TULTITLAN, Mexico (AP) — Deported from the United States after years working construction in New Jersey, Hector Augusto Lopez decided to rebuild his life in his hometown in eastern Honduras.
He found a steady job in a shoe store in Catacamas. Then, in March, he watched horrified as robbers shot three customers to death before his eyes. Soon after, he decided to make the hard and dangerous journey north again.
"In Honduras there is a lot of violence, a lot of robberies and a lot of poverty," Lopez, 28, said as he waited to jump a cargo train just outside Mexico City on a recent afternoon. "There is no future there."
Half a block away, dozens more U.S.-bound Central American migrants waited outside an overflowing one-story, crammed shelter, napping on pieces of cardboard, wrapping themselves in garbage bags against the cold and trading stories about their journeys north.
While the number of Mexicans heading to the U.S. has dropped dramatically, a surge of Central American migrants is making the 1,000-mile northbound journey this year, fueled in large part by the rising violence brought by the spread of Mexican drug cartels. Other factors, experts say, are an easing in migration enforcement by Mexican authorities, and a false perception that Mexican criminal gangs are not preying on migrants as much as they had been.
Central American migration remains small compared to the numbers of Mexicans still headed north, but their steeply rising numbers speak starkly to the violence and poverty at home. The perils of the journey have pushed smuggling fees as high as $7,000, as much as double the earlier rates, for a trip that takes weeks, or even months for those delayed by robberies, health problems or difficulties finding transportation.
Honduras, with a population of 8.3 million, had the world's highest homicide rate in 2010, with 6,200 killings, or 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. That's up from 57 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008. Neighboring El Salvador had 66 homicides per 100,000 in 2010. The U.S., by comparison, saw about 5 homicides per 100,000 people.
"The reality is that a lot of Mexicans have sort of given up looking for work in the U.S. and have started to return home but for Central Americans the conditions may be even more desperate that the ones we're seeing in Mexico," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
About 56,637 non-Mexican migrants, most of them Central Americans, were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol along the border with Mexico between October and May. That's more than double the 27,561 detained in the same period a year ago. Meanwhile, the number of Mexican migrants caught at the U.S. southern border decreased 7 percent this fiscal year, to 188,467.
In fact, the illegal migration of Mexicans to the United States now stands at its lowest level in decades, according to a study released in April by the Washington-based think tank the Pew Hispanic Center. The study found that over the last five years more Mexicans have left the United States than entered it.
Much of the drop is attributed to a weak U.S. economy, which has principally shrunk the number of construction jobs attractive to Mexican workers. Increased deportations, heightened U.S. patrols and violence along the border, as well as Mexico's declining birth rate, also have played a role.
When it comes to Central Americans, the picture is starkly different.
U.S. apprehensions of illegal migrants, including Central Americans, began declining in 2007, when the flow of illegal migrants began slowing, but experts say that has reversed as violence rises in Central America, partly fueled by Mexican drug cartels moving into the area. Although Mexican authorities have pulled back on some immigration enforcement, they also have been apprehending more illegal Central American immigrants before they get to the U.S. border, with 29,619 arrested between January and April, a 42 percent increase from 2011, according to the country's National Immigration Institute.
Officials at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"We hadn't seen this amount of people in at least four years," said Sister Leticia Gutierrez, director of a Mexican Catholic bishops ministry that coordinates 54 migrant shelters across Mexico where Central Americans make up almost all the client population. "People keep coming, and coming, and coming, so much so that we're scrambling to help those who arrive to the shelters because we run out of the few things we have to give them after the first trains of the day arrive."