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Migrant massacre shakes Central America

The recent killing of 72 people, from El Salvador, Honduras and other nations, as they tried to cross through Mexico into the U.S., has sent shockwaves across the continent. But many may still attempt the perilous trek.

September 03, 2010|By Alex Renderos and Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Las Penitas, El Salvador, and — Cayetano Flores wishes he had just said no.

His granddaughter, Yedmi Victoria Castro, had just celebrated her 15th birthday in this mountain hamlet near El Salvador's border with Honduras. A suitor was becoming aggressive, and the idea arose that she join her mother in New York.

Flores, a wizened corn farmer, said he opposed her making the risky journey without papers. But the girl's mother was decided: Yedmi would go north.

The dark-haired and slender teenager read passages from the Bible to Flores for three days in a row. On Aug. 10, she set out for Guatemala and Mexico, a route traveled by thousands of Salvadorans before her.

Two weeks later she was dead.

Yedmi was among the 72 Central and South American migrants found slain in northern Mexico's Tamaulipas state on Aug. 24 — allegedly victims of the notorious Zetas drug gang. Salvadoran officials said 13 of the victims identified so far are from El Salvador.

"Her last call was from Guatemala saying that she was all right, but then afterwards, it was all darkness," Flores, 70, said this week, his eyes brimming with hurt. "She didn't deserve that fate."

The massacre was a horrifying reminder to Mexicans of the runaway violence in their country as drug-trafficking gangs wage war against the government and each other.

But the incident is rippling beyond Mexico to obscure places such as Las Penitas, a burg of 100 or so homes where some of the school's classrooms have dirt floors and the hills echo with rumors of gun-running and drug-smuggling.

This is an area long used to the rhythms — and dangers — of migrant life. Many of the rustic brick houses were built with money sent by Salvadoran workers in the United States. The surrounding region has itself drawn field workers from Honduras and Nicaragua, making it both a source and landing spot for migrants.

At the school Yedmi attended, about three-fourths of the 168 students between the ages of 12 and 15 have parents living in Los Angeles, New York, Houston and other U.S. cities, said the principal, Mario Romano.

The killings in Mexico have stirred indignation in Las Penitas, but few residents were eager to discuss them, fearful that the smugglers would come back for vengeance.

"Everybody is scared," said Yedmi's ninth-grade teacher, Milagro Martinez, who recalled her as a good student, quiet and humble.

The slayings underscored the perils of a more than 1,300-mile trip north that involves at least three border crossings, and often means dangerous rides atop Mexican trains. Past studies estimate that 400,000 migrants a year cross through Mexico.

Advocates have long complained that criminals and corrupt officials prey on migrants, but they say the risks have worsened due to the deepening involvement of crime groups.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission estimated last year that 1,600 migrants are kidnapped each month.

In El Salvador and other countries from which the victims came, the massacre has raised another dark question: how many others have met the same fate, but were never found?

Mexico, whose citizens migrate northward too, is in the uncomfortable position of defending its treatment of foreign migrants. In Honduras, home to at least 14 of the victims, the front pages of newspapers have carried photos of coffins and grief-struck relatives.

A young man from Ecuador and a Honduran are the only known survivors.

Officials said the Ecuadoran, Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla, 18, told them that the Zetas captured his group and demanded that they join the gang. Other news reports have quoted relatives of some of the dead as saying they received calls demanding money shortly before the bodies turned up on a ranch in Tamaulipas.

Lala, back in Ecuador, went on television to urge compatriots not to try crossing into the United States the way he did. "The Zetas are killing a lot of people," he said.

Mexican officials say they will crack down on drug gangs that have branched out into migrant smuggling and kidnapping migrants to extort money. Deportations of undocumented migrants have dropped drastically from 250,000 in 2005 to 43,000 so far this year — a sign that fewer people are crossing Mexico. Authorities attribute the decline mainly to a sagging job market and immigration crackdowns in the United States. But they note that the increasing violence in Mexico probably is also a deterrent.

Still, few in El Salvador expect the slayings to deter some people from the migrant trail.

"There are sons and daughters living alone here, taken care of only by their grandparents. And the parents want to hug their daughters and sons and give them a better life," said Martinez, the Las Penitas schoolteacher.

"But besides that, and most terrible, is that they think that the risk of death is maybe worth taking."

Renderos is a special correspondent and reported from Las Penitas. Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood reported from Mexico City.

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