join their ranks and police who assume they already are gang-affiliated, the study found.
Most of the 151 people - 129 boys and 22 girls - interviewed by the researchers of the report, titled "Forced from Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America," said they would make the dangerous trek again rather than remain in their homelands.
"These children exhibited both an urgent need to escape and an incredible will to survive," the report said. "Until conditions for children in these countries change substantially, it is expected that this trend will become the new norm."
The rise in arrivals over the past year comes as the overall number of arrests on the U.S. border with Mexico is at its lowest level since the early 1970s. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official disagreed with the report's conclusion, saying the surge may not represent a long-term trend.
"This increase, however, is not inconsistent with historic migration trends and patterns, which are cyclical and vary month by month over a year," said the official, who declined to have his name published citing department policy.
The journey poses a host of dangers all its own, according to the report and Reuters interviews with five young men who made the illegal trip as minors. Many migrants travel across Mexico atop freight trains, with the constant risk of falling. They are also easy targets for robberies and kidnappings.
Franklin Chavarria was kidnapped and held for ransom by members of the violent Zetas drug cartel in Mexico when he was 16 years old and making his second attempt to enter the United States.
"The Zetas are dangerous. They want money, and they want to know if you have family in the States who can pay," Chavarria, now 20, said in an interview in Phoenix, Arizona.
"After five days I said to myself, 'What am I doing here? What's happening? What are they thinking?' I decided to get out before something bad happened," he said, adding that he managed to escape and keep going.
U.S. officials launched a public awareness campaign in Latin American media this month aimed at dissuading unaccompanied children from attempting the trip.
Videos, posters, radio spots and movie trailers are to run through March to illustrate the perils from "the perspective of grieving loved ones left behind," Customs and Border Patrol said in a news release.
Chavarria, who is originally from Honduras, now lives with a foster family in Arizona and attends high school. Canil Ordonez lives with a foster family in Connecticut and attends community college. Both now have green cards that make them legal permanent residents of the United States.
Their stories are typical. Many of the children granted refugee status are put in the care of Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities USA, who find foster families around the nation to care for them, lawyers to help seek citizenship and counselors to address the trauma many have experienced.
"Over the years, I've seen children coming who are more and more troubled, more and more traumatized," said Mary Bartholomew, a senior program manager at Lutheran Social Services in Worcester, who has been working with unaccompanied immigrant children for nearly a decade.
"Many of them have seen siblings murdered, many of them are pursued for gang membership ... many of them feel the pressure to join because some other family member is going to be harmed besides themselves," she said.
Two gang-related fears drive many young people to flee their countries: the risk of becoming a victim of violence or, for some, being forced to commit violent acts to survive.
"Those guys, they make you to do things that you don't want to do," said Selvin Munoz, now 23 and living in Worcester, who fled Honduras at age 16. "You're trying to be someone in life, but you can't, unless you join them selling drugs, killing people. And you don't want to do that. You want to be a better person."
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther