Fleeing Central America’s killing streets

Central America’s civil wars and dictatorships in the 1980s helped create the violent situation today, a new report says

Violence fuels exodus from Central America, which has the highest murder rates in the world [AFP]

San Jose, Costa Rica – In Honduras, 13-year-old Andrea Argenal never joined the tens of thousands of her Central American peers who have journeyed to the United States border, seeking refuge from some of the world’s worst violence.

A resident of the perilous city of San Pedro Sula, Andrea’s fate was set after she caught the eye of a gang member, according to Honduran police. On June 26, when she didn’t return from escorting her younger cousins to school, her parents reported her missing. After 14 days of searching, Andrea’s mother received a call.

Following the caller’s instructions, Andrea’s parents found her body buried in the back courtyard of a building three blocks from their home. Unidentifiable due to its state of decomposition, her parents recognised the orange blouse, blue jeans and sandals as what she wore on the day she disappeared. She been blindfolded and strangled, according to police. Her parents had tried to protect her by taking her out of school when they learned that suspected gang members had made advances on her.

Young migrants risk their lives to cross US border

Ten days later, police arrested two men, allegedly members of the international Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13. The investigation led police to believe that one of suspects became infatuated with Andrea and also tried to recruit her into the gang. After she repeatedly resisted, the two arrested suspects, along with three others, kidnapped, raped and killed her.

“When the girl never responded to his desire, he decided to kill her,” San Pedro Sula police spokesman Oscar Ardon told Al Jazeera.

A similar situation drove 15-year-old Maritza from El Salvador to the US in April 2013. After being apprehended by US immigration authorities, the 15-year-old was interviewed by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“I am here because the gang threatened me. One of them liked me,” Maritza told her interviewers. “Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags.”

Gang members reportedly told Maritza’s uncle the day she would be kidnapped. She went on to say that she had previously thought of going to the US to reunite with her mother. She left on the day before her planned kidnapping.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to come,” Maritza said. “I decided for sure only when the gang threatened me.”

Disposable pawns

Andrea and Maritza were disposable pawns in a drug-fueled gang war set in one of the most violent parts of the world. The violence has now forced tens of thousands of children to undertake a dangerous voyage through Mexico to the US border. Experts interviewed by Al Jazeera said that the crisis’ deep roots will not be addressed by the current proposals under debate in Washington.

Hondurans emigrating in massive numbers

Maritza was one of 404 Central American or Mexican children interviewed by the United Nations Refugee Agency for a report released last July. The children all had attempted to enter the US unaccompanied in 2013. Nearly half – 48 percent – had been threatened or attacked by armed organised criminals and 31 percent expressed general fear about gang violence.

Violence in the home was also a reason to flee, with 21 percent of children citing abuse from family members or caretakers as their reason for leaving. Overall the report concluded that 58 percent of the children interviewed met the criteria for international protection, meaning their home countries were unwilling or unable to provide them protection.

The violence in part is a consequence of Central America’s civil wars and repression in the 70s and 80s, according to the report. It further blamed the “lack of [a] consistent effective ability to stem the escalating violence, to prosecute and punish appropriately the perpetrators of this widespread criminal violence, and perhaps most important from the perspective of [our] mandate,” the UN report read, “to provide meaningful and adequate protection and redress to members of these societies affected by this violence”.

The Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have the highest murder rates in the world, but within those countries, there are worse hotspots such as Andrea’s home town of San Pedro Sula. In 2013, this northwestern Honduras city had 1,407 homicides, according to police statistics. For a city of approximately 1.1 million, this meant a homicide rate of 127 per 100,000 citizens. More than one out of every 1,000 residents of San Pedro Sula were murdered in just one year.

Root causes

The gang-driven violence that claimed Andrea’s life has roots that date back to the earlier waves of immigrants who escaped to the US during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.

Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, said that past deportation policy helped spread US-born gangs like Mara Salvatrucha into the Northern Triangle countries.

Designed to reduce what the US perceived as an imported problem, the deportations actually spread US gang culture to Central America.

by - Sonja Wolf, researcher

“A lot originated in the deportation in the 1980s,” Arnson told Al Jazeera. “That was a piece of organisation for gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th street gang.”

A second researcher, Sonja Wolf, agreed with Arnson. In a paper published by the University of Miami, Wolf argued that early generations of Central Americans formed gangs while living as marginalised, undocumented immigrants, mostly in Southern California.

“Once the Salvadoran civil war ended [in 1992], the US authorities began targeting offending noncitizens more aggressively for repatriation, Wolf wrote. “Designed to reduce what the US perceived as an imported problem, the deportations actually spread US gang culture to Central America and made existing gang phenomena more virulent.”

Arnson said that consistent low-economic growth, coupled with birth rates and the deportations from the US, means the economies of Central America have been unable to find a place for many of its young people.

“Ability to emigrate to the US has been a safety valve, especially for a country like El Salvador, but to a lesser extent for Guatemala and Honduras,” Arnson said. “Without the ability to export its population there will be increased pressure on their governments.”

A researcher at the Migration Policy Institute, Doris Meissner, said that many immigrants who fled those civil wars ended up creating a positive result for their original communities, in the form of remittances.

“For many years the effect back home has been viewed as a win-win,” Meissner told Al Jazeera.

The pay differential, even for low-skilled immigrants, often creates a surplus of dollars that can be sent back home. For especially impoverished communities in Central America, this can be the only way to have a guaranteed source of income every month.

“Many communities became almost entirely remittance-dependent for their economies,” Meissner said.

Increased border security has been a top priority among US lawmakers for dealing with immigration, but Meissner said this could strengthen gangs by pushing aspiring immigrants to connect with organised crime groups to smuggle themselves across the border.

“It’s smuggling in the way that drug smuggling works,” Meissner said.

A law professor at UC Davis, Kevin Johnson, said that criminal deportations of Central Americans have surged in recent years.

“Currently the US government is involved in fairly significant programmes in removal of criminal aliens,” Johnson told Al Jazeera. “They’re being deported to a place where some of them have very few skills and resort to extralegal activities.”

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported106,420 combined deportations of Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans in 2013. ICE did not report how many of these country-specific deportees had been convicted of a crime in the US, but its overall statistics shows 59 percent of the nearly 370,000 deported were criminals.

Johnson dismissed the current proposals in Washington, saying that the US never addressed the fundamental causes behind Central American immigration dating as far back as the 80s.

“They’re piecemeal attempts to deal with a crisis,” Johnson said.

Source: Al Jazeera