San Salvador, El Salvador – Why did she do it? Why did she travel more than a thousand miles by bus and then ford the Rio Grande with a small band of desperate voyagers? Why did she endure the arid Texas landscape, with nothing but her common-law husband’s black cap to shield her from the sun?

It was simple, the woman said.

She had already lost two children in the gang-ridden horror that is El Salvador. Her fear, she said, was that the killers “wanted to wipe out the whole family.”

So the couple set out for the United States on May 13, hoping to reach Houston and her only surviving child, who had slipped across the U.S. border a year ago.

They did not make it. Barely an hour after they crossed into Texas, they were captured by the Border Patrol, separated and locked up. On Thursday, the mom, her wrists and ankles in chains, was flown with about 100 other would-be migrants back to El Salvador.

Thousands of others are in the same situation, having fled from ultraviolent gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, only to be caught near the U.S. border and sent back under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted in June that “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be … pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.”

Yet very few gang members try to get into the United States. In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. Border Patrol carried out 310,531 detentions of people who were in the U.S. illegally, but only 0.09 percent of them belonged to the gangs operating in Central America, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.

Instead, it’s often people fleeing gangs who are trying to get into the United States.

In 2000, U.S. border patrol agents caught 1.6 million immigrants on the southwest border. Of those immigrants, 98 percent were Mexican, and only about 29,000 came from other countries.

Contrast that with 2017, when nearly 163,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were caught on the border – and roughly 128,000 Mexicans.

“These are people who are, for the vast majority, fleeing violence,” said Kathy Bougher, an American researching the human toll of migration. “And they need safety.”

They are people like the woman who found herself in the immigration center for “returnees,” plunged once again into the nightmare of being back in one of the world’s most violent countries.

“I’m afraid,” she said as she waited to be processed for re-entry. A government official called the names of other returned migrants who were sitting in orange plastic chairs so their possessions in small mesh plastic bags could be returned to them.

Because of safety concerns, the woman spoke with The Associated Press only on condition she not be identified. Her long hair twisted into a bun, wearing tight jeans and a white T-shirt smudged across the stomach from the chains she wore on the deportation flight, she said she had no option but to return to her house.

She dreaded returning to a town where a cold-blooded gang exerts control, to a place where gang members routinely force young women into being sex slaves, and kill those who refuse.

Even suspicion of being loyal to a rival gang is a death sentence. Many victims of gangs are often buried in mass graves, never to be found.

One day last November, the woman’s 19-year-old daughter stepped out of their home. She was meeting a girlfriend, she said.

“She said, ‘Look Mommy, I’ll be back. I’m not going far,’ ” the woman recalled. “But she didn’t return.”

The woman said she went to the police and prosecutors, but they never followed up.

Four months later, her 15-year-old son told her he was going to the store. He too never returned.


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