TAPACHULA, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Juan walked to school one morning a year ago in El Salvador, two men on a motorbike sped by and fatally shot a boy on the street in front of him.
The shooter took a good look at Juan’s face. As a witness to a gang murder, Juan was now in the firing line.
“They said I had to be part of their gang,” said Juan, 15, who declined to give his real name for security reasons.
Juan’s mother, Teresa, took him out of school and he went into hiding for six months, living with relatives.
But then came the death threats from gang members by phone, and Teresa felt she had no choice but to flee in October.
“We had to leave,” Teresa said, sitting on a bench with her sons at the Three Angels shelter for asylum seeking families in the Mexican city of Tapachula near the Guatemalan border.
“We left home as if we were just going for a walk not to raise any suspicion,” she said, lamenting the loss of her job at a garment factory and a house she owned.
Entire city neighborhoods in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, are controlled by two powerful gangs - Barrio 18 and its rival Mara Salvatrucha.
To maintain control, gang members extort money at gunpoint, rape women and girls, murder, and force children to join their ranks, said the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
Rising gang violence in these three countries has made them among the world’s deadliest countries outside a war zone in terms of murder rates, the UNHCR says, and this is driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes every year.
“It’s a refugee crisis. The situation in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is critical,” Paola Bolognesi, head of UNHCR’s field office in Tapachula, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“People don’t have an option but to flee criminal gangs who exert very strong pressure on communities. We are seeing entire families of up to 20 people fleeing to save their lives.”
MEXICO FOR SANCTUARY
Mexico was until recently a transit country for Central American migrants seeking to reach the United States in the search of a better life.
But the escalating violence has led to a surge in the number of asylum claims from Central American migrants who are increasingly looking to Mexico for refuge, reaching levels not seen since the region’s civil wars ended decades ago.
In the first 9 months of 2016, Mexico received nearly 7,000 asylum requests - more than five times more than in 2013.
“We expect this trend to continue so the number of migrants claiming asylum in Mexico is set to more than double this year compared with 2016,” Bolognesi said.
Other Latin America nations have also felt the impact. In Costa Rica asylum claims have risen 176 percent since 2013.
“I pray they give us asylum. We can’t go back to El Salvador,” said Teresa, who expects a decision on her asylum claim within three months.
“We can make a life here,” said Teresa, who hopes to get a garment factory job in Mexico and send her children to school.
Under international pressure, Mexico is receiving more refugees. Mexico’s recognition rate for asylum seekers increased to about 64 percent in 2016, up from around 40 percent in 2013.
But this is still just a fraction of the 400,000 people crossing Mexico’s southern border every year with thousands of migrants who could qualify for refugee status slipping through the net.
“Many Central American migrants fleeing gang violence still don’t consider themselves refugees and know they have the right to claim asylum,” said Bolognesi, adding this lack of awareness was the biggest challenge.
A border crackdown in 2014 has also meant some migrants who could claim refugee status do not have the opportunity to do so.
Under U.S.-pressure, Mexico has attempted to stem the influx of migrants by beefing up border security through its “Southern Border Plan”, which has seen deportations of Central Americans from Mexico soar to nearly 200,000 in 2015 from 107,000 in 2014.
“The Southern Border Plan has meant more Central American migrants have been deported from Mexico, some without a proper analysis of their protection needs,” Bolognesi said.
Experts expect this trend to continue under U.S.President-elect Donald Trump who is likely to put more pressure on Mexico to deport more illegal migrants and to accept more asylum seekers to stem the flow to the United States border.
At the Good Shepherd shelter, on the outskirts of Tapachula, about half of 44 migrants there in mid-December were asylum seekers with posters on the wall informing them of their rights.
“For some migrants, it’s literally a question of life and death,” said Jose Ramon Martinez, who helps run the shelter.
Maria, a migrant from El Salvador at the shelter, hopes she and her children are granted refugee status in Mexico.
Until recently, Maria and her husband owned a thriving food business in El Salvador but one day last year she received a call from a gang member in prison who demanded $50 a day.
“We paid for nearly a year and then we just couldn’t pay anymore. The business went bankrupt,” said Maria, 36, as she cooked lunch for migrants in the shelter’s kitchen.
“The gangs crush you. They don’t let you prosper.”
The breaking point was when gang members waited on the street for her children, aged 11 and 14, to return from school.
“My children are easy prey for the gangs. If we didn’t leave, their future would be with the gangs,” said Maria, 36.
A decision on her refugee status is expected within weeks.
“I don’t have an American dream. I just want to live in peace. I feel safer here,” Maria said.