The U.S. Tries to Deport Not Protect Children Fleeing Violence in Central America
"No conocí mi niñez," he says. "Si la hubiera conocido creo que no hubiera trabajado." (Translation: "I'd never met my childhood," he says, as if his childhood were a person. "If I'd met her, I don't think I would have worked.")
Andrew Pielage Peña shows his assignment to Jane Geary, his ESL teacher, in summer school at Central High School.
Darlin was excited the day his parents sent him to work for a woman named Reina, owner of a storage depot for wholesale sales of alcohol. He was 7. He left the house dressed in his best clothes, a school uniform of white shirt and blue pants. They took the dirt road from La Sidra past a few rivers to reach Cucuyagua, in the department of Copán, a political subdivision of the country not unlike a state.
From then on, he was on his own.
"I lived alone like that," he says. "I put my socks and my shoes on. I learned those things I set out to learn."
Reina was a short woman with a quick temper. Her daughter was even worse. She made him work at nights when the trucks arrived packed with beer. It was a treat when the drivers gave him a few lempiras -- Honduran currency -- for helping to unload heavy cases of Tecate, Carta Blanca, and Barena.
Darlin lifted his weight in beer.
He unloaded and loaded cases all night. It was hard to wrap his arms around the boxes. Sometimes, the cases would fall and the bottles inside would explode, drenching him.
But there was no time for a bath. So he got used to the stench.
He saved 2,000 lempiras (less than $100) in two years from the tips. Reina's daughter said she opened an account for him under her name in the local credit union. But he never saw the money, which he wanted to give to his family.
For two years, Reina fed him and gave him a place to stay. She let him go to school from 7 to 9 each night. But she bought clothes and toys only for her grandchildren.
One day, when Darlin was 8, they sent him to buy a pair of shoes.
"Each foot is like 150 lempiras," Reina complained. That was about $7 each. When he returned to the warehouse, Reina's 2-year-old granddaughter ran to greet him on the street, and a car almost hit her.
Reina's daughter called to him: "Come over. Give me your belt," he recalls.
"And she beat me. They didn't explain. I didn't know why they were beating me," he says.
They punished him often but never said why.
"Allá en Honduras hasta a los perros odian," he says. "There in Honduras, they even hate the dogs."
When he was 10, he tried to go back to his mother.
But she had four other children to feed. That's when she told him a stranger had come into the house asking for water and raped his 7-year-old sister while she was in another room.
"That wouldn't have happened if I'd been there," he says now, lowering his head and pausing. "That wouldn't have happened."
His dream became to get paid to help his siblings. So he returned to Reina's and stayed there until he was 12.
She never did pay him. So he left, traveling eight hours from Cucuyagua to the coffee plantations in San Juan Itibuca, where coffee became his life. Driving trucks with coffee, lifting bags with coffee, pulping coffee, and drying coffee in the sun.
He did everything but steal coffee, Peña says. It was a common practice in the area. His boss, Sergio, a man who sold grains to Nescafé, was paranoid.
Sergio didn't pay him much, but he built a church in a nearby town and everybody loved him for that. Peña never had time to visit it. He slept in a warehouse after working from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sometimes, he didn't eat. But he drank a lot of coffee.
Sergio's paranoia about people stealing coffee became unbearable. So Peña escaped and went to the only person he knew there, Rafael, a distant family friend he called "Uncle."
Rafael got him a job at a fertilizer plant and a place to sleep in his house. He vouched for him and promised that he was an honest kid. Still, Peña was a 17-year-old who really never had lived with a family. And he wasn't making much money.
He began to consider going to the United States.
"I watched the news. I heard that you could live better here," he says.
One day, a truck driver who came to pick up fertilizer at the plant told him that he heard they helped young children in the United States. When he asked people how to make this happen for himself, they told him of the dangers: the desert, the Border Patrol, the thugs.
He didn't care. He was ready to leave everything. Because in Honduras, "la vida está color de hormiga."
"Life is the color of an ant," Peña translates. "There is discrimination and death everywhere. For anything simple, you are in trouble. Maras [a term used to refer to gangs that come from Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles and was exported to Central America] are everywhere."
Smugglers were charging $5,000 to take someone to the United States. Peña had saved only 5,000 lempiras, about $240. So he joined two other people in town, and they headed north on June 5, 2013.
"It was a sunny day, and a storm was coming," Peña recalls. "I felt positive and secure."
"Where is the money?" a man asked Peña.
It was the last leg of a 55-day journey. The border fence separating Nogales, Mexico from Nogales, Arizona was within reach. Peña and three other migrants -- two older men from Honduras and a Guatemalan teenager -- had taken a walk to scout a possible location to jump the fence when they'd had the misfortune of bumping into three men who stopped their vehicle in its tracks to get out and chase them.
"Where is the money?" another man asked, putting his hand on his gun.
The man didn't have to say much. It was understood that you couldn't expect to jump the fence in Nogales without paying the cuota to narco-traffickers.
Peña had 2,500 Mexican pesos (about $190) that Rafael had wired to him and which Peña needed to save in case he had to pay a smuggler. He remained silent.
All three men had shaved heads, tattoos, and piercings. One was young, maybe 16. Peña feared that the mafia had trained kids like him to kill.
"How old you are?" one asked.
"I'm 17," Peña answered.
The bandits kicked the Guatemalan teen in the head, and he fell down the side of a hill. They said he was dead, and Peña got even more scared.
They took Peña and the two others through a path at the bottom of a wash, out of sight from anyone. They laid them on the ground and tied their hands and feet with their shoelaces.
They took Peña's belt and hit him with its thick buckle.
He was unable to hold back tears or screams.
"You better have money or we will cut your tongue," the man said.
When he heard that, he gave the man the 2,500 pesos from his pocket. But it wasn't enough. They called him a liar.
"He grabbed me by the hair and kicked my head against the floor," he says.
Peña bled. Everything was a blur after that.
"Is it hard? Is it hard?" someone asked.
One man was hitting him with a rock.
When the beatings stopped, he could hear someone radio "the boss."
"We were waiting for the shot in the head. There was no place to run. We just waited for the shot," Peña says.
Peña couldn't see.
"Maybe it is your lucky day. Without our boss' authorization, we won't do anything. If you look back, we won't ask for permission. We will shoot you," one of the men said.
Peña heard their footsteps in the dirt as the thugs ran away.
One of the Honduran men untied himself and got Peña and the other friend released. The Guatemalan teenager they had kicked in the head and rolled down the hill managed to escape unharmed. They went to the police, who "laughed," Peña said.
He was scared to run into the three men again, but he had come so far and wasn't about to give up. He had seen things during his journey through Mexico that he would never forget.
The worst came in Arriaga, where he ran out of money. There, he could catch the Beast, the infamous train that takes Central Americans through the heart of Mexico, part of which is controlled by paramilitary groups known as Zetas and other parts by opportunistic and violent criminals preying on migrants. He survived on the pity of a Guatemalan mother who had food and also was riding the train in the hope of reaching the U.S. to get a job to support her family. She had given all her money to smugglers, who had abandoned her. Together, they spent more than 50 days hopping trains.
He would spend most days awake holding on to the tiny holes on the metallic side of the trains, with one leg hanging over the side. He would get lethargic. Sometimes, it rained and they covered themselves with plastic bags; sometimes, the metal of the train would burn from underneath.