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MCALLEN, RGV – This week’s roundtable discussion between Congressman Filemon Vela and immigrant rights’ groups on the Trump Administration’s new policy of splitting Central American parents from their children caused quite a stir.

On Facebook, Rio Grande Guardian reader Lety Villarreal called Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy “heartless” but speculated that she was likely in the minority. Another reader, Eddie Zamora, had a different view. “Build the Wall,” he said.

In all the reaction on social media, little was made of the situation in the three countries the Central American immigrants are fleeing from – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. This despite the fact Congressman Vela started the discussion by noting that John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff and former secretary of homeland security, was very much aware of the situation in Central America.

Vela quoted Kelly’s remarks during his confirmation process:

“Our drug use has brought a level of violence to these countries that make them the most violent on the planet. Our drug use has reduced some democracies in our hemisphere to near failed Narco states. The terrible conditions in terms of violence and intimidation that exist in these countries is largely due to the drug demand in the United States. These countries are among the most violent places on earth.”

The Rio Grande Guardian wrote about Kelly’s remarks at the time.

Rio Grande Guardian editor Patricia Fogarty posted a special report on the situation in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala on November 9, 2016. The report was based upon an Amnesty International study. In the light of all the reaction, we thought it appropriate to reprise Fogarty’s report. It is republished below.

— Steve Taylor

Central America’s Northern Triangle:

Home Sweet Home

McALLEN, RGV – Tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans, many of them unaccompanied minors, have arrived in the United States in recent years, seeking asylum from their region’s skyrocketing violence.

Their countries form a region called the Northern Triangle. Civil wars in the 1980s left the region with a legacy of violence and fragile institutions. Gangs and organized crime have taken over. It is an international crisis.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International (AI) is a non-governmental organization focused on human rights. It was founded in England in 1961 and today has over seven million members and supporters around the world. Its stated objective is “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.” It works to mobilize public opinion to put pressure on governments that let abuse take place. AI was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its “campaign against torture” and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 1978.

Amnesty International (AI) is undertaking a multi-year transnational investigation into the various components of this regional crisis, including future research which will examine the danger of asylum-seekers’, refugees’ and migrants’ journeys through Mexico and the failings of the regional response to the surge in refugee protection needs. Future investigation will particularly highlight how practices in Mexico and the U.S. violate the principle of non-refoulement, which, under international law, “forbids a State from returning a refugee to a country where they will face persecution or danger.”

In their report, Home Sweet Home, Amnesty International documents the context of violence that has changed the face of regional migration and the situation for deportees in the Northern Triangle countries.

Conditions in the Northern Triangle countries

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), nearly ten percent of the Northern Triangle countries’ 30 million residents have left, mostly for the United States. In 2013, as many as 2.7 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were living in the U.S., up from an estimated 1.5 million people in 2000. Nearly one hundred thousand unaccompanied minors arrived in the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras between October 2013 and July 2015.

At the urging of the U.S., Mexico stepped up enforcement along its southern border, apprehending seventy percent more Central Americans in 2015 than the year before. An estimated sixty-three thousand unaccompanied minors, most from Central America, crossed the U.S. southern border between October 1, 2013 and July 31, 2014, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported. The spike represented nearly twice the number of child migrants who came in the same period the previous year.

During 2014, Mexico redirected 300-600 immigration agents to its southernmost states. Over 20,000 raids were conducted during the year on the freight trains migrants ride on top of, in bus stations, hotels, and on highways where migrants travel. In a sharp departure from the past few years, in the first seven months of fiscal 2015, Mexico apprehended more Central Americans, 92,889, than the 70,448 apprehended in the U.S.

Many seek asylum from violence at home: between 2009 and 2013, the U.S. registered a sevenfold increase in asylum seekers at its southern border, 70 percent of whom came from the Northern Triangle. Neighboring Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama all registered a similar rise. Migrants from all three Northern Triangle countries cite violence, gang recruitment, extortion, poverty, and lack of opportunity as their reasons for leaving.

Home Sweet Home

In the report of their investigative work, Home Sweet Home, Amnesty International documents the context of violence that has changed the face of regional migration and the situation for deportees in the Northern Triangle countries. In pursuit of information, AI conducted five research trips to the three countries and Southern Mexico between March and July 2016, during which: reception centers for deportees were visited; around 50 people were interviewed who had been affected by violence and/or had migrated and been deported; people working for civil society and religious organizations working on issues related to violence and migration were interviewed, as were government officials.

Amnesty International conducted many in-depth interviews with the people whose cases are highlighted in their report and substantiated their accounts “to the fullest extent possible” with official documentation from government and intergovernmental agencies. This included: birth and death certificates, hospital records, photographs of victims and crime scenes, reports filed with the police and human rights commissions, asylum applications and notifications from national government and international refugee agencies, as well as news reports and additional documentation by civil society organizations.

In some cases, it was impossible to obtain such documents, both because of the transitory lifestyles of people who migrate, and people’s reluctance to file reports with authorities out of fear of reprisals. Similarly, many of the people whose stories were consulted by AI requested anonymity due to the great risk they and their families face in their home countries. The fluid nature of their migration plans and risk levels also mean that their living situations and locations can change rapidly. Therefore, the status of each case can be considered correct only at press time.

Amnesty International sought and held meetings with various officials from the agencies working on migration in all three countries. In Honduras, the Undersecretary for Justice and Human Rights and the Office for Children, Adolescents and Families (DINAF) did not grant meetings despite several requests. AI met with local officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and several civil society organizations in each country, as well as consular officials in Mexico. In addition, extensive desk research was carried out on statistics, studies and reports related to violence, migration, asylum and deportation.

Migration from Central America

Human mobility from the Northern Triangle through Mexico and to the United States has a long history. Lingering fallout from decades of civil war, social exclusion, stagnant economies, displacement due to natural disasters and droughts have stimulated Northern Triangle countries migration to the north for decades. Many people have also sought reunification with family members, when a parent or other relative had already migrated. But even if the phenomenon is not new in recent years, the people who are undertaking the journey, their motives, and the conditions in which they are leaving their homes, have undergone significant changes.

Despite the changing context and new factors, poverty and social exclusion continue to be important push factors for migration. While poverty rates have improved in some Latin American countries in past decades, the changes in Central America have been less visible than in some countries in South America. The number of people in the Northern Triangle living on less than they need to survive is still worryingly high.

Guatemala stands out for its growing levels of poverty, which have been backsliding in recent years. According to The World Bank, 59.3 percent of Guatemalans were living below the poverty line in 2014. This is defined as an income that is insufficient to purchase a basic basket of goods and services.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found that Guatemala was “the only country in the region where levels of poverty actually increased” over the 2003-2013 period, for the equivalent of around three million people, and whose middle class shrank. Economic and social exclusion continue to be dominating factors for migration in Guatemala, particularly for children. In particular, local analysts and civil society organizations cite what they call “structural violence” as a source of migration. This refers to the long-lasting discrimination against, and social and economic exclusion of, the region’s biggest indigenous population.

Violence and Extortion

A decrease in violence occurred in the period after the conclusion of the internal armed conflicts in Central America, in the 1990s. Then, gangs (known as maras) and organized crime began to make the Northern Triangle one of the most dangerous sub-regions in the world. According to AI, Mara activity increased along with the influx of gang members deported back from the U.S. and the influence of Mexican drug cartels in the region.

The inability of these countries to halt the gangs’ rapid growth and control of territory, coupled with the “complicity and abuses of frequently corrupt law enforcement and security forces”, have left people unprotected and at risk of violence. It is not only their lives and safety which are under threat, but “their ability to enjoy other human rights, including their right to freedom of movement and education,” concluded AI.

Gang violence has mostly been contained within the region, although MS-13 and M-18 have a presence in the United States and Mexico. The U.S. Treasury Department, which in 2015 sanctioned three MS-13 leaders, estimates there are eight thousand MS-13 members in the U.S. In 2013, Mexico’s Justice Department reported on growing ties between Mexican criminal groups and Central American gangs.

As many as seventy Central American organized crime cells are operating in Mexico. Between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2015, the U.S. gave just over $1billion through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a security and rule-of-law focused aid package. CARSI grew out of the Merida Initiative, a U.S. program to fight drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and organized crime in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Central America.

The struggle for territory between the gangs has left invisible fault lines throughout the countries. People are not allowed to cross, no matter if their relatives, job or school lie on the other side of these lines. This particularly affects the poorest and most marginalized communities. Young people and children face the prospect of forced recruitment and sexual exploitation.

Large segments of society face routine extortion at gunpoint and small business owners and transportation workers are particularly targeted. The lack of proper investigations means impunity is the norm for most crimes and distrust of the authorities is widespread. Daily life is a constant battle, and with no prospects for protection and justice at home, those at the margins of society often feel their only hope for survival is to flee. This, according to AI, “has created one of the world’s most invisible refugee crisis.”


In 2012, Honduras was one of the world’s most deadly countries outside of a war zone, with 92.7 murders per 100,000 inhabitants (7,172 murders in total; Detroit had 48 murders per 100,000). San Pedro Sula, the country’s economic hub and second largest city, was ranked the world’s deadliest city for several consecutive years by the Citizens Council for Public Security, Justice and Peace, a Mexican think tank. Comparing homicide statistics around the world, the ten most violent cities are all in Latin America. The list doesn’t include the Middle East.

In recent years, the country’s statistics have dropped somewhat, to a total of 5,148 murders in 2015 and 2,488 in the first half of 2016, according to official statistics.

El Salvador

El Salvador has seen its levels of violence rise and fall precipitously in accordance with gang politics. The number of murders dropped from 4,366 in 2011 to 2,567 in 2012 when a truce between warring gangs took hold and spiked in 2015 to 6,656 (setting a record of over 108 murders per 100,000) when the truce was broken.

In 2015, the capital San Salvador became one of the world’s most dangerous cities outside a conflict zone. At least 2,015 murders were recorded in the first three months of 2016 alone, but the numbers fell by nearly half between March and April. According to AI, the government claims the decline in violence shows that tough security policies are working, while analysts and journalists theorized the three gangs—Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the two factions of Barrio 18 (Surenos and Revolucionarios)—might be in new negotiations.


Guatemala also ranks as one of the most violent countries in the region, with 5,718 murders in 2015 (35 murders per 100,000 inhabitants) down from 6,025 in 2012.

The pervasiveness of the violence in the Northern Triangle countries affects all of society, but it affects people differently, according to their gender identity and/or their sexual orientation. While the vast majority of murder victims are young men, women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals are also subjected to various forms of violence.
As violence has worsened, and poverty and inequality remain prevalent, the Central American governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are doubly failing to protect their citizens. Socioeconomic conditions remain poor and an increasingly violent environment permeates every corner of their countries. This causes people to flee in record numbers, but governments are failing to provide protection to those who are deported back to the same dangerous places from which they ran.

Children and Youth

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has established that asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle countries fall within a certain risk profile: those persecuted by a gang due to the gang’s perception that they do not comply with the gang’s authority; persons working or involved in activities susceptible to extortion; victims and witnesses of crimes committed by gangs or members of the security forces; children and youth from areas where gangs operate; women and girls in areas where gangs operate, and LGBTI people.

Children and young people have also borne the brunt of the surge in violence. Of the 6,656 murders in El Salvador in 2015, 1,227 of the victims were under 19 years old and an additional 1,294 were aged 20-24 years. Of the 5,148 murders in Honduras in 2015, 727 of the victims were under 19 and 993 were 20-24 years old. In both countries, the vast majority of victims are male. Young men and boys continue to be forcibly recruited by gangs. Those who refuse are at risk of violent retaliation. Of the 5,718 murdered in Guatemala in 2015, roughly one-fifth were under the age of 19. The majority of those, 807, were young men and boys.

In every case documented in the AI report, children and young people who had been a victim of violence had left and not returned to school, either by force by the gangs or out of fear of being their next target. In 2015, according to news reports based on official information, 39,000 students left school “due to harassment or threats by the gangs” — three times the 14,000 who had been forced to do so the previous year. In 2009, 6,100 students abandoned their studies. The teachers’ union, however, said they believed the real number in 2015 could be more than double the amount reported.

Amnesty International warns that the combination of forced conscription to gangs and the pressure to leave school “puts the future employment prospects of an entire sector of a generation at risk, perpetuates social exclusion, and further complicates efforts to extricate them from the hold of organized crime.”

The connection between violence and migration is particularly acute in the cases of children. According to UNHCR’s report Children on the Run, which documents the situation of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico: In 2006, only 13 percent of the unaccompanied and separated children that UNHCR interviewed at that time presented any indication of international protection concerns, i.e., 11 of the 75 children who were interviewed at that time.

In contrast, of the 404 children interviewed for study in 2013, over half (53 percent) of those who mentioned family reunification, school or better opportunities, deprivation, or other reasons also gave international protection-related reasons for leaving their countries–among these were violence in society predominantly by “armed criminal actors”. One hundred ninety-two (48 percent) of the children interviewed shared that they had experienced, or been threatened with, serious harm by organized armed “criminal actors, State actors or other actors within the community or that they had suffered such harm due to a lack of sufficient protection by the State.”

Murders, sexual violence and threats are only the starkest way to measure the lawlessness and violence that have terrorized citizens in the Northern Triangle in recent years. Extortion, the financial lifeblood of the gangs, is rampant and affects broad swaths of society, but it hits hardest in poor communities where gangs hold power. Gangs charge members of these communities “war tax” or “rent”. The costs are high and cause many to flee rather than suffer the consequences.

UNHCR advises that all these groups may need international protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Regional agreements, such as the Cartagena Declaration, clearly call for refugee status for those persons fleeing generalized violence in their countries, such as those from the Northern Triangle.

To truly understand the regional dynamics of human mobility, Amnesty International chose to first investigate the conditions in which these people begin and often end their perilous journey—their countries of origin—and found that the governments of these countries are failing their citizens every step of the way.

The Migration flow from Northern Triangle countries through Mexico to the U.S. is a multi-year phenomenon. But the last several years have seen the development of a new reality that pushes people to leave their homes: soaring violence has caused rising numbers of people to run north to save their lives. Despite this situation, impunity remains the norm for most crimes, and access to justice is mere wishful thinking. Moreover, people in the Northern Triangle have also reason to fear that the authorities who are supposed to protect them are complicit in organized crime or are perpetrators of abuses themselves. Citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fight a daily battle to survive amidst constant violence and fleeing their countries is often the only choice they have.

Amnesty International found that violence is a key expulsion factor in El Salvador and Honduras, where levels of violence and an increase in the amount of territory controlled by gangs affect people’s right to life, physical integrity, education and free movement. In both countries, women are increasingly suffering the impact of violence. In El Salvador, according to AI, the female murder rate increased by 60% between 2008 and 2015, while in Honduras it rose by 37% in the same period.

In the case of Guatemala, AI found that migration occurs due to multiple push factors often linked to historic high levels of inequality. AI feels that further research is necessary to analyze migration factors in Guatemala.

Protection Crisis

The total number of asylum applications, of deportees, and of apprehensions of unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle countries, plus the lack of public policies to respond to the needs, result in large-scale gaps in protection and highlight the magnitude of the protection crisis. Deportations from Mexico to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras increased by 231 percent, 188 percent, and 145 percent respectively, between 2010 and 2015, representing an average increase of 179 percent.

Heightened immigration enforcement on both Mexico’s northern and southern borders means these numbers are not likely to drop anytime soon. In this context, AI found that no Northern Triangle government has a comprehensive, clearly articulated mechanism or protocol in place to address the protection needs of deportees, leaving many of those deported exposed to great danger.

The governments of the Northern Triangle have invested resources in improving the reception centers for deportees. Despite this improvement, AI research found that countries’ efforts to protect their returned citizens “appeared to end the moment they walked out the doors of the reception centers.” In some of these countries, authorities relied on civil society organizations to fill the void and provide the most crucial services to follow up with deportees with protection needs.

In interviews with AI, national and local authorities responsible for migrants and deportees in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were unwilling to acknowledge the extent to which violence has changed migration and has become a push factor. Many of them mentioned the Alliance for Prosperity Plan, a development initiative financed by the U.S. Government, as the main strategy to address root causes of migration. However, none could explain how this strategy would respond to the needs of at-risk deportees.

Some Conclusions

The Northern Triangle countries have often sought to minimize the link between violence and forced migration, focusing instead on historic factors such as economic opportunities and family reunification. But skyrocketing asylum applications throughout the region indicate a very real shift in reasons to migrate. For instance, the number of asylum applications made around the world by applicants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala increased by 597 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to UNHCR statistics.

The desperate situation has been reflected in the new demographics of the people making the journey. They increasingly come from society’s most vulnerable groups whose basic rights countries have repeatedly failed to protect.

When tragedies befall many refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers on their journeys, the respective consulates and foreign relations ministries “have been sluggish and indifferent in demanding justice and assistance for their families at home.” AI found that North Triangle governments “have no clear policy to assist or attend to the needs of relatives of migrants who have been subjected to grave human rights violations while making the journey through Mexico.”

Amnesty International says that Northern Triangle countries “must acknowledge their responsibility in the region’s protection crisis and design and implement public policies to provide protection for deportees, with particular attention to vulnerable groups, i.e., indigenous people, women, children, and LGBTI individuals.”

Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador “need to lend improved and continued assistance to the relatives of people who have been the victims of crimes or human rights violations during transit abroad.” This includes more active advocacy on their behalf with foreign authorities, the development and strengthening of transnational justice mechanisms, keeping families informed of ongoing investigations and providing psychological assistance when necessary.

International cooperation, especially related to the Alliance for Prosperity Plan, should earmark part of these resources for programs that respond to the needs of at-risk deportees. Economic aid for the countries of origin should be channeled to support the design and implementation of protection mechanisms for populations at risk before and after migration occurs and not just infrastructure.

While the countries of transit and destination take steps to stem the migrant flow, “the region’s crisis will not be solved until Northern Triangle country leaders take concrete action and confront the protection crisis at home,” Amnesty International concluded.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this special report is provided by Reuters.

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  1. The gang culture was exported to Central America by the Intelligence agencies in order to absorb potentially revolutionary youth away from the revolutionary sub culture, and to kill each other through gang rivalry. Brian Ghilliotti