Migrants’ stories: Why they flee

Anthony W. Fontes, American University School of International Service

File 20190408 2924 16ojp3p.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A man hugs his family before leaving for the U.S. border with a migrant caravan from San Salvador, El Salvador, Jan. 16, 2019. AP/Salvador Melendez


Massive influxes of Central American families seeking asylum in the United States are overwhelming U.S. immigration facilities.

The crisis along the U.S. southern border led directly to the forced resignation on April 7 of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whom President Donald Trump believed ineffectively managed the situation.

As Trump promises to “shut down the border” and “punish” the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for failing to stem the exodus from their countries, the question of why so many families are making the difficult and dangerous journey north appears more urgent than ever.

I have spent much of the last decade conducting on-the-ground fieldwork in this region, and along the migration paths through Mexico, seeking answers to this question.

The region’s extreme poverty and violent impunity are central factors driving this migration.

Yet every migrant’s story is unique. Some simply seek the chance to earn enough money to ensure a better future for themselves or their children. Others flee persecution at the hands of gangs, organized crime or corrupt state officials. For others, insecurity and poverty are so intertwined that drawing them apart becomes impossible.

Santos Isabel Escobar weeps beside the coffin of her 18-year-old son, Eddy Fernando Cabrera, who was executed with four other young people in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Jan. 11, 2019.
AP/Fernando Antonio

‘Falling deeper into debt’

Extreme poverty and inequality haunt the region. Today, about half of all Central Americans – and two-thirds of the rural populations of Guatemala and Honduras – survive below the international poverty line.

Meanwhile, throughout the 21st century, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have consistently counted among the most murderous nations in the world.

Many Central American migrants are simply desperate to find work that pays enough to feed their families. U.S. asylum law provides no relief for these “economic refugees.”

I met Roberto Quijones in a migrant shelter in the Mexican state of Tabasco, about 25 mile north of the Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, in late 2017. We spoke as he soaked his blistered feet and tried to mend his busted shoes with duct tape.

Roberto is from a rural town in northwestern El Salvador near the border with Honduras and Guatemala, and had been out of work for two years. For more than a year, he and his wife and their 2-year-old daughter had been living with an aunt. Their welcome had worn thin.

“She’s family,” Roberto said, “but you know you get to a moment when not paying rent isn’t possible anymore. Even if they are family.”

And even for those who can find work, extremely low wages cannot cover families’ basic needs, destroying hope for a better future.

“I can make 200 lempiras, a day working” – the equivalent of US$10 – said Marvin Otoniel Castillo, a father of three from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. We spoke in late 2016 beneath a bridge in Veracruz, Mexico, waiting to hop a train to continue northwards.

“So your whole life is falling deeper into debt,” Marvin continued. “That’s why I came. So I could send my oldest child to school so he wouldn’t have to live like his father.”

A woman sells live baby chicks in central San Salvador, El Salvador. Nearly 1 in 3 Salvadorans lives in poverty.
AP/Rebecca Blackwell

Running for their lives

Other migrants have been targeted by criminal organizations that operate with stunning impunity in Central America.

Criminal organizations derive much of their power from their deep links with government agents; it’s sometimes impossible to identify where the state ends and the underworld begins. Such connections also make understanding who is responsible for any given murder difficult.

Transnational gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, play an important role in this violence. Estimates of how much they contribute to overall crime rates vary between countries and are hampered by extremely low prosecution rates and a lack of reliable data.

However, gangs are responsible for the region’s most widespread and brutal extortion rackets, which create deep psychological and economic strife for poor Central Americans while also causing countless murders.

The upshot is that many Central Americans trying to enter the United States are literally running for their lives.

That includes Pedro, whose uncle and two brothers were gunned down on a crowded Guatemala City street in 2015 because, he believed, his cousin had stolen from a drug-trafficking organization. Like others I’ve interviewed who are fleeing violent persecution, he requested anonymity to protect himself and family still living in Guatemala.

Pedro said he moved with his wife and two daughters to another part of the city to escape detection. But then police discovered his 13-year-old daughter’s body in an alleyway.

Her assailants had raped her, burned her with cigarettes and knifed her to death. Pedro said that no one would tell him who did it, but he fled with his family to ensure their safety.

Or Alejandra, from a mid-size city west of the Guatemalan capital, who told me she was in her final year of a nurse training program and spending Christmas holidays with family when she witnessed her uncle gunned down in his front yard while he strung up party lights.

The uncle, she said, had refused to pay extortion money to a criminal group run by active and former police officers. The next day, Alejandra received threatening messages on Facebook. She didn’t want to leave the country, but moved in with a friend in another town and tried to lie low.

A few weeks later, Alejandra claimed, the group sent a kid with a handgun to kill her. She escaped by throwing herself from her motorbike. That’s when she decided to give up her career and flee Guatemala.

Central American migrants being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after requesting asylum, in El Paso, Texas, March 28, 2019.
REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

The price of staying

For financial or personal reasons, many Central Americans are unable or unwilling to flee in the face of such threats. That can exact a steep price.

One evening in late 2018, a woman named Sofia said that members of MS-13 caught her when she was walking home from work in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She’d moved to the city months before with her 12-year-old daughter, because her husband, Pablo, had fled the country to escape the gang’s threats.

Pablo had worked driving a produce truck, but then MS-13 killed his boss for refusing to pay extortion. Gang extortion is believed to be a leading cause of murder in Honduras and though the majority of the country’s extortion victims are poor, they pay about $200 million a year to protect themselves.

MS-13 told Pablo he was next.

The family’s funds were just enough to get Pablo out of Honduras. Maybe, they hoped, if he was gone the gang would leave the family alone. Once in the States, he could send money home.

The plan didn’t work. Four gang members forced Sofia into a car, drove her to the countryside, beat her and raped her repeatedly. “This is what will happen to your daughter,” they shouted at her over and over again, “if you don’t pay us what your husband owes.”

Ethics and survival

The images and stories of Central Americans caged at the border awaiting processing expose how the U.S. immigration system was never designed to deal with this many people fleeing these kinds of problems.

In the hopes of getting better treatment at the border, some migrants have resorted to pretending to be part of family units, or lying about their age.

This kind of “gaming the system” may be ethically questionable, but viewed from the perspective of survival, it makes perfect sense.

Such strategies speak most of all of collective desperation, begging a question posed by many of the Central American migrants I have met over the years: “If you were me, what would you do?”

Anthony W. Fontes, Assistant Professor of Human Security, American University School of International Service

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stories from the Migrant Caravans from the Northern Triangle Countries

[English] [Español]

By Ricardo Flores, La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador

28 November 2018

At the height of the migrant caravan crisis (which has not gone away) in November 2018, the daily Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica produced an article of ‘Stories of forced displacement due to violence’ written by Ricardo Flores. There were six personal stories in the article and ENCA member Jill Powis translated them for the ENCA Newsletter (no.75) which for reasons of space could only include four of them. All of them are included here on The Violence of Development website. We are grateful to Jill for her translations.

1

Nelson was disappeared and then murdered for refusing to leave his home. The first warning came in 2014 from a neighbour, a woman who had links with members of the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  She told him that he had to close down his business, which supported his family of seven, on the grounds that “he was selling the same product as her.” After that came more warnings, including death threats, to make him leave, together with his whole family. It was October 2015 when they decided to leave, to stay with relatives, but Nelson, a fictitious name to protect his [family] identity, decided to stay “to guard the house.”  His relatives believe that he was killed because, before he was threatened, he worked for a community organisation running violence prevention schemes to improve life within the community.

Prior to Nelson’s death, the family had sought protection from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – PDDH), but this opened a case file only after his murder.  The PDDH informed the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía), and all that happened was that some family members who gave evidence were named as key witnesses in the legal process.

Cristosal [see note below] lodged an application for protective measures for Nelson’s family with the Constitutional Court on 9 June 2017.  The application was accepted four months later, but by this time they were already out of the country. They had lost their jobs, their homes, the right to freedom of movement and the young people were forced to abandon their studies.

2

This is the story of a family 35 strong, including children and adolescents, who were victims of threats, physical attacks, sexual abuse and rape by gang members – all for being relatives of members of the armed forces. The gang attacked the family on various dates and different places.  The threats became so bad that they were forced to leave the town.

The family moved to relatives living in an area of the country without gangs. However, there they suffered violence again, but this time from the state. Police officers carried out an operation in the community, shooting “to intimidate”. A bullet hit a woman from the family, killing her instantly. This forced them to move again.

The family reported all the attacks by the gang to the authorities. The police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office solely designated them as key witnesses in the legal process so that they could testify – there was no progress on the cases. One of the victims of the forced displacement also filed a complaint with the General Inspectorate of the National Civil Police about his mother’s death at the hands of the officers who carried out the operation. The local police’s official version was that the woman died “in the context of a confrontation with gang members.”

This was the only one of the six cases where the Constitutional Court issued a final judgment in favour of a family displaced by the violence in El Salvador, following  a an application for protection measures filed by Cristosal.  However, the measures ordered by the Court benefited only a few members of the family, with the rest leaving the country under the international protection system.

3

Margarita and Luisa (not their real names) were threatened with rape if they did not leave the community. The two women, mother and daughter, had a food business which involved visiting various apartments. The threats began when some gang members came to live in the area.

In response to the threats, which were also directed at Margarita’s husband and another daughter, the family decided to move, but when they settled down in another place, they again suffered extortion from another gang.

When the family reported the gang to the Anti-Extortion Unit of the National Civil Police, it stated that its response would be limited to arresting the suspects and starting legal proceedings against them “because it does not have enough officers to provide the family with protection.”

4

Sofia was held captive and raped by a gang for being the daughter of a policeman. When the teenager disappeared, her father went to the police, but they failed to respond immediately. When they finally found her, the police accused Sofía (not her real name) of being a member of the gang.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office offered protection measures, but only for Sofia, a minor; and so the family, five people in total, preferred to move, where they remained in hiding. Despite not leaving the house, the gang members managed to find them and continued to issue them with death threats.  This meant that they were forced to move house again until they got help to leave El Salvador.

In view of the poor response by state institutions, the Constitutional Court accepted the application for protection measures for all five members of the family, but by this time they had already left the country.

5

A large family requested international protection measures in the wake of the murder of a young woman and her sister, as well as the kidnapping of a baby girl who was only months old. The investigation of the case produced evidence that the crimes were committed by gang members with the aim of “getting the baby.” The other members of the family were threatened so that they would leave, and so after the funeral for the two women, the family abandoned their belongings, homes and jobs.

Cristosal concluded that the State does not have the capacity to protect a large family.

6

Victoria, her adult daughter and two children lived in a house where they had a family business. One afternoon, an armed gang came to the store. Victoria (not her real name) was shot dead at the scene, while her daughter suffered bullet wounds to various organs. Her relatives had to take her from the hospital because the gang continued to look for her and they feared that she would be found. When she recovered, three months later, she decided to move with the two children to a house belonging to another relative. However, an informer from the gang found her and warned them to leave the area “if she did not want to have any problems”.

As a result of this fresh threat, the woman was forced to move again with her children to another relative in another region of the country. Unlike the other cases, this family did not want to take advantage of the government shelter system, but instead wanted measures that would allow them to be protected by the authorities in the place where they had relocated.

Cristosal presented their request to the Constitutional Court and it was accepted on 11 July 2018, when it ordered protective measures.

The trial for Victoria’s murder resulted in the conviction of those responsible, who are currently awaiting sentencing.

Note: Cristosal works to advance human rights in Central America through rights-based research, learning, and programming. They accompany victims of violence to provide protection when they need it most, repair the lingering effects of human rights violations, and build human rights frameworks to create conditions where peace is possible. https://www.cristosal.org/

Relatos del desplazamiento forzoso por la violencia

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Por Ricardo Flores, La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador

28 Noviembre 2018

Estos son los relatos que seis familias desplazadas por la violencia le contaron a Cristosal, la organización que documenta y atiende los casos y que ayer presentó un sistema de monitoreo del problema. Estas historias llegaron hasta la Sala de lo Constitucional de la Corte Suprema.

1

Nelson fue desaparecido y luego asesinado por negarse a abandonar su casa. La primera advertencia le llegó en 2014 de una vecina que tenía vínculos con pandilleros del Barrio 18, quien le dijo que debía cerrar el negocio del que sobrevivía la familia, conformada por siete personas. La queja de la mujer era que “vendían el mismo producto que ella”. Tras esa intimidación, llegaron más avisos que contenían amenazas de muerte para que se fuera del lugar junto con toda la familia. Corría octubre de 2015 cuando decidieron huir hacia donde otros parientes, pero Nelson, nombre ficticio para proteger su identidad, decidió quedarse “para resguardar la vivienda”. Los parientes creen que fue asesinado porque antes de ser amenazado trabajaba en una organización comunitaria que tenía proyectos para prevención de violencia para mejorar las condiciones de vida en la comunidad.

Previo a la muerte de Nelson, la familia había acudido a la Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos en busca de protección, pero la institución abrió un expediente del caso hasta después del homicidio. El acompañamiento de la PDDH los llevó a la Policía y la Fiscalía, donde la respuesta fue que algunos miembros de la familia que sirvieron como testigos recibieron nombres claves en el proceso.

Cristosal decidió presentar el 9 de junio de 2017 un amparo ante la Sala de lo Constitucional. Cuatro meses después, la sala admitió la demanda y ordenó medidas de protección para la familia de Nelson. Sin embargo, el grupo ya estaba fuera del país. Los sobrevivientes perdieron el empleo, el desarraigo a su patrimonio familiar, el derecho al libre tránsito y los jóvenes abandonaron sus estudios.

El Salvador debe de reconocer el desplazamiento forzado: Médicos del Mundo

La organización internacional sostuvo que es “urgente” ese reconocimiento por lo crítico que se ha vuelto esta problemática en El Salvador.

2

Esta es la historia de una familia conformada por 35 personas, entre niños y adolescentes, que fueron víctimas de amenazas, agresiones físicas, abuso sexual y violación de parte de pandilleros. Todo por ser parientes de miembros de la Fuerza Armada. La pandilla cometió ataques contra la familia en distintos lugares y fechas. Las amenazas se agravaron hasta exigirles que abandonaran el municipio.

La familia buscó apoyo en otros parientes que residían en zonas del país sin presencia de pandilleros. Cuando lo lograron sufrieron nuevamente violencia, pero esa vez de parte del Estado: ocurrió cuando policías realizaron un operativo en esa comunidad con disparos “para intimidar”. Una bala impactó a una mujer de la familia, lo que le ocasionó la muerte inmediatamente. Eso los obligó a un nuevo desplazamiento.

La familia puso la denuncia de todas las agresiones y ataques que sufrió de parte de los pandilleros. La Policía y la Fiscalía se limitaron a asignarles nombres claves en los procesos para que atestiguaran; sin embargo, los casos no prosperaron. Una de las víctimas del desplazamiento forzoso también interpuso ante la Inspectoría General de la Policía Nacional Civil una denuncia por la muerte de su madre a manos de los agentes que realizaron el operativo. La versión oficial de la policía de la zona fue que la mujer murió “en el marco de enfrentamiento contra pandilleros”.

Este ha sido el único de los seis casos en que la Sala de lo Constitucional emitió sentencia definitiva a favor de una familia desplazada por la violencia en El Salvador, después del amparo interpuesto por Cristosal, aunque el beneficio de las mediadas de protección dictadas por el tribunal superior solo fue para unos pocos miembros de la familia, pues la mayoría salió del país bajo el sistema de protección internacional.

418 niños sufrieron desplazamiento forzado en El Salvador en los últimos 3 años

Organizaciones, como Cristosal, piden a la CIDH que intervenga y solicite a los países del Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica una mejor atención a las víctimas.

Noticias de El Salvador / La Prensa Gráfica / 19 Oct

3

A Margarita y Luisa (nombres cambiados) las amenazaron con violarlas si no se iban de la comunidad. Las dos mujeres, madre e hija, pasaban en su negocio de comida en unos apartamentos. La amenaza inició cuando unos pandilleros llegaron a vivir al lugar.

Ante la advertencia, que incluía al esposo de Margarita y a otra hija, la familia decidió cambiar de domicilio, pero al establecerse en otro sitio, volvieron a sufrir extorsión de otra estructura de pandilleros.

Cuando la familia le contó a los miembros de la Unidad Antiextorsiones de la Policía Nacional Civil lo que los pandilleros les exigían, la respuesta fue que las acciones estaban limitadas a las capturas de los denunciados y abrir un juicio “porque no cuentan con personal suficiente para brindar protección a la familia”.

4

Sofía fue privada de libertad y violada por un grupo de pandilleros por ser hija de un agente. El policía buscó ayuda de la PNC cuando la adolescente desapareció, pero no obtuvo respuesta positiva de inmediato. Cuando finalmente la encontraron, los agentes acusaron a Sofía (nombre cambiado) de ser parte de la pandilla.

La Fiscalía ofreció medidas de protección solo para la menor, pero la familia, cinco personas en total, prefirió desplazarse a otro sitio, donde permanecía en confinamiento. A pesar de no salir de la casa, los pandilleros los ubicaron y volvieron a amenazarlos con la muerte, por lo que volvieron a movilizarse hasta obtener ayuda para salir de El Salvador.

La Sala de lo Constitucional admitió el amparo del caso debido a la pobre respuesta de parte de las instituciones del Estado, y otorgó medidas de protección para los cinco miembros del grupo familiar; pero ya estaban fuera del país.

Cristosal registra un incremento del 53% de víctimas de desplazamientos forzados

Las víctimas de desplazamientos forzado atendidas por la ONG incrementaron un 53% entre 2016 y 2017. Cristosal reitera que el Estado sigue sin reconocer el problema.

Noticias de El Salvador / La Prensa Gráfica / 25 Apr

5

Una familia numerosa solicitó medidas de protección internacional a raíz del asesinato de una joven y su hermana. Además del secuestro de una niña que tenía solo meses de edad. La investigación del caso arrojó evidencia que los hechos fueron cometidos por pandilleros con el objetivo de “quedarse con la niña”. Los demás miembros de la familia fueron amenazados para que abandonaran el lugar, por lo que después de enterrar a las dos mujeres, dejaron sus pertenencias, vivienda y sus fuentes de empleo.

Cristosal comprobó que el Estado no tiene la capacidad para proteger a una familia numerosa.

6

Victoria, su hija adulta y dos niños vivían en una casa donde tenían un negocio familiar. Un día por la tarde, pandilleros llegaron a la tienda a disparar. Victoria (nombre cambiado) falleció en el lugar, mientras que su hija resultó con lesiones de bala en algunos órganos. Familiares tuvieron que sacar del hospital a la herida porque pandilleros continuaban buscándola y temían que fuera ubicada. Pasaron así durante tres meses, hasta que logró recuperarse. Luego decidió desplazarse con los dos niños por sus propios medios hacia una casa de otro pariente. Sin embargo, un palabrero de la pandilla la ubicó y les advirtió que salieran de la zona “si no quería tener problemas”.

Esa nueva advertencia provocó que la mujer se desplazara otra vez junto a sus hijos a otro sector del país con otro pariente. A diferencia de los otros casos, esta familia no quería ingresar al sistema de albergue gubernamental, sino que una medida que les permitiera la protección de las autoridades en el sitio en que se había reubicado.

Esa petición fue planteada por Cristosal ante la Sala de lo Constitucional en un amparo que terminó admitiendo el 11 de julio de 2018, cuando ordenó medidas de protección.

El proceso judicial por el homicidio de Victoria culminó con la sentencia de los responsables. El proceso en la sala sigue pendiente de una sentencia definitiva.

Remittances to El Salvador and Nicaragua in 2018

El Economista (17 December 2018) reports that remittances received in El Salvador between January and November 2018 increased by 8.7% in comparison with the same period in 2017, and amounted to more than US$4,900 million [US dollars], according to the Central Reserve Bank (BCR).

In these ten months the country received remittances from 160 countries, at the head of which was the US with US$4,602.4 million, followed by the European Union and Canada with US$46.8 million and US$43.8 million respectively.

The 2.8 million Salvadorans who live in the United States sent a major part of the US$5,021.3 million in remittances which El Salvador received in 2017, this being the highest figure in history for the Central American country.


Informe Pastrán (21 December 2018) reports that remittances received in Nicaragua during the third quarter of 2018 rose to US$372.8 million, an increase of 4.8 per cent compared with the same period in the previous year. Remittances up to and including the month of September 2018 amounted to US$1,097.4 million, a 7.6 per cent increase on the same period during 2017.

During the third quarter of 2018, the major origins of these remittances were the United States (55.4%), Costa Rica (19.4%), Spain (11.5%) and Panamá (5.3%).

The department of Managua continued to be the major recipient of the remittances (35.0%), with the department of Chinandega receiving 10.3%, León 8.2%, Estelí 8.0% and Matagalpa 7.0%.

Remittances and migration – a possible Trump effect

Key words: remittances; migration; employment provision; social stability.

Sources within the BCIE (the Central American Bank of Economic Integration) have leaked their concerns about the possibility that US President Trump may tax the remittances not only of Mexican nationals residing in the USA to their families in Mexico, but may also extend this tax to nationals of all the Central American states. There are serious concerns that the currently untrumpeted intention to tax remittances to pay for the construction of the Border Wall with Mexico could seriously affect the economies of Central American states which include the remittance statistics in their currency reserve projections. The knock-on effect of such an action would be extra hardship suffered by all those families whose major money-earner works in the USA.

screen-shot-2017-03-26-at-10-58-27

A related economic issue arises from the BCIE’s estimate that Honduras needs to create 140,000 jobs this year in order to match demographic projections to the employment requirements of the economy. The best case scenario, however, suggests that a maximum of only 100,000 jobs could be created. Clearly, this has implications for social stability which in turn also has implications for attempted migrations northwards to the USA.

screen-shot-2017-03-26-at-10-58-35

Fleeing Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle

The following February 2017 article from Adriana Beltrán entitled ‘Children and Families Fleeing Violence in Central America’ was produced by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The article formed part of WOLA’s ‘Beyond the Wall: Migration, Rights and Border Security’ initiative which addresses the impact of the Trump administration’s policies with fact-based analysis and alternatives.

I am grateful to Adriana for permission to reproduce the article for this website. I encourage readers to visit the WOLA website at: https://www.wola.org

The Department of Homeland Security has started to put the wheels in motion on President Trump’s executive orders on immigration—and they will put the lives of thousands of Central American children and families in danger.

On February 21 [2017], the White House announced new guidelines for immigration policies. The memos lay out instructions for how US law enforcement agencies should implement the forceful executive orders that President Trump signed on January 25 on immigration enforcement within the United States and at the border.

The guidelines specifically call for parents of unaccompanied minors to be prosecuted for human smuggling or trafficking. This will deal a blow to thousands of families across the country, threatening parents who were attempting to unify their families and save their children’s lives. Between 2015 and 2016, over 180,000 children and families fleeing violence in Central America were apprehended at the US-Mexico border.

Less tangibly, these new guidelines also signal to immigration and border agents to be even more hesitant in determining who has established enough “credible fear” to gain asylum. There were already a number of hurdles for migrants to get asylum status, and with these latest memos, it will likely be much more difficult.

Being denied refugee status or being deported can be a death sentence, as one of the key factors driving large numbers of Central Americans to leave their communities is violence. The countries of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—continue to be plagued by endemic levels of crime and violence that have made many communities extremely dangerous, especially for children and young adults.

In 2015, El Salvador’s murder rate increased dramatically, reaching a level of violence not seen since the end of the country’s civil war. The 70 percent increase in the homicide rate over 2014 followed the unraveling of a truce between rival gangs and an aggressive crackdown by security forces that has spurred concerns about extrajudicial executions and other human rights abuses. The National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) registered 5,728 murders in the country in 2016, making it the second consecutive year with over 5,000 recorded murders in El Salvador’s recent history.

In neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, homicide levels have decreased overall, but both remain among the world’s most violent countries not at war. This is not to say that every neighborhood throughout the region is comparable to a war zone. Yet there are many communities, both urban and rural, where the fear and threat of violence is extremely grave.

These homicide statistics are just one measure of the pervasive violence impacting many marginalized communities in the three countries. Extortion is widespread, with small businesses, the public transportation sector, and poor neighborhoods being the most heavily hit. It has been estimated that Salvadorans pay more than US$390 million a year in extortion fees, while Hondurans pay around $200 million and Guatemalans an estimated $61 million. Failure to pay can result in harassment, violence, or death.

Family and domestic violence is also a factor in the decision to migrate for many women and children. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are some of the most dangerous countries to be a woman, with female homicide rates among the highest in the world. Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público) reported receiving over 50,000 cases of violence against women in 2013, of which only 983—about 2 percent—culminated with a prison sentence for the aggressor. In more than 76 percent of cases received by the police in the same year, the perpetrator was reported to be either living with (29.5 percent), the husband of (29 percent), or the ex-partner of (18 percent) the female victim. The situation of domestic violence is similar throughout the region. In Honduras, 471 women were killed in 2015—one every 16 hours. And in El Salvador, there have been nearly 1,100 cases of domestic violence and over 2,600 cases of sexual violence in 2016. With the constant threat of violence and abuse in the Northern Triangle, many women and children choose to venture north in search of safety.

 

Understanding the Roots of Violence and Insecurity

Violence and insecurity in the Northern Triangle comes from many sources. In recent years, Central America has become one of the main transshipment routes for illicit drugs making their way to the United States. Local ‘transportistas,’—drug-smuggling operations doing the bidding of transnational drug trafficking cartels—contribute to violence in rural areas, particularly in border areas, and are in large part responsible for the rampant levels of corruption and the erosion of the justice and security systems.

Violence and insecurity are also largely due to the proliferation of local street gangs or maras that impact every aspect of life in the neighbourhoods and communities they control. While many well-to-do neighbourhoods remain safe, in many poorer communities, gangs enforce curfews, control entry into their neighbourhoods, and impose their own rules. Children and young men are often threatened or pressured to join the gangs, while young women often experience sexual assault or abuse at the hands of gang members, forcing many to drop out of school or relocate.

Children and families are not just seeking refuge across borders, as evidenced by the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an estimated 714,000 people from the Northern Triangle were internally displaced as a result of conflict and violence, as of the end of 2015. In El Salvador, the organisation reports that 289,000 people—nearly five percent of the population—are internally displaced due to violence.\

 

A Lack of Economic Opportunity

Compounding the problem of violence in these countries is the lack of economic security. It is estimated that 60 percent of those living in rural areas in the Northern Triangle live in poverty. For the past few years, the region has been experiencing the most severe drought in decades, which has threatened the livelihoods of over 2.8 million people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This drought has been especially devastating in rural communities, and for subsistence farmers and day labourers. The lack of adequate rainfall in the so-called ‘dry corridor’ has resulted in significant crop failures and loss of income. It has exacerbated economic and food insecurity in already vulnerable populations.

In addition, more than one million people in the Northern Triangle countries are neither in school nor employed. Commonly referred to as ninis, there are 350,000 in Guatemala and 240,000 in El Salvador. Honduras has the highest rate of ninis in Latin America, with 27.5 percent of young people out of school and without employment. The inability to find a job, advance through education or support themselves through self-employment or farming, compels many young Central Americans to leave their homes and communities.

 

Weak Democratic Institutions

These problems fester because the governments of the Northern Triangle countries have been unable to effectively address the problems of rampant crime and violence, or to pursue economic strategies that would generate stable jobs and opportunities. A major part of this problem has been weak, corrupt and underfunded state institutions. Many victims of violence often find no protection from the authorities. The majority of police forces are underfunded, plagued by poor leadership, and sometimes complicit in criminal activity. Efforts to purge and reform the civilian police forces have made limited progress, enabling the infiltration and co-optation by criminal groups.

Among the Northern Triangle countries as a whole, the statistics on prosecutions are appalling. Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica reported in 2014 that throughout the Northern Triangle, impunity rates for homicides reached approximately 95 percent on average (95 percent in El Salvador, 93 percent in Guatemala, and 97 percent in Honduras). This means that 19 out of every 20 murders remain unsolved, and that the chances of being caught, prosecuted, and convicted for committing a murder are practically nil. The 2015 Global Impunity Index ranked El Salvador as the country with the eighth highest rate of impunity in the world, while Honduras was ranked seventh.

 

Addressing the Problem

There is no magic solution to the endemic violence, poor governance, and poverty in the Northern Triangle. These are difficult problems that will require a comprehensive, long-term strategy. Unless these factors are addressed, families and children will continue to flee their communities. The United States and other donors need to work with Central American governments, where they are willing, to address the root causes that are driving migration. This means:

  • Expanding evidenced-based, community-level programmes to reduce youth crime and violence, reintegrate youth seeking to leave the influence of street gangs and criminal groups, and protect children who have suffered violence. Evidence suggests that investing in prevention initiatives that bring together local community groups, churches, police, social services, and government agencies can make a difference in reducing youth violence and victimization.
  • Support robust programmes to enhance transparency and accountability and address the deep-seated corruption that hinders citizens’ access to basic services, weakens state institutions and erodes the foundations of democracy. International and independent anti-impunity and anti-corruption commissions, such as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras, MACCIH), can play a crucial role in tackling corruption and organised crime and building domestic investigative capacities.[1]
  • Focus security-related funding on strengthening civilian law enforcement and justice institutions and making these institutions more accountable and transparent. Programming should be directed toward bolstering policing capacity overall (such as internal and external control mechanisms, police investigation techniques, recruitment and training, etc.), rather than targeting resources to specialized vetted units and other programmes that may achieve short term objectives but have little impact on improving broader law enforcement institutions. Attention should also be given to strengthening the independence and capabilities of prosecutors and judges. Indicators of success should include measures of progress on these institutional issues.
  • Targeting development assistance to support evidenced-based job training, job creation and education programmes that focus on at-risk youth in targeted communities. Support should also be provided over a sustained period to small-scale agriculture, including marketing and technical assistance, to improve rural communities’ ability to provide livelihoods for their citizens.
  • Ensuring that local communities and civil society organisations are systematically consulted and involved in the design and evaluation of programmes. The meaningful participation of local groups can help make sure that donor efforts are having a sustainable impact in the communities at risk of violence and out-migration.

 

The Need for Commitment on the Ground

At the same time, addressing the root causes of migration requires the Central American governments to do their part. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras must demonstrate a sound commitment to supporting reforms to strengthen public institutions, tackle corruption, and protect human rights. They must also increasingly assume the financial burden that is needed to transform their countries through fiscal reforms, improving tax collection, and insisting that their elites pay their fair share.

The problems are daunting and will not be resolved overnight. But commitment and political will matter tremendously. In Guatemala, for example, the appointment of a courageous and effective advocate as attorney general led not only to prosecutions in high profile human rights and organised crime related cases, but to internal reforms that improved management, made prosecutors’ caseloads more manageable, and led to a doubling in homicide conviction rates in the Department of Guatemala. The continuation of reform efforts by the successor has resulted in unprecedented results in the fight against corruption and impunity in the country.

The US$750 million in assistance appropriated by the US Congress for Central America for fiscal year 2016 was a positive step forward. The aid package more than doubles the previous level of assistance to the region, while expanding the US agenda from a narrow, security-oriented approach to one that seeks to strengthen institutions and invest in economic development.

Notably, the package also includes a series of strong conditions on combating corruption, increasing transparency and accountability, strengthening public institutions, and protecting human rights. Ensuring that assistance is strategically targeted, wisely invested and properly implemented will determine whether the new strategy is effective in addressing the dire conditions in the countries of the Northern Triangle. Better information on the specific objectives, aid levels, and programmes in each country, as well as progress indicators being used and how outcomes are being defined, will allow for greater ability to assess whether or not US assistance is achieving the desired results. In addition, ensuring that the conditions placed on the funds are being met will help gauge the commitment of the Central American governments.[2]


[1]   [Commentary added by Martin Mowforth] Readers should note that the MACCIH’s formation with the guidance of the Organisation of American States (OAS) was under the control of the Honduran government (of President Juan Orlando Hernández) rather than being independent of the government in the way that the CICIG in Guatemala was, and remains. This is a significant difference. In Guatemala, the CICIG, formed under the auspices of the United Nations, was designed to investigate and prosecute corruption within government agencies and institutions. In Honduras, the government of Hernández has itself passed through numerous corruption scandals with few consequences. As Bertha Oliva de Nativi (Director of COFADEH) says of the MACCIH: “What we do have is a MACCIH which … we have seen is largely silenced.” For further evidence of the inadequacy of the MACCIH, the reader is referred to an article entitled ‘Honduran Congressional Corruption’ that will be entered into this website next month (March 2018).

[2]   [Commentary added by Martin Mowforth] Despite WOLA’s rather upbeat note about aid levels from the US government, it must be remembered that the US government has a history of directing its aid through anti-democratic (and occasionally clandestine) agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy which tends to funnel funds to economically neoliberal and politically right-wing causes.

IDB Considers Multimillion Dollar Loan to Impose Migratory Controls across Mexico-Guatemala Border

A blog post by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

 Reproduced by kind permission of CIEL

Originally posted August 7, 2017

 Recently, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) was poised to provide US $200 million to Guatemala to strengthen “competitiveness” and “security” by implementing fiscal and migratory controls at border crossings with Mexico.

Family crossing Río Suchiate at Tecun Uman on the Guatemala, Mexico border. The IDB planned to give millions to the Guatemalan military to bulk up security at this and other border crossings. Credit: Kelsey Alford-Jones

This project did not immediately stand out among the dozens of projects collected each week by the Early Warning System (EWS) in the region. Indeed, while the EWS seeks to alert communities of all projects under consideration for Bank finance, we focus on projects that have a high risk of causing adverse impacts or rights violations in nearby communities – typically large-scale infrastructure projects, mining, hydroelectric dams, among others.

Yet harmful impacts are not only caused by the physical footprint of a project or by displacement or contamination associated with the operation of a project. Sometimes the way a project is structured, or the choice of its implementing partner, raises equal concern.

In this case, the scale and impact of the project were hard to determine, but I immediately noted the government agency that would receive the $200 million loan and be responsible for overseeing the proposed fiscal and migratory controls: it was the Guatemalan Defence Ministry.

Supporting an Expanded Role for the Military?

Having worked on Guatemalan human rights issues for eight years, this raised serious red flags. The IDB project involved activities that fall outside the mandate of the Defence Ministry, an issue that would raise concern in any country. Yet in Guatemala, these concerns are exacerbated by the recent legacy of intense state-sponsored violence and the nation’s ongoing struggle to define a clear – and appropriately limited – role for the military. For example, fiscal controls fall explicitly within the mandate of a different agency, and empowering the military by giving it control of the programme budget would expand its duties unnecessarily.

Moreover, the military has been linked to numerous corruption scandals and has been shown to have connections to transnational organised criminal groups even reaching its highest levels. For example, there are documented cases of weapons thefts from Guatemalan military bases, indicating a direct flow of arms from the military to criminal organisations. This is echoed by a report by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) on arms trafficking, which found evidence of “intentional diversion of military or police arsenals to the black market.”

“Better Control of Migrants On their Way to the US”

A mural in Tecun Uman, San Marcos – a busy border crossing with Mexico that would receive funding through the IDB project – depicts the story of many Central American migrants forced to uproot themselves from their communities and journey north to flee violence and to support their families. (Credit: Kelsey-Alford Jones)

The fact that the Defence Ministry is the executing agency isn’t the only red flag. IDB objectives listed in project documents also raised concerns. For example, the project explicitly aimed to impede migration of those seeking to travel to the United States.  This objective has been part of a regional effort – pushed by the US and funded by the IDB and others – to address the unprecedented number of migrants and refugees reaching the US border in recent years, including unaccompanied minors, from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  In a recent open letter to the IDB, dozens of organisations called on the bank to recognise the complex root causes of migration, which include high rates of generalised violence, as well as targeted violence against women, LGBT people, children, and other vulnerable communities. It is tragic that the response to this regional humanitarian crisis is to block passage of migrants and refugees by bulking up the military’s presence at the border. Importantly, this initiative could also violate international law.

With the project flagged in the EWS, I reached out to partners in Guatemala to share its details and my analysis. I also ensured the information reached border communities who would be impacted by implementation at border crossings. Then, to ensure these concerns were not passing under the radar, I reached out directly to the US government, both in meetings and in a memo that was circulated to US Treasury officials, the US office of the Executive Director of the IDB, and the IDB project team.

Not long after, we were informed that the implementing agency was being reconsidered, and it would no longer be the Defence Ministry. The IDB website also suggests the Bank has halved funding from $200 million to $100 million. Nevertheless, we have yet to see this change reflected on the IDB’s website or receive formal confirmation.

This is a partial win. Guatemalans are more aware of the funding their government is requesting, and the new implementing agency will, hopefully, be the proper one to put new fiscal controls into effect. Yet the overall funding proposal continues to raise concerns, both in the lack of clarity on the specific impacts of the project and in the suggestion that ‘border security’ includes limiting the ability of refugees and asylum seekers to flee their own country.

The EWS team will continue to track the project as it evolves, and having done analysis and outreach while the project is still in the pipeline, we are now well placed to support communities who may be impacted in the future.

By Kelsey Alford-Jones, Senior Campaigner for the People, Land and Resources Program at the Centre for International Environmental Law. This project was initially monitored and analysed as part of the Early Warning System, a joint initiative by the Centre for International Environmental Law and the International Accountability Project.

 


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Trump Ends TPS for Honduras

The following news about the ending of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for many thousands of Central Americans living in the United States is adapted from a notification from the CISPES national office. (CISPES is the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – http://cispes.org/ )

Key words: temporary protected status (TPS); migration

Friday 4th May (2018) the Trump Administration announced its devastating but unsurprising decision to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 57,000 Hondurans following an 18 month grace period.

Demonstration against ending of TPS for Honduras

In the past year, the Department of Homeland Security has ended TPS for nearly every country to which it had previously been granted, bringing the total number of people who will lose their status to close to 400,000, including over 260,000 Salvadorans. Most Central Americans with TPS have lived here for over 20 years and are parents to U.S. citizens.

It should be evident that the ending of TPS could lead to a drastic increase in the number of deportees arriving back in Central American countries, especially El Salvador. The ramifications of such an influx of migrants would be felt in all walks of life including housing, employment and security.

 CISPES National Office
1525 Newton St. NW
Washington DC, 20010
(202) 521-2510