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Time to leave Honduras? For many youths, the answer is easy.

Despite crackdowns at borders, many teens are still attempting the perilous journey north to the US, driven by violence and poor prospects for schooling and jobs. 

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A child covers his face as a member of the Military Police for Public Order keeps watch during a patrol at an impoverished neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in early July. Gang bloodshed has been a major problem in the country, known for having the world's highest murder rate.

Jorge Cabrer/Reuters

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Juan Ángel Pineda was almost 16 years old when his father finally agreed: It was time for him to leave Honduras.

“The gangs hadn’t come looking for me. Originally, I went looking for them,” says the now 17-year-old with spiked hair and a small scar between his eyebrows. He dropped out of school after 6th grade, couldn’t find work, and was having trouble at home. “I thought [the gang] would make me feel protected.”

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Juan was one of the thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors who set out to migrate to the United States last summer. His reasons for leaving – violence in the streets and within his family – echo those of roughly two-thirds of deported Honduran youths interviewed for a recent regional report.

This year, with declining numbers of unaccompanied minors detained at the US border, the issue has dropped out of the spotlight. But many teens continue to migrate, and deportations at Mexico's southern border have gone up. Total deportations of Honduran youths from both borders tallied 4,141 between January and June, about 24 percent lower than the 5,516 deported during the same period last year but higher than 2013 numbers.

Child advocates say youth migration continues because Honduras isn’t targeting the root causes. In addition to headline-grabbing gang violence, some two-thirds of the country lives in poverty, violence in the family is high and underreported, and close to 800,000 minors don’t have jobs and aren’t in school. An estimated 6,000 adolescents live on the streets in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula alone. Compounding these challenges, Honduras closed its child protection agency last summer over allegations of poor management.

But domestic and international organizations are making small but significant steps in trying to help youths who have experienced violence or neglect find their footing – from reuniting them with families after deportations to providing housing for kids on the street.  Those efforts, some say, could provide a model for better government efforts, even as they emphasize that a fundamental shift in attitudes toward children is needed if the country is to make real progress.

“We’re talking about the future of Honduras. If we’re abandoning [children] now, the challenges with violence and migration won’t improve,” says Oscar Chicas, the executive director of World Vision Honduras, which focuses on child protection.

Coming home

Juan says despite his experience trying to migrate north last summer – he witnessed beatings, saw someone fall off a speeding train, and was held at gunpoint and robbed by men claiming to be part of the Zetas cartel – he still has “an American dream.” But for now, he’s glad to be staying at the faith-based shelter Casa Alianza, one of only a handful of children’s homes in the country that works with kids over the age of 12.

He meets regularly with a psychologist and does group therapy with other recovering drug and alcohol addicts. He’s also attending school in the morning and doing a carpentry apprenticeship at night.

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“It’s good that I’m here. I’m not dead,” he says. And if there’s any question about whether a 17-year-old who has been through so much is still a kid, he adds, “I really miss my mom.”

Last June, when the Honduran Institute for Children and the Family closed, all state-run institutions for children followed suit, from correctional centers to shelters. The agency was accused of spending more on salaries than the protection of children. And the government soon launched a new agency with one-third of the budget, with the strategy to outsource all adolescent services and care to NGOs and faith-based organizations.

Critics say there are plenty of well-intentioned organizations willing to take in children in need here, but the lack of systematic oversight and certification is worrisome.

Even for those who don’t need to go to a shelter after being deported, the environment can be just as challenging – or worse – than before they left home.

The state hasn’t found a way to support returning migrant youths, “both in terms of emotional support and security,” says José Guadalupe Ruelas, executive director of Casa Alianza, which has been working with street children for more than two decades, and about 12 years ago began taking in return migrant youths. They also operate the nation’s only intake center for deported minors, based in San Pedro Sula.

Mr. Ruelas has newspaper clippings, e-mails, and notes from phone calls documenting the overwhelming lack of follow-up for deported youths. There’s the 14-year-old who was deported and sent back to his community – where he was killed two weeks later. Or there’s the story of the young girl who was shunned and excluded by teachers and neighbors because of the assumption that she was sexually promiscuous along the migratory route, Ruelas says.

“We need to train community leaders and teachers, and educate families on what these kids have been through, because they need someone to talk to and someone who can help,” he says.

A reason to stay?

On a recent Sunday in the mountainside neighborhood of Villa Franca, an area best known for rival gang shootouts and deep poverty, kids are out playing on a new community basketball court.

Despite the ongoing violence here, a lot has changed in the past three years. A small government agency has worked with this urban community and 15 others across the country to upgrade infrastructure projects. The process was community driven, with local leaders gathering groups of 50 neighbors at a time to put forth ideas for what most needed fixing in the neighborhood.

Once the project wrapped, the nearly 5,000 people living here saw their dirt roads paved, sanitation and water services upgraded, and spirits raised. 

Oscar Armando Barahona, who runs a corner store, says the community transformed as the project progressed.

“We were living day to day. Our hopes had been frozen,” says Mr. Barahona. But the completion of the work injected "new life" into the community. Locals have since launched businesses offering transportation to and from the neighborhood now that the roads are passable. More kids are attending school or visiting health clinics, he says, and he feels a greater sense of community.

“When the work started on the roads, I saw fewer young men leaving for the US,” he says, something he attributes to the fact that some 85 percent of the work was done by locals.

Though the project certainly injected a sense of hope into many citizens, it’s unclear how long that will last.

A group of adolescents sit talking in neighboring Villa Cristina, which also saw its streets paved, on a recent Sunday, and migration is a central topic.

“I want a good job and I want a house,” says Josué Castillo Hernandez, who attended a three-month, paid construction-training course offered through the project, as well as a number of retreats that gave young people like him a chance to see new parts of their city. “It’s risky, yes. But it's worth going north for two or three years to make some money and build a better life here,” he says.

For Sireya Diaz, who spearheaded the Honduras Social Investment Fund project here, that sentiment makes her realize what the government is up against, she says.

“You look around, people here are now taking care of their roads and invested in their neighborhood,” she says. “But listen to these kids: they want a home, a car, an education, a good job, a better life for their kids one day…. The government can’t deliver on all that.”

– Whitney Eulich reported from Honduras as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.