BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Tens of thousands of children in El Salvador flee their homes each year to escape gang violence, and the government is “either unwilling or unable” to protect them from persecution, a U.S.-based advocacy group said on Thursday.

Refugees International said El Salvador had not publicly acknowledged the leading role gangs played in driving families from their homes to seek refuge in other parts of the Central American nation or in the United States. The country is racked by drug-fueled gang violence, with entire city neighborhoods controlled by powerful street gangs, known as maras. “Although this violence is causing people to flee, the government prefers to say that most Salvadorans who leave the country are doing so for economic reasons, or to be reunited with family,” RI said in its report.

Tania Camila Rosa, head of human rights at the foreign affairs ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year “The fundamental reason for 12 to 18-year-olds migrating north to the U.S. is reunification … with their relatives.”

But El Salvador recorded 594 murders in May alone, believed to be the deadliest month since the country’s civil war ended in 1992. The flow of children from El Salvador to the United States is such that last year more than 32,000 Salvadoran children traveling alone reached the U.S. border, the report said.

“While the numbers have dropped this year, it is not because fewer children are fleeing El Salvador but because more deportations are occurring in Mexico. For the first time, Mexico is now recording more deportations of Salvadorans than the U.S.,” the report said.

As Mexican authorities beef up security and police patrols at the porous border with the United States, children trying to cross Mexico are now more likely to be stopped at that border.

In the first two months of this year, Mexico deported over 25,000 children traveling alone.

“It’s critical that regional countries keep their borders open to those seeking protection,” Sarnata Reynolds, the report’s author and RI senior adviser on human rights, said in a statement.

“Those who flee have a right to request and receive protection when they have fled a credible risk of torture or persecution.”

Children are choosing to leave home because of poverty and increased violence.

According to a new report published by the Pew Research Center, out of 11,000 Mexican minors who tried to cross the border illegally between last October 1 and May 31, “only 2,700 children (24% of all the apprehensions) reported being apprehended for the first time in their lives.”

This means that more than three-quarters of the children have been caught trying to cross the border illegally more than once. According to the report, 15% of these would-be migrants had been detained by immigration authorities and deported at least six times.

Unlike Central American children, Mexican minors are deported almost immediately. A 2008 human trafficking law requires migrant children to be processed by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). But the law doesn’t apply to minors from the two U.S. neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico.

Interestingly fewer immigrants are entering the U.S. illegally, and that’s changed the border security debate.

Even as the economy bounces back from recession, illegal immigration flows, especially from Mexico, have kept declining, ­according to researchers and government data. Since the 1990s, the opposite was true: The better the economy, the more people tried to come.

“Every month or quarter that the economy continues to improve and unauthorized immigration doesn’t pick up supports the theory that border security is a bigger factor, and it’s less about the economy and we have moved into a new era,’’ said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration program at the Migration Policy Institute. Some researchers say factors other than security are playing a role and might even account for much of the reduced flow of illegal immigrants.

For potential migrants who are calculating the pros and cons of trying to cross the border, stiffer U.S. security measures are making the trip much more expensive, in particular the exploding cost of hiring a guide. The journey has also become more arduous and dangerous, in part because the DHS has plugged traditional crossing points and driven migrants deeper into the desert.