FORT WORTH, Texas — Edilsa Cano was fleeing sexual assault, kidnapping and death threats – all from her own family – when she left her village in Guatemala at 16.

Now 21, she sees her own desperation in the tens of thousands of Central American children, some as young as 4, flooding the U.S. border with Mexico. Border authorities are scrambling to shelter the children, and President Barack Obama is looking for ways to deport them faster to cope with what has been called a humanitarian crisis.

Cano said it took her about a month to make the dangerous trip from Central America to the U.S.

Before the 1,000-mile journey was over, she would sleep, six to a bed, with strangers also migrating through Mexico, run away from a violent coyote, or human smuggler, in Arizona and then wander, lost in the desert and looking for help.

“I don’t really know how I got here,” Cano said in disbelief. “God is with every single child that crosses the border.”


Central Americans trying to escape war, economic trouble and natural disasters have been making new homes in North Texas for decades. But the numbers are far greater now, and more of the immigrants are young: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported 52,193 apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the southwest border for fiscal 2014, which began in October, up 99 percent from last year’s 26,206.

Gang violence and rampant crime are driving the exodus from Central America, in addition to the old problems.

In Guatemala, for example, Doctors Without Borders estimates that 10,000 rapes are committed a year, most of them at home by relatives or acquaintances.

Sexual assaults often go unreported because victims don’t believe they will see justice: A study by the International Justice Mission found that only 3 in 10 reported cases of sexual assault in Guatemala from 2008 to 2010 moved past the investigation phase.

Prosecutors file charges in only 1 in 10 cases, according to the group.

When migrants leave for the U.S., they are exposed to muggings, thefts, kidnappings and rapes, according to a news release from Doctors Without Borders. A survey of 396 people treated in central and southern Mexico from July 2013 to February 2014 found that more than half – 58 percent – experienced violence on the journey.

“I decided to come by myself,” Cano said, shifting between Spanish and English as she told the story of her illegal flight from a tortured home life.

After years of physical and mental abuse by relatives, she wanted out.

“The problem is that you are in a situation that you want to escape,” Cano said. “I told my father: ‘I can’t stand it anymore. I want to leave.’ ”

She took just two pairs of pants and two blouses, along with the clothes she was wearing.

“My father gave me a Bible,” Cano said.

Her aunt and uncle advised her to carry a small knife for protection and to guard against dehydration by drinking liquids containing electrolytes.

They collected enough money to pay the coyote’s $10,000 fee, and Cano met him in Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, where she got into a car with three older men, also traveling to the United States.

They made it to the Guatemala-Mexico border in about a week. Cano’s last day in her native country was Jan. 3, 2010.

They spent two nights crossing into Mexico on foot. Cano said she was focused on her escape and unafraid.

“I was so young,” Cano said. “I took it as a game.”

For another week, she and other Guatemalans traveled north, day and night, by bus. Twice, Mexican authorities stopped the bus and singled her out. Each time, the Mexican authorities wanted money – 3,000 pesos, or about $231.

“My accent was different,” Cano said. Because she sounded Salvadoran, she was assumed to be in Mexico illegally, and they demanded a bribe.

The coyote gave them the money, so the authorities let her get back on the bus.

When the bus reached a town in central Mexico, Cano stepped off and looked for a place to sleep. After several hotels refused to admit an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, a taxi driver took pity on the 16-year-old and dropped her off at the home of a woman who let her stay.

Soon, Cano got on another bus that took her to the border town of Altar, across from Arizona. She was there for 15 days, in a house that resembled a hotel and held hundreds of people. They were fed only breakfast, she said.

“In one bed, you used to sleep six people at a time,” she said. “It didn’t matter where you were from.”

Cano and 32 others crossed into Arizona through holes in a wooden fence. Their instructions: “Don’t let anyone see you.”

Remembering her family’s advice, she carried a gallon of water, Gatorade and a drink similar to Pedialyte, which contains electrolytes to prevent dehydration on the last leg of her journey through the Arizona desert.

After about a week in the desert, the coyote separated the males from the females and tried to rape a 10-year-old girl, Cano said. The females – three teens, the 10-year-old and a 45-year-old – ran.

“We defended ourselves and went running,” she said. “We got lost in the desert.”


It’s unclear how long Cano and the others walked. At one point, they found a woman’s body. They kept walking. Cano said it was cold and there was snow.

The 45-year-old became dehydrated, and the 10-year-old needed help to continue.

Finally, they reached a house and knocked on the door, seeking help. But immigration authorities showed up, and Cano wound up at a youth shelter for unaccompanied minors in Arizona.

Cano transferred to Texas to get help through the International Foster Care program. The process took months and included searching for any relatives in the U.S.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth, the same agency working with the current wave of unaccompanied minors, helped Cano join her foster family in 2010.

She received legal status through Special Immigrant Juveniles, which helps certain foreign children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.

“It was deemed unsafe for her to return to Guatemala,” said Sharon Young, a case manager with Catholic Charities’ International Foster Care program in Fort Worth.

Since last summer, Catholic Charities Fort Worth has helped about 200 youngsters. It recently doubled its youth shelter capacity from 16 to 32 – numbers that don’t even make a dent in the 60,000 to 90,000 expected this year.