TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Maria’s nightmare started with gang members demanding that her husband pay a “war tax” — a euphemism for extortion — on a cargo truck he owned. He always paid the $250, but gangsters killed him anyway, bursting into their San Pedro Sula home two years ago and dragging him away. His body was found shortly after, with signs of torture and six gunshot wounds to the head.

Maria, 29, fled with her three children, all under the age of 10, to another part of Honduras. Then, just months later, her brother — who had been deported from the United States 18 months earlier — was killed by gang members. Figuring she was next, Maria fled the country with another brother.

“We left the next day with 2,000 lempiras ($84) … practically nothing,” she told Global Sisters Report at the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

She left her children with their grandmother, fearing they would suffer too much on the journey, and headed to the U.S. Maria made it as far as Tabasco state in southern Mexico, where she was detained and then deported. Her brother, who “ran faster than me,” made it to the U.S., she said.

Maria, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her identity, is among the thousands of Central Americans who attempt to escape violence but end up back in the country and conditions they fled. The homicide rates in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are among the world’s highest.

Women have fled Honduras in larger numbers in recent years, often to protect their children, who are preyed upon by gangs or forcibly recruited as teenagers, said Scalabrinian Sister Lidia Mara Silva da Souza.

“The biggest problem is extortion. We all pay it,” said Silva, director of the Honduran bishops’ Human Mobility Ministry, which attends to migrants transiting the country and those returning, involuntarily or otherwise. “In the payments we make to private security companies, extortion is included, and they have to pay the gangs, so we all pay.”

Those seeking refuge, including those who manage to cross the U.S. border, face numerous obstacles. Under new and tougher U.S. policies, domestic and gang violence will no longer typically qualify for asylum claims.

Deportees are arriving back in Honduras in massive numbers. The Consular and Migratory Observatory of Honduras counted 39,585 returned migrants between Jan. 1 and July 15 (almost all from the U.S. and Mexico) — 44.7 percent more than during the same period in 2017, according to Honduran newspaper El Heraldo.

Silva and another two Scalabrinian sisters from Brazil run two centers for returned migrants at the airports in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. The centers receive planeloads of migrants several times a week and the sisters help returnees with having IDs reissued and finding transportation. They also offer medical and psychological help.

Mostly, though, the sisters try to offer a warm welcome, serving the migrants coffee and “baleadas” — Honduran specialties of flour tortillas and red beans — and a dose of dignity for people arriving with their dreams dashed, Silva said.

“Something I believe is pastorally fundamental when we speak of migrants and refugees and displaced peoples is looking them in the eyes so they feel that they are important, that they …  matter,” she said.

Those who have been deported often cannot return to their former neighborhoods because the threats they fled remain. Moving to a new area is risky because the gangs look suspiciously at newcomers.

Since returning to Honduras, Maria occasionally works processing coffee. She tried to start a small retail business with seed money from a nongovernmental group, but a new set of extortionists forced her to abandon those plans.

Maria still receives telephone threats connected with her late husband’s business. “The gangs always have someone deep inside the police,” she said. That’s why her family never reported her husband’s killing, even though he was a physician. It’s also why many Hondurans distrust the authorities.

“These criminal groups can find anyone,” said Jaime Flores, who works for Covenant House in Honduras. “They have a network that can find you wherever you are.”

Ingrid Alvarado worries about that. She fled northern Honduras in February after a gang demanded that her 14-year-old nephew join its ranks. “They said that if my nephew (who lived in her home) didn’t join, I would pay with my life and my children’s lives, too,” she told Global Sisters Report.

She and her nephew made it through Mexico, where she said she twice escaped being raped, by riding small buses to the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, where they requested asylum.

Alvarado, 26, said her nephew’s asylum claim still is being processed. She abandoned her claim after three months in detention, worried about her children, ages 4 and 7, whom she had left with her grandparents. “I couldn’t take it any longer,” she said.

She returned to Honduras in May to a new neighborhood. The mere fact that she had lived in an area dominated by a rival gang makes her suspicious to the gang controlling her new neighborhood, she said.

Central Americans know the risks of migration. The Scalabrinian sisters minister to families of migrants killed in Mexico by drug cartels and those who lose limbs from falling under the freight trains they steal rides atop in Mexico.

“What happens on the way to the U.S. border would be less grave than what they live here,” Flores said of the migrants’ thinking.