RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Obama told leaders of Central American nations yesterday that the key to fighting drug trafficking in their countries is economic prosperity. Focusing on the economy may also keep more of their youth from leaving. Illegal immigration from Central America has been on the rise. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City, Central Americans continue to head north in increasing numbers, even as Mexicans decide to stay home.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: For William Ordonez and his wife, Carolia, starting a new business in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, seemed like a great idea. But just two weeks after they started selling chips, candy and soda, gang members showed up and ordered them to pay about $25 a week.
WILLIAM ORDONEZ: (Through Translator) We tried explaining to them that look, we just opened. We aren't making that much; we can't pay you.
KAHN: The men didn't care. Ordonez went to the police. But he says instead of helping, the police told the gang that he and his wife had complained. The next day, there was a note on the small store door: "We're going to kill you."
ORDONEZ: (Through Translator) The first thing we thought to do was to save our lives - get out of there, run. We took off.
KAHN: Ordonez, his father, his wife and their 7-year-old-son all headed north. After a month of traveling, hidden in the back of pick-up trucks, in small boats and on the top of trains, the family made it to this small refugee center in a poor neighborhood in Mexico City. On this day, they're getting an impromptu English lesson from a volunteer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Uh-huh.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK? A...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Repeating) A...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: B...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Repeating) B...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: C...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Repeating) C...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: D...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Repeating) D...
KAHN: While Mexican immigration to the U.S. has slowed in recent years, the number of Central Americans heading north has been on the rise. Last year, the number of illegal border-crossers caught from countries other than Mexico - mainly from Honduras and El Salvador - hit nearly 100,000, more than double the year before. In Costa Rica yesterday, President Obama pledged to increase educational and job opportunities in the region.
Arturo Condo, who heads a prominent business school in Costa Rica, says more than 40 percent of the Central American population is under the age of 24, and they suffer the highest levels of unemployment.
ARTURO CONDO: More than 30 percent of them don't study. They don't work, either, because basically, they don't have - you know, neither opportunity, education or work.
KAHN: Lack of economic opportunity is driving them north, but so is the unprecedented levels of violence in the region. The city of San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, now has the highest murder rate in the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES BEING WASHED)
KAHN: It had been two weeks since I had been to the refugee center in Mexico City. I came back this weekend, and six more Honduran men have shown up. They're washing dishes and preparing the evening meal. They're all relatives from San Pedro Sula. Twenty-eight-year-old Ivis Carcamo takes me over to one of the two old computers at the center, to show me why they left.
KAHN: So you're going on your Gmail account?
IVIS CARCAMO: Yeah, Gmail account. See? This is my aunt, and they send me this.
KAHN: He pulls up a few emails from an aunt in Honduras. Attached are copies of a police statement he and his cousins made. Gang members had killed his relative. Carcamo pulls up a copy of a text message, too. The gang sent it. He and the rest of the cousins were next. That day, they fled. The family I'd met two weeks earlier at the shelter was no longer there. Only the grandfather, Renee Ordonez, remained.
RENEE ORDONEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
KAHN: He said it was so sad saying goodbye to his son and his family. I never thought I would be left here alone. Ordonez says they paid a smuggler $2,500 each, to get across the U.S. border. They're all now in Houston, Texas. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.