“I thought they would kill me at any moment,” remembers Kevin, a human trafficking victim of Mexico’s notorious Cartel del Golfo criminal gang. “Every day I wondered if this would be the day I die.”
From his hometown in rural Honduras, Kevin had traveled far; by bus, by river raft, by walking and by riding the train known as la bestia—the beast. Now, fewer than 15 miles from the U.S. border, he and four other migrant boys, exhausted and hungry, were trudging through the streets of Rio Bravo, Mexico. They were looking for the local shelter where they could rest before completing their journey. Suddenly, an ominous black truck screeched in front of them and they were surrounded by armed men.
The trip so far had been harrowing, but this was a whole new level of heart-stopping fear. He knew the town was Cartel del Golfo territory.
“Put your hands up! Do it!” the men barked. “Now!”
The boys were roughly lined up, their captors pulling up their shirts to check for gang tattoos. None of the boys had any. Next they ordered the boys to hand over their documents and to get into the truck. One boy turned his head slightly and was backhanded viciously across the face.
“I said, ‘don’t look at our faces!’”
As Kevin was driven off in the truck, he thought he was going to his death. The men told the boys they were going to kill them, and Kevin had no money—or anyone who would pay for his ransom—so why would they spare his life?
When they got to the hovel where they kept their captives, however, the men changed their minds. They would put the boys to work instead. Kevin became a lookout, spending his days and nights watching the river for the gang’s enemies.
“As time dragged on, I thought I would never see my family again,” he says. “The kidnappers never left me alone, so I had no chance to escape. If I made them mad, they would threaten to kill me.” His young face darkens at the memory. “They said my family in Honduras would never even know what happened to me. They would never be able to even claim my body.”
Kevin was held prisoner for four weeks. He personally witnessed two men tortured. He saw numerous cartel members brutally beaten for minor infractions. “I think they made me watch this to scare me,” he says, “and to remind me that if I tried to escape they would do the same to me.”
During Kevin’s last week of captivity, he was ordered to ride along with a man named Yonyin. Kevin’s job was to throw nails out the window to puncture the tires of anyone trying to follow them. Gradually, he told Yonyin his story—his father dead, his constant worries about his mother and five siblings, and how he needed to work to support them. They were waiting for the money Kevin would send home. What would they do now?
That night, Yonyin told the boss that Kevin had worked long enough and that he should be included in the group that was planning to cross over the border soon. Kevin was finally free, even if he wasn’t yet safe.
Why would Yonyin do that? Why would a hardened criminal choose to help him?
“I don’t know.” Kevin replies, shrugging his shoulders. “I guess my story won over his heart.” He is silent for a moment, as if struggling to comprehend the vagaries of fortune, of luck, and something more powerful and even more inexplicable.
“It was God,” he says simply. “It was God who helped me.”
With some experienced coyotes, the group made it into the United States, but Kevin was quickly apprehended by police and handed over to US Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents. He was placed in a shelter and eventually found a stable home with his half-sister and her mother in Austin, Texas.
Kevin also found Julie Flanders, site attorney with Austin Region Justice for Our Neighbors. Julie took his case and is helping him gain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status so he can remain in this country.
Kevin likes his new life a lot. He is finally back in school, working hard to learn English and to catch up with the years he has missed. He dreams of becoming an electrician someday. He is deeply grateful to his half-sister and his “step mom” for welcoming him to their family.
“For the first time in my life,” he says, “I have support. Members of a church even gave me a back-pack filled with supplies for school!”
Kevin has the strength and resiliency Julie sees in many of her unaccompanied migrant children clients, but he possesses an even greater gift: after all the hardship, tragedy and struggles in his young life, Kevin can still demonstrate joy.
“He goes into great detail about the things he saw and the people he met on his journey here,” Julie explains, “and then frames the whole thing in a positive light.” She shakes her head in wonder.
Kevin smiles when Julie’s praise is related to him. “Julie is very special,” he says. “She has been very kind to me.”
Kevin absently rubs the ugly scar on his right hand. It’s a souvenir from his years in the fields, when he worked with a machete as long as his arm. The wound didn’t heal properly; there was no visit to the doctor and nobody to help him. Kevin treated the wound himself, using saltwater and wrapping it as best he could with his left hand.
He was only nine years old at the time.
A year later, he left school entirely to work full time and help support the family. With his father’s death when he was 14, he became the sole breadwinner for his mother and siblings. It was, and it remains, a heavy burden.
“I want to see my family,” he says, the edges of his voice growing raspy with conflicted emotion. “But if I went back to Honduras, I know that my mother would just send me away to work. I would be on my own, without education, nowhere to go and no way to move forward.”
Kevin falls silent as he contemplates the two roads ahead of him. “I would like to stay here,” he says, “if God permits.”