By Gustavo Palencia and Dave Graham
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - A group of five Syrians paid smugglers $10,000 each to travel through multiple countries before being detained for carrying false Greek documents in Honduras, their epic journey exposing a little-known southern smuggling route for Syrians fleeing war in their homeland.
The young men have told human rights activists their final destination was next-door Guatemala, because their Turkish people smuggler who guided them through the unfamiliar continent told them they had jobs and a house waiting for them there.
However, relatives of one of the men, Laurans Samaan, said the 19-year-old was trying to reach his brother in the United States and find work. Samaan, they said, is a Syrian Christian from a village near the city of Homs, one of the hardest hit in the war. Two more of the men have Christian names.
"He is a young man, he wants to earn a living, and what will he do in Syria, it's so dangerous," said his brother-in-law Issa Amissa, speaking to Reuters from the United Arab Emirates.
About 10 percent of Syria's population is Christian, following some of the world's oldest Orthodox churches.
Another of the detainees, Mazen Mikhail, told a rights activist who has had access to the men in custody that relatives of his have been taken hostage by Islamic State in Syria.
The five men, who are aged between 19 and 30, were part of a wider group of seven Syrian nationals who acquired forged passports in Brazil, a U.S. source said.
The men traveled from Syria, to Lebanon and then to Turkey, and from there entered Brazil on Syrian passports, their trips financed by parents and families who whipped round to raise the cash, the rights activist, Miroslava Cerpas, said.
From Brazil, they went by land to Argentina before heading north, the U.S. source said. The group then spent "several days" in Costa Rica, before flying to Honduras, an official in Costa Rica with direct knowledge of the case said.
They were only stopped in Honduras because they didn't have a required yellow fever vaccination certificate in their passport, Cerpas said, although Honduran officials say they spotted that the documents were irregular.
A second U.S. government official said it appeared the five traveled to Honduras because they believed that border controls would be lax there. Their passports were obviously forged, the official said, raising questions about how they were able to move through earlier border controls with such apparent ease.
The other three men gave their names as Majd Ghanout Kousa, Fady Freej Shehada, and William Ghanem. Some of the men said they were from Hasaka, another city racked by violence. All five have now sought refugee status in Honduras.
Lourans Samaan told Cerpas he had been on the road for almost a year. His brother in law said he last saw Samaan a year ago. Samaan's brother, who asked not to be named, said he spoke to him in Argentina
"We are simple Christian people, we have no problems, he just decided to go anywhere safe," the brother told Reuters, adding that Samaan told him he had met someone who would help him reach the United States for money.
INTO THE FIRE
A spurt of detentions in Latin America in the past week has exposed what could be a larger trend of Syrians traveling on doctored Greek passports far from traditional trails out of their battered country to Europe.
At least seven Syrians carrying forged Greek passports have been apprehended in Honduras, Costa Rica and Paraguay in recent days. Three more, also traveling on Greek papers, were picked up on the tiny Caribbean island of St Maarten at the weekend.
A Syrian woman arrested at a hotel in Costa Rica on Thursday for traveling on a forged Greek passport. She was wearing a wig that also appeared in her passport photo.
In Paraguay, police detained a seventh Syrian man who was traveling on a stolen Greek passport. A Paraguayan state prosecutor identified the man as Abd Al Elah Khallo from Hasaka.
"The Syrian people are very good. There are foreigners who are not from the country who are doing terrible things," the Syrian told Paraguayan television station Telefuturo, bursting into tears as he recalled a mortar that killed a young boy from his neighborhood.
He said he had lived in Turkey for a year before heading to South America, and was aiming to head to London via Mexico.
The cases have sparked alarm among some U.S. lawmakers following reports that at least one of the attackers involved in the suicide bombings and shootings in Paris last week may have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.
"This is a serious concern," Republican Senator Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told a hearing.
U.S. officials said they believe the group was headed for the United States but emphasized there was no evidence that they had links to militant Islamists.
DANGEROUS ROUTE TO SAFETY
The next leg of the journey for the five men in Honduras was set to be the most risky.
Both Guatemala and Honduras are plagued by poverty, unemployment and violent crime. Every year, tens of thousands of their citizens make their own life-threatening journeys through lawless regions of Mexico controlled by drug cartels to seek prosperity and safety in the United States.
So far, only a tiny number of Syrians have been detected emulating the journey across Mexico. Only a handful have sought U.S. asylum via this route this year, including a family of eight people on Thursday. Only nine have been detected illegally transiting Mexico this year and none have turned up in migrant shelters.
The five may have chosen Brazil as their port of entry into Latin America because the country is seen as more hospitable to Syrians. It recently extended a two-year refugee visa program for Syrians fleeing their civil war, one of the signature humanitarian efforts of President Dilma Rousseff’s otherwise modest foreign policy.
The country has taken in nearly 2,100 Syrians, a quarter of its overall refugee population over the past two years. About 6,000 more were issued visas but have not made the long journey to Brazil.
Last month, however, Brazil detained eight Iraqi nationals who police said were traveling on false Greek passports they had obtained in Turkey. A trickle of immigrants also reach the United States land border from other countries fighting Islamist insurgencies.
On Monday, U.S. Border Patrol agents in Sonoita, Arizona, apprehended five Pakistani nationals and one Afghan national who are believed to have crossed the border.
(With reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires, Daniela Desantis in Paraguay, Caroline Stauffer in Brazil and Gabriel Stargardter and Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein in Mexico City, Enrique Andres Petel in Costa Rica, and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Gardner and Ross Colvin)