One of the worst humanitarian crises is taking place in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, an area commonly known as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA). A long-lasting turf war between rival armed street gangs has led to an escalation of violence that has caused a spike in the number of deaths. What are the consequences, and how are the governments of the NTCA dealing with this situation? (Featured Image © Tomas Castelazo)
In 2015 alone, 17,400 victims were murdered, making the NTCA the most violent region in the world that is not at war according to the latest data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The outrageous levels of violence have forced thousands of people to be displaced from their homes. As a result, this has created a large refugee crisis.
Before elaborating on the consequences of the violence, or assessing the adequacy of solutions adopted by the governments involved, a look at the causes of this violence is essential.
The Roots of Violence
How to explain that a region with no armed conflict under way is generating rates of deaths and humanitarian needs comparable only to those of Syria? The answer can be found in the increasing power of Maras.
Maras are transnational gang structures that operate in all three NTCA’s countries. To understand why they maintain a presence in this area, it is necessary to look at their roots. In the Eighties, both El Salvador and Guatemala were engaged in bloody civil wars.1 Peace agreements were signed in 1992 and 1996 respectively, but not before leaving both economies in ruins, thousands of displaced and a combined total of 275,000 dead.2
During this period, the United States hardened its immigration laws.3 As a result, thousands of convicts were deported from the US prisons to the NTCA. Suddenly, the post-conflict states, that were still trying to recover from the civil war, received numerous criminals who were previously engaged in gang activities in the United States and brought the US-style gang culture and structure to the region.4
The number of deportations continued to grow in the following decade. In a context of rampant poverty5, lack of opportunities and social exclusion, the gangs found the perfect pool to recruit new affiliates from or absorb local gangs to replicate their criminal activities.6
The most vulnerable local youths were attracted not only to the promise of economic reward, but also to a sense of identity and community that was missing at the time, largely due to the aftermaths of the conflict.7 Consequently, the gangs spread rapidly across the area.
Maras are formed by numerous local street gangs that are associated with one of the two largest enemy gang organizations: the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (B-18). They compete brutally to gain exclusive control over well-delimited urban and semi-urban territories and their residents. Once in power, they make use of threats and violence to impose their authority on the population.8
The main criminal activity of Maras, as well as their principal source of revenue, comes from extortion and racketeering of businesses, public transportation drivers, and communities under their control.9
Additionally, they might engage in other illegal activities such as kidnapping for ransom or hired assassination. In the last years, the rise of international drug trafficking has also benefited the Maras.10
Nowadays, the number of Maras members is hard to know. The Ministry of Defense of El Salvador estimated that around 60,000 people are involved in gang activities. Putting the numbers in perspective, this nation has a combined number of armed forces (army and police) of 50,000 members.11
Consequences of Gang Violence
The alarming level of violence has created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Seven out of 25 most dangerous cities in the world in 2016 were in the NTCA.12 The average homicide rates of the NTCA’s nations is even superior to those of countries such as Yemen and Iraq, which are involved in civil wars.13
The effects of violence and gang activities on people’s behavior are increasingly clear. A survey carried out in 2016, found that 70% of people in Guatemala prevent children from playing in the street, and 50% of Hondurans avoid using public transportation for fear of crime.14
Violence is not only forcing people to live in constant fear, but it is also forcing them to migrate. It has been estimated that around 714,500 people had been internally displaced in the NTCA area by the end of 2015.15
In some communities in Honduras, people have reported being displaced twice and even three times.16 Thousands more have decided to leave the region. Since 2010, almost one million people from the Northern triangle nations have been detained in Mexico and the United States.17
An astonishing number of individuals fleeing the region are so-called unaccompanied minors, children or teenager under the age of eighteen who crossed the borders without a parent or legal guardian. In 2014, approximately 52,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended in the United States.18
Violence was cited by 66 % of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador as their main reason for leaving.19 Boys are usually targeted by gangs to be recruited by force, even as early as eight years of age;20 Girls fear being forced into prostitution or to be sexually exploited as ‘the girlfriend’ of a Mara member.21
Migrants are also exposed to serious risks during their journeys. The routes are often controlled by criminal groups such as drug cartels who kidnap migrants for ransom, often torturing and killing those who cannot pay.22
Seeking shelter abroad is also a really difficult task. Most of the refugees end up being deported despite applying for asylum. In 2015, 98.4% of migrants from the NTCA region were deported by Mexico.23 Once back in their home country, the refugees are displaced again because they fear going back to their homes due to possible reprisal, creating a never-ending cycle of displacement.24
Unlike displacement in other conflict areas, refugees fleeing from gang violence do not migrate in mass. There is no exodus of people as seen in the recent images of the Rohingya population at the border with Bangladesh. NTCA refugees flee one by one, even without informing relatives. Most of them prefer to hide and remain anonymous not only to avoid raising suspicion of the Maras, but also for their lack of trust in state institutions, such as the police and the army.25
This represents a large challenge because people fleeing from violence could be difficult to identify and therefore to assist, particularly in the case of internally displaced people.26 Additionally, it makes invisible the suffering of thousands of people and the magnitude of an overlooked humanitarian crisis.
Policies that Do Not Work
The response of the NTCA States has focused on strengthening security aspects rather than acknowledging and solving the humanitarian consequences of gang violence.27 The governments have followed a long-lasting ‘Mano Dura´ (iron fist) or zero-tolerance policy against the Maras.
However, this approach has demonstrated to be far from effective. First, the rates of violence and deaths have not declined, they have even increased. Moreover, citizens living in areas controlled by gangs have been victims of multiple cases of abuses and human rights violations including extrajudicial violence and murder.28
The policy has been effective at putting criminals behind bars. However, this proved to be ineffective since gang leaders have access to cell phones and can easily control the activities of the Maras directly from jail.29
The regional response has not been appropriate either. The number of deportations from Mexico and the United States of people fleeing from the Northern Triangle has increased considerably in the last years. The situation is not likely to improve in the future.
US President Donald Trump’s narrative and policies to harden immigration controls at the borders and build a wall would not stop the migration flow, it would only worsen the problem. The life of thousands of migrants would be exposed to more dangerous routes and the abuses of smugglers and human trafficking organizations.30 Walls will not stop people from trying to save their own lives.
Additionally, the allocation of US foreign aid to the NTCA is projected to decrease by 42% in 2018 when compared to 2016.31 While most security-related programs would keep their funds, development assistance programs would receive significant cuts. The modifications in the budget could indicate the preferences of Washington to support security and military solutions instead of humanitarian programs.32
Policies that Do Work
Although the problem of gang violence is complex, neither tougher criminal laws nor mass deportations will solve it. The first step is to look for a regional solution that guarantees assistance to displaced people affected by violence, especially to the most vulnerable groups such as children and teenagers.
In doing so, it is essential to strengthen the regional asylum system. People are fleeing because they fear for their life. In this sense, migrants have the right to access a just and clear asylum procedure.33 Per international law, the deportation of asylum seekers is strictly forbidden.
The NTCA governments should also officially recognize the problem of internally displaced people (only Honduras has done this so far).34 This is important to establish concrete protection policies and improve screening capacity to identify the victims of violence within the NTCA region.35
Since these people are at risk of violence in areas controlled by gangs, the participation of humanitarian actors with experience in conflict zones to establish dialogues and try to reach truces at the local level is essential.36
At the same time, it is necessary to complement these actions with the execution of development programs that strengthen local capacities and resilience and promote social integration and conflict-resolution.37 Combining both methods have proved to be effective at reducing the levels of violence in small urban areas in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.38
Finally, NTCA governments should call for urgent action by the international community. Donors and international actors are vital to allocate more humanitarian and financial resources.39 So far, the crisis has only been acknowledged by some international organizations, such as Médecin sans Frontiers and just recently the UN Refugee Agency.
Despite the efforts made by these organizations, it is still insufficient considering the size of the problem. Displaced people from the Northern Triangle may remain hidden, but they deserve as much attention and assistance as refugees from other parts of the world.