Most weekdays in San Pedro Sula, the murder capital of the world, five large buses roll down a congested street toward a stucco building bearing the sign "Bienvenidos a tu tierra," meaning "welcome to your land."
But the people on the buses — mostly children traveling solo and families — don't want to be back in their land. They're being forcefully returned to Honduras just days after trying to flee the country. They sought refuge in the US, but only made it as far as Mexico, where authorities detained and deported them.
Despite Mexico's harsh immigration enforcement, most of the deportees plan to try to migrate again immediately.
"With the help of God we'll travel again within the month," Theresa de Jesus Reyes, a petite 52-year-old with short black hair, said on the street outside the Center for Attention to Child and Family Migrants, the intake building that registers hundreds of individuals who are shipped daily from Mexico on the bus. Reyes had journeyed north with her 12-year-old nephew Anselmo, who stood beside her quietly as she spoke.
"I need protection for him, because his mother was killed here and his sister is already in the US with asylum," Reyes said, explaining that a man had killed Anselmo's mother after she refused to let him "get close" to her children.
"Before it was beautiful and tranquil here," said Reyes, whose husband is also in the US seeking asylum after being threatened by drug dealers. "A person never would have thought to need to leave, to immigrate."
Theresa and her nephew, Anselmo, who is holding a photo of his late mother, have hired a coyote to take them across the US border in their attempt to seek asylum. This will be their second try. (Photo by Sarah Kuck for VICE News)
For Reyes and other Central Americans, reaching the US has become harder than ever. Mexico deported more people from the so-called "Northern Triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador than the US did last year, including about 12 times the number of unaccompanied children, according to a report by Migration Policy Institute.
Despite Mexico's crackdown and US deportation raids targeting illegal migrants, a record number of Central Americans are showing up at the US border. There, US immigration officials have deported more than double the number of families this year than they did in the same period last year, Pew Research Center, and they only seem to keep coming.
Like Reyes and her nephew, most people from the Northern Triangle are seeking asylum from the violence that dominates their daily lives rather than fleeing economic insecurity. In Honduras, a combination of gang and police violence, and government corruption, drug trafficking, and land disputes has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in recent years.
"There's been an increase in internal displacement without an appropriate response by the government... and if you can't find protection inside the country you look for protection outside the country," Andres Celis, Director of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Honduras, told VICE News in an interview in San Pedro Sula.
He noted that 130,000 people were internally displaced from 2009 to 2014 — the years migration from Honduras has dramatically spiked — compared with just 34,000 from 2004 to 2009. The violence in Honduras, Celis said, was like a "volcano erupting," so people had no choice but to leave as quickly as possible.
But as more Hondurans have fled, both the US and Mexico have stepped up their deportations of the population, treating them like economic migrants rather than asylum seekers. To stop people from reaching its border, the US has funded Mexico's crackdown, which Human Rights Watch says includes such rights abuses as detaining thousands of unaccompanied youths. The US federal government has not disclosed how much it is funding the enforcement, prompting human rights groups to sue the State Department for information.
"To return to this country you find conditions similar to what you left, so people keep looking for the same alternative in light of the risks the country represents," Celis said. "They return to the route. Try to leave the country again."
Dozens of interviews with recently returned migrants, Honduran journalists, and transit employees confirmed that most deportees indeed attempt the route again, even multiple times.
For many, the journey starts at the San Pedro Sula terminal on the 1:00am bus — a time travelers feel they can depart less conspicuously. They cross their first border into Guatemala at the break of dawn. Francisco Echeverria, who has worked the terminal's night shift for several years, said he'd seen a steady uptick since January of northbound riders, particularly whole families.
"It's rare to pass, but more people are going even though they know it's harder. I'd say out of 100 who travel, 20 make it to the border with the US," he said at the terminal. "People will go with us one day and go try again a second and a third time. I saw one group go Friday, then Saturday, then Monday, and then twice more in the same month."
Coyotes, men who migrants pay to lead them on the route north, now offer their clients three chances to arrive in the US, Reyes and other Hondurans said.
"We gave the coyote 3,000 dollars for each of us, and he already took us once but we get two more attempts for our money. Then if we cross the US border we pay him $3,000 more," Reyes explained in her house this month, two days after returning to San Pedro Sula. "The coyote called me yesterday and said, 'Theresa, be prepared. Let's go again.' I told him to give me a chance to take some vitamins since I don't feel good, and maybe we'll start off again the 16th or sooner."
Frequently migrants fall sick like Reyes on the journey, since they must walk for hours, sleep in the wilderness, and remain vigilant at all times for immigration authorities. Dangers also abound — one man I spoke with said he was kidnapped on three separate occasions in Mexico and held for ransom by groups of criminals who stormed his buses. Still, the man (who asked to remain anonymous) prepared to make the trip a fourth time.
For an increasing number of families, the risk of migrating pales in comparison to the danger of staying in the country. Organized crime networks — usually gangs — are so powerful and wide reaching that their members are present throughout Honduras and elsewhere in Latin America.
"Before it was beautiful and tranquil here. A person never would have thought to need to leave, to immigrate."
"We're talking about a country that is constantly competing with El Salvador as the most violent nation not in war... and the only way the state has combated the violence is violent, putting military in buses and in neighborhoods," Yolanda Gonzalez, Honduras' Coordinator of the Jesuit Network for Migrants in Central America, said. She explained that the violence had dramatically increased since 2009, when the past president was overthrown in a coup partly instigated by the US government.
"If I have to say why people are going, I think of what one young boy told me: 'I have a greater chance of getting shot than finding work,'" Gonzalez said. "This is a country where only 50 percent of the young people who center the labor market find work."
Honduras' Office of the Chancellor did not immediately return requests for comment about conditions in the country or protections for returned migrants.
Many returned migrants expressed their intentions to return north immediately, but quickly became too fearful to share their names or speak at length. One woman had lived and worked in Tennessee as an undocumented immigrant for years, and returned to Honduras to bring her young son on the journey after his father and uncle were killed. Another woman, an elementary school teacher, fled Honduras with her child after her student's father threatened to kill them. As soon as the families were deported from Mexico, they planned to travel again.
Increasingly, well-off Hondurans who own a home and have steady employment are trying to leave after gangs tried to extort and threaten them.
Yovani Urquia, a young real estate appraiser with a wife and four-year-old son, admitted that he never felt vulnerable in his country despite hearing about murders and extortion, until last month, when gang members targeted him. They left a note outside his house in the town of Villa Nueva demanding money, and within days they attacked him miles away in San Pedro Sula, holding a gun to his head and threatening to kill him as he left work.
"When I saw they intercepted me here I realized I needed to save my family. I said to my wife, my love, we must go to the United States... I have a brother there, in Austin, Texas," Urquia said. "We are not people who need to go to the US because I have my car, my house, and work — the problem is security. We haven't been able to return to the house, even for our belongings."
Urquia and his family had just been deported from Mexico two days earlier, but they were ready to begin again. As they planned the next trip, they slept on the floor of a relative's home, too afraid to walk down the street.
"I don't go out, not even to the store," Urquia's wife Nancy Pinera said. "We're sleeping on a mattress on the floor. I keep asking my mama, 'what should we do?' We had to leave everything behind."
After receiving death threats, Yovani and Nancy were forced to abandon their home. They were returned recently from their first attempt to leave, but since they have nowhere to go, they plan to try to make it to the US again as soon as possible. (Photo by Sarah Kuck for VICE News)
Though they only reached Vera Cruz in southern Mexico before immigration stopped them by crashing into their bus in an accident that left Pinera with visible bruises on her chest, Urquia said he had "faith" they would make it to the border the next time.
Even if they make it to the US, Urquia and his family face a tough fight to gain asylum. In the US, fewer than 30 percent of Central American families have found legal representation for their asylum cases, and only 1.5 percent of families without counsel win cases to remain in the States, data from TRAC immigration reports shows.
But to Urquia, his case is so clear that he can't imagine the US turning away his family.
"We go hoping that the American authorities understand we should get political asylum... I've been working the past 15 years for the same company, which is a way to prove that we are good people and hardworking," Urquia said.
"I never had the idea of going to another place to live because Honduras is so beautiful... but here we go, with faith that I can work and then within a few years we can return to our house here," he said. "We hope the country gets better and that we can return. I hope we get a new president, who really works for the well-being of the country. I hope Honduras becomes a place where a person can walk freely."
As this article went to press, Theresa and her nephew left to attempt another trip to the US with a smuggler.
Editors Note: Part of the research in this article will be included in a forthcoming documentary, which Meredith Hoffman and Sarah Kuck are producing through a grant from the International Women in Media Foundation. The documentary follows several families who have recently been deported to Honduras after seeking asylum in the US.
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman