The Lost Boys of California Are Literally Dying to Pick Your Fruit
t the age when most American teenagers are trying to decide whom to ask to prom, Ernesto Valenzuela was instead weighing whether it was worse to die of thirst in the desert or have his throat slit by gangsters.
That’s the choice the 16-year-old faced in his hometown of Mapulaca, Honduras, a drowsy village where MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangsters are known for recruiting youth—sometimes as young as kindergartners—into their cartels. If the kids refuse, they are often killed. Now Ernesto was being recruited, and he didn’t want to end up one of the 6,000 people murdered each year in Honduras. With a total population just shy of 8 million, that means nearly one of every 1,000 Hondurans is a victim of homicide, making it the most dangerous place—after the war zones of Iraq, Somalia, and Syria—in the world.1
After mulling it over for months—and trying to dodge the tattooed gang members who wanted to sign him up—Ernesto decided his potential fate at home presented far more danger than what he might face at any distant desert crossing. So, early one morning in June 2013, after his mother sobbed and begged him to stay safe, he set out for a place he’d only seen in movies, a place where he’d heard a kid like himself—with just a fifth-grade education—could earn $60 a day working in the fields: America.