SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Hiding in the bushes, 17-year-old Marcelo Larin watched in terror as attackers raped a fellow migrant, a Guatemalan woman, near her naked, unconscious and machete-wounded husband.
Larin wasn't the only witness to the violence that day more than five years ago in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Other Central American migrants were also quietly waiting out the attack until they could rescue the Guatemalan couple. They finally helped the pair to a nearby highway and loaded them into a passing police car.
Larin is now back in his native El Salvador where he goes by the handle "Marcelo the Migrant" and spreads an urgent message to others thinking of trying their luck in the U.S.: Don't go, at least not without legal permission.
"When I'm in the schools, I talk as a kind of prevention," said Larin, now 22. "It's difficult to find opportunities in El Salvador, but there are some."
He works with the nonprofit Committee for Dead and Missing Migrants of El Salvador, which is the first of its kind in this Central American country, championing the rights of those who have survived and returned from the dangerous journey north.
Despite warnings from government officials and others, millions of Salvadoran migrants have hit the torturous road to the U.S. in search of the American dream. Many end up back home, penniless and debt-ridden.
The center's staff, which includes many ex-migrants, offers legal support and counseling to returnees. It's also investigated 309 cases of alleged human rights violations involving Salvadoran migrants as well as searched for those missing in Guatemala and Mexico.
"Many cases go unreported out of fear of reprisal and because most coyotes know the families of the victims," said committee director Lucia Gonzalez, using a slang term for smugglers hired to guide migrants.
Her office is covered with photographs of missing migrants, many with the question "Where are they?" written across their faces.
Such dangers have only grown in recent months as Mexican drug cartels escalate their war for control of smuggling routes into the U.S., which are often the same paths taken by migrants. Since November, hundreds of migrants, many of them from Central America, have been found dead in mass graves near the U.S.-Mexico border or trapped in stifling cargo trailers driven by smugglers.
Salvadorans were especially shocked by the discovery of 72 slain Central Americans in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Police suggested they were killed after resisting forced recruitment into the Zetas drug cartel.
The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico recorded 214 kidnapping events involving 11,333 migrants in just a six-month period last year.
That's spurred action from migrant rights groups elsewhere in the region, such as Frontera Sur in Chiapas state and Sin Fronteras in Mexico City. The violence has also dissuaded some Central Americans from leaving.
Mexico's National Migration Institute says 28,706 Guatemalans were deported from Mexico last year, making up the biggest group of deportees, with Honduran immigrants second and Salvadorans third.
Larin said he's working to make sure his countrymen don't end up as victims.
The rape in Chiapas served as a visceral reminder for Larin of the violence he was risking on his journey and ultimately helped convince him to cut short his trip.
So he made his way to the Mexican town of Arriaga and worked for months in a refuge that served migrants on their way north.
"I tell people that it's better that we prepare ourselves here for when foreign companies come and ... not suffer loneliness, humiliation, kidnappings and in the worst cases, not be able to return to see their families," Larin said.
Between 75 and 85 percent of Salvadoran migrants who attempt the journey make it to the U.S., which means "between 15 and 25 percent are caught in transit," said Juan Jose Garcia, El Salvador's deputy foreign minister in charge of overseas Salvadorans.
Official figures show some 3 million Salvadorans live in the United States, sending an estimated $3.5 billion in remittances back home in 2010. That cash is an important source of revenue for the impoverished country of about 7 million people, where an estimated 48 percent of people lived below the poverty line in 2009.
"They're motivated by the lack of jobs and opportunities in our country," said Miguel Montenegro, a member of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission in El Salvador. "If there were opportunities here for everybody, they wouldn't make these decisions."
Most left El Salvador during a civil war that raged in the 1980s and killed tens of thousands. Because of that wartime experience, more than 200,000 Salvadorans have received temporary protected status since January 2001 from the U.S. government and been allowed to stay legally in the country.
Montenegro said Salvadorans who migrate illegally often bet everything on the journey.
"Most have to mortgage their homes, their piece of land or sell their belongings to pay the coyotes' fees," he said. "If they don't have the money, which runs between $6,000 to $7,000, they make the trip without help from the coyotes. These are the most at risk. They usually get kidnapped."
Gonzalez listed the known fates that have befallen migrants: Abandoned by smugglers, murdered by criminals, mutilated under the wheels of moving trains they failed to catch, trapped "in the hands of people who take advantage of their tragedy" and force them into prostitution.
While the casualty list grows, another trend has also emerged. More people, including ex-migrants such as Larin, are stepping up to do something, Gonzalez said:
"Always we find a friendly voice that gives us a hand to help the victims."