MEXICO CITY — Wilfredo Filiu Garay left Honduras with his 16-year-old son in 2010. They made it to Veracruz state on Mexico's Gulf Coast, where they were kidnapped and beaten until their relatives scraped together a $3,000 ransom.
Filiu lost his left leg on a subsequent trip through Mexico, falling under the wheels of a northbound train known as "La Bestia," or the Beast, used by migrants to steal rides to cross Mexico.
He tries to discourage would-be migrants – many of them minors – from starting such treacherous treks, but it's difficult. Poverty and violence prompt many young Central Americans to abandon home and head to the USA.
"They don't care about the risks," Filiu, 47, says on a recent visit to Mexico City. "They care about the American dream."
Migrants such as Filiu have long streamed out of Central America in search of a better life. A recent surge of unaccompanied minors arriving in the USA has immigration officials struggling to process the cases and figure out where to put them.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports detaining 47,017 unaccompanied children at the Mexican border from October 2013 through the end of May — up 92% from the same period a year earlier. President Obama recently called the situation a "humanitarian crisis" and announced plans to temporarily house and care for young detainees on military bases.
Mexico has seen a similar increase and detained 9,893 minors last year, most of them from Central America, according to the migration advocacy group Sin Fronteras.
Slowing the stream of Central American migrants seems unlikely, experts say, especially since staying put presents bigger problems, such as criminals charging extortion and gangs forcibly recruiting youth into their ranks. Honduras has the world's highest murder rate: 90.4 per 100,000 persons, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
"The majority are leaving because they've been threatened or persecuted by gangs … not for economic reasons," says Alberto Xicotencatl, director of a migrant shelter in Saltillo, 195 miles south of Laredo, Texas.
Some leave Central America to reunite with family in the USA. Poverty pushes others. Low pay in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala prompts some to make the long journey, while many communities survive on money sent home by migrants working in the USA, says Germán Calix, a priest who is the Honduras director of Caritas, the Catholic Church's charitable arm.
"A young person that can get to the United States can buy a property" back in Honduras after working two or three years, Calix says.
Reaching the U.S. border requires crossing Mexico, where protections are minimal and criminal groups prey upon Central Americans without the proper papers.
Xicotencatl says an increasing number of Central Americans he helps opt to take advantage of voluntary repatriation programs offered by Mexico — sending migrants home without being charged with any offenses — rather than risk being kidnapped after heading north into the lawless state of Tamaulipas that borders Texas.
Still, he has entire families "with babies in their arms" stop at his shelter in increasingly bigger numbers.
"They're seeking refuge in the United States," he says.