TOCOA, Honduras — Elsa Ramirez already had lost two brothers to violence in this remote Caribbean region when co-workers handling clandestine cocaine flights from South America murdered her husband four months ago.
Then the killers came looking for her.
Ramirez had seen Facebook messages and heard from relatives that mothers traveling to the United States with children would be allowed to stay if they made it across the border, so she took off for the North with her 8-year-old, Sandra, and 5-year-old Cesar, named for his dead father.
Two weeks and many thousands of miles later, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flight brought Ramirez back to the badlands of Honduras in Colon province, still fearing her husband's killers and now lacking a plan for survival.
"I didn't want to come back," she said. "I wanted to give my children a better life and I can't do that here."
Overwhelmed by unaccompanied minors and women with children crossing illegally, U.S. authorities have stepped up deportations back to Central America. Ramirez was one of 58 women and children who returned last week on a U.S. flight to San Pedro Sula, considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Illegal immigration of Central American families and unaccompanied children spiked this year as rumors circulated that children, and women with children, would be released in the United States. Since Oct. 1, more than 57,000 children and 55,000 people traveling as families, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, have been arrested. The spike prompted the Obama administration to expand detention space for families and to deport them more quickly — sending with them a stern message that there are no free passes for migrants coming illegally.
On the six-hour truck journey to Tocoa, an agricultural valley dotted by mansions, Ramirez described life in a region where drug trafficking pays like nothing else. One brother was killed in a family feud and another when he went to collect on a debt. Her husband worked the cocaine flights, and once earned $4,000 in just one day. He sometimes used their modest home to store drugs.
"I was scared, because when you're involved in that, they will do things to your family," Ramirez said.
Colon province is the center of Honduras' drug-trafficking operations, which span the Caribbean provinces that are among the most dangerous in a country with the world's highest murder rate. In 2012, the DEA targeted drug trafficking through Gracias a Dios with Operation Anvil, which became controversial after two pilots and four civilians were killed. It was later suspended and the drug flights continue.
After her husband's death, Ramirez's in-laws took possession of their home. The 27-year-old widow was left with his motorbike, clothes and a few cellphone photos of him with his ever-present pistol.
A housewife with no prospects for work, she stayed at her mother's home until a relative in the United States sent money for a bus trip through Mexico and for a coyote to smuggler her across the Rio Grande to Texas.
Ramirez left with her sister, Yadira, and two children on June 3, and crossed the Guatemalan border to Mexico three days later. She and the children stayed in the town of Tapachula for two weeks while Yadira worked in the border bars, drinking and dancing with the men for money. But Ramirez, an evangelical Christian who had been with her husband since age 16, refused to join her.
"I'm not accustomed to attending to men," she said.
Eventually she left without her sister, taking the 16-hour trip to Mexico City with the two children on her lap because she couldn't afford more than one seat.
She carried her identification, their birth certificates her husband's death certificate, and an honor badge her daughter had won at school to the border town of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, where other migrants warned to lay low because of kidnappings. But she needed to keep moving.
As she hailed a cab one afternoon, a group of men grabbed Ramirez and her children. They held the family overnight, demanding money. When she discovered the door was unguarded in the morning, Ramirez and the children escaped to meet the coyote. He kept them for five days, awaiting a $2,000 deposit from her family.
When she arrived at the U.S. border, Ramirez turned herself in to immigration officials.
"They asked me if I had guns or explosives," she said. "I told them my problem and they said there was nothing they could do. That I had to talk to the judge."
She was deported before seeing a judge.
She doesn't remember the exact days or locations. She traveled by bus to several immigration stations, where she slept on the floor of what the migrants called "coolers," because the air conditioning was turned up so high. One night her son was playing with another child in the bathroom, when he hit his head on the toilet and began bleeding profusely.
Immigration guards tried to handcuff her on the ambulance ride to the hospital, where her son's wound was treated with two stitches.
"I said to them, 'How could you think that I would take off and leave my son?' "she recalled.
The night before she boarded the plane home, Ramirez dreamed of her dead husband. "He didn't say anything, but he was hugging me," she recalled.
When the plane landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduran First Lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez boarded to personally welcome the women and children home.
At the migration center, Ramirez was given a bag of groceries with juice to last a day, drinking water and the equivalent of about $25 in lempiras.
The deported women were angry.
Karen Ferrera was returning to El Progreso, a gang-ruled municipality outside of San Pedro Sula, with her 8-month-old baby. The 25-year-old had been trying to get to Wisconsin, where her mother lives.
"I told them I'm a single mother, with three girls, and no place to live in Honduras," she recalled through her tears.
Glendis Ramirez, 22, also made her way back to Tocoa, where she picked up a horse for the final two hours of the journey to her mountain village. Before leaving, she tossed out the tennis shoes she had worn on her failed trip to the U.S. "I never want to see them again," she said.
When Elsa Ramirez arrived in Tocoa, she collapsed into the arms of her tearful mother in relief and frustration. Neither woman knew what the future would bring. Ramirez could hide out in her mother's home for a time, she said, perhaps work as a cook or shop clerk.
Or with her husband's killers still on the loose, she could try again to make the trek to the United States — but without her children.
This time, she said, "God didn't want it to happen. Only He knows why He's keeping us here."