Gangs: the real ‘humanitarian crisis’ driving Central American children to the US

These children are just a few of thousands feeling gang violence in central America. EPA/David Maung

The spectacular arrival of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children at the southern frontier of the US over the last three years has provoked a frenzied response. President Obama calls the situation a “humanitarian crisis” on the US’s borders. News interviews with these vulnerable children appear almost daily in the global news media alongside official pronouncements by the US government on how it intends to stem this flow of migrants.

But what is not yet recognised is that these children represent only the tip of the iceberg of a deeper new humanitarian crisis in the region. Of course, recent figures for unaccompanied children (UAC) arriving in the US from the three countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are alarming.

Apprehensions of unaccompanied children from these countries rose from about 3,000-4,000 per year to 10,000 in the 2012 financial year and then doubled again in the same period in 2013 to 20,000.

But it’s important to pull back and look at the bigger picture, which is that there has been a steep increase in border guard apprehensions of nationals from the three Northern Triangle countries – not just unaccompanied children, but adults and families as well.

The unaccompanied children we’ve been hearing so much about are not exceptional but represent just one strand (albeit a more photogenic and newsworthy strand) of a broader – and massive – increase in irregular migration to the US from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

If you dig a little deeper into US government data, it helps to explain why so many people are trying to get across the border any way they can. There’s been a striking rise, over the same period, in the number of people reporting that they are too scared to return to their country: from 3,000-4,000 claims from Northern Triangle nationals in previous years, the figure leaped to 8,500 for 2012 and then almost tripled to more than 23,000 in 2013

It may be tempting to dismiss this fear of returning – “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” – but this increase is particular to the Northern Triangle and has been found increasingly by US officials to be credible – and not generally found among other asylum-seekers in the US.

Fleeing gang violence

This official data correlates with my ESRC-funded research in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras last year, which identified a dramatic increase in forced displacement generated by organised crime in these countries from around 2011.

As such, the timing of the increased numbers of UACs (and adults) arriving in the US corresponds closely to the explosion of people being forced from their homes by criminal violence in the Northern Triangle. The changing violent tactics of organised criminal groups are thus the principal motor driving the increased irregular migration to the US from these countries.

In all three countries, street gangs of Californian origin such as the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 have consolidated their presence in urban locations, particularly in the poorer parts of bigger cities.

Gang violence: a member of the Mara Salvatrucha in a Honduran jail. EPA/Stringer

In recent years these gangs have become more organised, criminal and brutal. Thus, for instance, whereas the gangs used to primarily extort only businesses, in the last few years they have begun to demand extortion monies from many local householders as well. This shift in tactics has fuelled a surge of people fleeing their homes in zones where the gangs are present.

There is variation within this bigger picture. For instance, the presence of gangs is extraordinary in El Salvador, quite extensive in the Honduras and relatively confined in Guatemala. This fact explains why, per head of population, the recent US government figures for Salvadorians claiming to fear return on arrival to the US are almost double those of Hondurans, which are almost double those of Guatemalans.

It also explains why 65% of Salvadorian UACs interviewed in the USA in 2013 mentioned gangs as their reason for leaving, as compared to 33% for Honduran UACs and 10% for Guatemalan UACs.

Worse than Colombia

What is not yet properly appreciated in the current debate is that these violent criminal dynamics are generating startling levels of internal displacement within these countries. If we take El Salvador as an example, we see that in 2012 some 3,300 Salvadorian children arrived in the US and 4,000 Salvadorians claimed to fear returning home.

By contrast, survey data for 2012 indicates that around 130,000 people were internally displaced within El Salvador due to criminal violence in just that one year.

The number of people seeking refuge in the US fade in significance as against this new reality in the region.

Proportionally, 2.1% of El Salvadorians were forced to flee their homes in 2012 as a result of criminal violence and intimidation. Almost one-third of these people were displaced twice or more within the same period. If you compare this to even the worst years of gang-related violence in Colombia –the annual rate of internal displacement barely reached 1% of the population. Incredibly, the rates of forced displacement in countries such as El Salvador thus seem to surpass active war zones like Colombia.

The explosion of forced displacement caused by organised criminal groups in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (not to mention Mexico) is the region’s true “humanitarian crisis”, of which the unaccompanied children are but one symptom.

Knee-jerk efforts by the US government to stop children arriving at its border miss this bigger picture and are doomed to failure. It would almost certainly be a better use of funds to help Central American governments to provide humanitarian support to the many uprooted families for whom survival in the resource-poor economies of the Northern Triangle is now an everyday struggle.

Next read this: Life for child migrants is even harder beyond the US border