Today’s Migrant Flow Is Different

Martínez, The Atlantic, Jun 26, 2018

has driven many previous waves of migrants from their homes. What’s new now is
the rise of the gangs.

patrol a low-income neighborhood in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras,
in 2015. Fernando Antonio / AP
killing of a loved one. An attempt at gang recruitment. A rape. Harassment by a
police officer. A death threat over an outstanding extortion payment. Amid the
justified uproar at the Trump administration’s policies on America’s southern
border, often lost are the reasons many Central Americans leave their homes,
and are prepared to brave the perils of the journey north, in the first place.
Families arriving at the border from countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and
Guatemala leave behind a myriad of stories, many of them connected to their
homelands’ plague of armed violence.

Central Americans have tended to migrate for economic reasons. Since the end of
the internal armed conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua—which
together displaced almost 2
million people
in the 1970s and 1980s—thousands of Central Americans
travelled to the U.S. to escape economic misery in their war-torn states.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. saw record numbers of
apprehensions of migrants along its border with Mexico.
migrant flow is very different. Yes, there are still male heads of household
seeking to pursue the “American Dream” in the U.S. so as to send home a couple
of hundred dollars each month to their families. But the crux of the recent
crisis at the border is that there are fewer male migrants in their 20s or 30s
making the crossing, and many more families, newborns, children, and pregnant
women escaping life-or-death situations as much as poverty.
U.S. policies contributed to the extreme insecurity in their home countries. In
1996, U.S. authorities approved the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act,” which led to the deportations of tens of thousands of
convicted criminals to Central America in the early 2000s. This in turn led to
the expansion of gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street
gang (Barrio 18)—originally born in the U.S.—across El Salvador, Guatemala, and
region’s civil wars left behind tens of thousands of young people from broken
families. That reality, combined with extreme inequality, policies of mass
incarceration of suspicious youth, and weak judicial and security institutions
created the new monster that is today’s gang problem. Over the past 15 years,
they have taken over both rural and urban areas across North Central America,
setting up roadblocks in poor neighborhoods and imposing their own law. While
poverty remains the principal cause of Central American families traveling
north, desperation to escape gang violence also motivates many.
countries like El Salvador and Honduras, parents living in what are popularly
known as “red zones”—usually communities plagued by gangs—have to spend
hard-earned money on private transport or after-school programs to avoid their
kids coming into contact with criminal groups. “It’s really complicated for us
[the parents] … because we need to work more hours to pay for the security of
our children and also spend enough time at home to talk with them and make sure
they are not hanging out with the wrong people,” a Honduran social worker and
mother of two told me recently. I am withholding her name, and those of others
quoted in this story, for security reasons.
For some
families, it is too late to keep their kids away. In El Salvador, where there
are around 65,000
thousand active gang members
with a social support base of half a
million people, boys from 12 years up are prime targets for recruitment. Girls
can also be targeted at an early age, either to be sexually abused or to become
gang members. The eventual fate of a girl—whether she is left alone, harassed
into joining the gang, or forced into becoming a sex slave—depends entirely on
the local leaders, or palabreros, who run the local cells or clicas (cliques)
of the two largest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.
recruitment process is gradual and lasts from a couple of months to a few
years. It can start with a present from the local gang, such as expensive
sportswear or an invitation to come to a party in a casa loca (literally ‘mad
house’), with sex workers included. If you spend enough time with internally
displaced people in Central America, more than one will tell you that their old
homes became one of these casas locas because the gang wanted it “for strategic
purposes” in their turf wars with other groups. If a family refuses to leave,
all its members are threatened.
decades-long prevention efforts by local authorities and foreign-backed law
enforcement, gangs remain defiant and undefeated. The phenomenon has grown so
rapidly since the 2000s that it has penetrated deep into the social fabric of
Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, meaning police operations alone aren’t
enough to defeat the gangs. Top state officials in the region are aware of the
magnitude of what they face, and behind closed doors agree that they are
“fighting a war they cannot win.”
the governments from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras continue to rely
almost solely on security crackdowns to tackle gangs. This has indirectly
created yet another reason for the local population to flee. As an NGO worker
in El Salvador told me recently: “The situation is so bad that sometimes people
are more scared of the police than the gangs.”
While law
enforcement is an inevitable part of the fight against violent crime, the
impact in communities where gangs are present can be hugely counter-productive.
Especially in El Salvador and Honduras, residents get caught in daily armed
confrontations caused by gangs’ turf wars, as well as operations by security
forces in their communities to combat them. This is on top of the usual
harassment that the gangs inflict on local families, like trying to recruit
their children or extracting weekly extortion payments. “In my previous
neighborhood I couldn’t trust anybody, it is like not knowing who the enemy
is,” a man displaced from his community in central Honduras by gang violence
told me when I met him in Tegucigalpa. In El Salvador, it is very common that
teenagers living in “red zones” are harassed by security forces, who consider
them usual suspects of gang membership.
situation has left thousands of Central American families stuck between a rock
and a hard place. They know how dangerous the trip to the U.S. is, but are
forced to leave to save their lives. “If I stay here, I will die,” a Honduran
woman told me in tears during a group interview with victims of forced
displacement in Tegucigalpa. Her fear was retaliation from gangs after her son
and mother had been killed in the same week.
When I
have asked displaced people over the past few months if U.S. migration policies
deter them from fleeing, they usually reply that the prospect of being caught
by U.S. migration officials makes them anxious, but that “there is no scarier
place” than their home countries. This is why, no matter how hard and sometimes
inhumane this administration’s anti-immigration policies might be, many Central
American parents and their children will be determined to make the trip north
don’t leave much behind, not even their houses. This is why, as a friend from
Guatemala who once considered making the trip recently told me, they are still
willing to go through the perilous journey: “We know you can get killed, and
how dangerous it is especially for women [to try entering the U.S. without
papers] … but when it’s a life or death situation, I bet you would do the