Amnesty International (AI) recently released a report about the immigration crisis now gripping Central America and the border region jointly shared by the United States and Mexico. Describing the current situation as “most acute” in the Northern Triangle region -- El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- it points out the persistent violence there and its connection to narcotics trafficking as the root cause for migratory flows to the United States.
Entitled “Home Sweet Home?”, the report said, “Violence is a key factor for expulsion after a marked reduction in violence in the aftermath of armed conflicts in Central America in the 1990s, in the last decade, bands -- known as ‘maras’ -- and organized crime have turned the Northern Triangle into one of the most dangerous sub-regions of the world.” In the first 73 days of 2015, 1,688 people were murdered in El Salvador. During the first three months of that year, the murder rate for the tiny Central American country was 22 times the rate in the US. The criminal gangs live by the motto: mata, viola, controla, “kill, rape, control.”
According to Amnesty International’s website, “Vicious criminal gangs control large areas of these countries – forcing young boys to join them, girls to become sexual slaves, shop owners, and bus drivers to pay hefty taxes and killing anyone who dares to say no. By failing to tackle this crisis, governments are effectively forcing thousands of people to run north in search for safety.”
AI highlighted the increasing violence against women and girls, which the report called “normal” in these countries. In Honduras, the murder rate of women increased by 37 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to the report. However, the report claimed the numbers could be even higher.
According to the AI report, the Northern Triangle countries face the prospect of losing an entire generation due to violence. The forced recruitment of children into criminal organizations and pressure to drop out of school jeopardizes the future employment prospects of an entire sector of a generation. The report said that membership in gangs perpetuates social exclusion and further complicates efforts to get children and young people out of crime groups. Members of the maras are known for their extensive tattoos, which sometimes cover most of their bodies. Thus identified by their extravagant tattoos, members of the maras face dismal job prospects.
AI Secretary General Salil Shetty said these countries “have become virtual war zones” where gangs subject the population to constant terror. Citizens in these countries are seeking a better live for themselves and their families outside of the region, which is why requests for asylum and refugee status in the United States soil between 2010 and 2015 increased from 8,052 to 56,097 — a jump of 597 percent. The Northern Triangle country with the most requests was El Salvador, which also happens to be the smallest of the three countries, with a population of six million people.
People from Central America who cross into the United States and are denied asylum and deported often face being killed by the gangs. There is evidence that some levels of government are part of the structure of the gangs, and do their bidding. U.S. federal authorities describe the gangs as incredibly sophisticated, engaging in the prostitution, drug dealing and gun running, as well as human trafficking, prostitution, extortion. They send the proceeds back to their leaders in El Salvador. The maras originated in Los Angeles after Salvadorans fled their native land during the 12-year long civil war of the 1980s, which left 75,000 dead.