An elite Honduran Special Operations Unit is working with the United States to stop children from crossing illegally into Guatemala with human smugglers.
The One and Only Local 10 News' Christina Vazquez secured access to get an inside look at how the special operations unit tries to the flow of children traveling illegally.
At least 17,000 of the estimated 61,000 unaccompanied children who have traveled to the U.S. from Central American this year are from Honduras, U.S. immigration authorities said. It is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and has the world's highest murder rate, according to the United Nations.
While on a narrow dirt road, snaking through a lush mountain landscape, Commissioner Jose Miguel Martinez Madrid said they "received training and try to help with humanitarian effort." Human smugglers escort children through that road to leave Honduras, he said.
HONDURAS BORDER | PHOTO SLIDE SHOW
For more than two decades, Martinez Madrid has been working toward catching weapons and drugs traffickers. Two months ago, Martinez and his special operations unit were assigned to patrol the porous border with Guatemala.
"Before we were not operating in this area [and ] no one had control," Martinez Madrid said in Spanish.
Members of the U.S. trained and funded special operations unit were looking for children traveling alone, or with just one parent. In Honduras, kids need the authorization of both parents to leave the country.
On the sleeves of the members of the elite unite are the initials BORTAC which stand for U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit. Martinez Madrid describes them as the "SWAT Team for rural areas."
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The training members of the elite unit got from U.S. law enforcement included tactics to earn the trust of locals, who would later provide them with intelligence.
The want locals to know that they are there "to work with an open heart, to know that by doing this work we can save lives and to remind them that this is our people, our children, the future of Honduras," Martinez Madrid said. "If we don't have the help of the people of the United States it is very difficult, or impossible, to do this job. So we have to work together as a team to continue saving lives."
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The youngest child he has ever seen is an eight-month old baby, who was abandoned in the brush.
"We thought, maybe it would be a mother with a baby crossing the border, but when we reached the baby we found out he had about a half an hour in that area, because he had more than 80 or 100 bites of ants and insects," he said.
The heart-wrenching discovery was clearly a turning point for the military-trained commandos. That was the moment when they realized that their duties on the border served a life-saving purpose, Martinez Madrid said.
We took him and we took care of him, we fed him," he said. "That was a human being that was going to grow up without knowing anything about where he came from who his parents were, why he was there."
Martinez Madrid said he knew that a human trafficker was trying to take the baby to the other side in Guatemala, or to the U.S. and probably failed. He probably took the money from the family, walked for three hours and abandoned the baby there to die.
"These type of human traffickers have to be stopped," he said. "They have to be arrested."
When the unit thinks of the disturbing finding, they refer to the baby as the "ghost baby."
SIGNS OF POVERTY | PHOTO SLIDE SHOW
THE SMUGGLING ECONOMY
Since the beginning of their operation Martinez Madrid said they have busted eight human traffickers and saved about 200 children from making the journey.
But they know they have a lot of work to do. In addition to foot patrols, the team has erected vehicle barriers along roads built by smugglers. Before the arrival of the special unit there was next to no law enforcement presence along the border with Guatemala. That created a local economy supported by the unobstructed smuggling of people, drugs and even cattle.
As we pass the border town of Corinto, Martinez Madrid explained that "more than 80 percent of the people here have a member of their family that works as a "Coyote," human trafficker.
They patrol 24 hours a day. Some team members go undercover pretending to be illegal immigrants in order to obtain information on human traffickers.
In an effort to earn the community's trust, team members provide locals with newspapers. They also provide transportation to medical facilities. They are even teaching some in the area how to read and write.
"There is a lot of work, but it is a great work," said Martinez Madrid. "I could do this for free. We feel that we are doing something good and this is the correct way to do it and with the help of the United States we are having great success."
He said the path the unaccompanied children take in the hands of a smuggler is treacherous. They often hear reports of young girls being raped and many of the children are robbed.
"They are going to face many dangers," he said. "Zetas, Maras and corrupt authorities" are among the dangers.
While his work gives him a sense of purpose, Martinez Madrid said he is also realistic.
"We know that we are helping, we know that we are not the only solution and as long as Latin American countries are poor this situation is going to continue," he said. "If the crime and the violence continues in Honduras this will continue."