Thousands of men, women, and children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are marching through Mexico, trying to reach the United States, but why are they fleeing?
While poverty, climate change and a lack of economic opportunities are among the main reasons for people to leave their countries in search of a better future, crime and corruption are also high on the list.
1. Rampant Crime and Violence
El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — often collectively referred to as the Northern Triangle -- have a plethora of gangs who extort businesses and individuals, recruit minors, and murder those who cross them. Adding to the danger is the fact that the gangs are also involved in local drug sales, meaning their turf battles turn violent rapidly.
Although homicide rates in all three countries have dropped in recent years, the Northern Triangle still tops of the list of the world’s deadliest regions outside a war zone. This is largely due to the reach and power of region's most prominent street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18, who exert control over mostly poor neighborhoods and fight for control of territory and commercial space to secure more revenue streams.
These battles happen in public spaces where millions of people live, work, and commute. In 2014, for example, more than 400 people died, most of them bus drivers and their assistants, in attacks against the public transport system in Guatemala. Extortion of the public transport system is a perennial source of money for the gangs.
In effect, gangs are so pervasive they create an invisible but powerful border in some of even the smallest towns, deterring families from visiting their relatives, going to school, or taking a job in a place controlled by the rival gang.
SEE ALSO: The MS13
Extortion is also breaking the backs of the poorest in the region. It costs Salvadorans $756 million a year, according to a group of investigators with the Central Bank of El Salvador. In Honduras, La Prensa reported that locals pay an estimated $200 million in extortion fees annually. Most of the victims are poor and small businesses.
People threatened by gangs often find themselves without refuge within their own countries. And decades of gang control across the most populous areas has “worn people out psychologically,” Douglas Farah, a security expert on Central America, told InSight Crime.
All of these leads to a near constant stream of people seeking refuge. According to a 2016 report by the American Immigration Council, Central Americans who described themselves as victims of violent crime were more likely to say they had plans to emigrate than those who had not been victims.
And interviews with 322 child migrants returned to El Salvador found that about 60 percent of them said that they had fled because of gang threats or violence, according to research done by Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright Fellow, in 2014.
Nearly 200 said that they had at least one gang in their neighborhood. More than 100 said that they had been pressured to join a gang, and 22 said they were assaulted after refusing.
2. Broken Institutions, Impunity
Central American residents have little faith in the authorities tasked with protecting them. This stems from a combination of under-resourced and poorly-trained security forces, and sky-high impunity rates for corruption and abuses.
Of the 69 countries assessed in the 2017 Global Impunity Index, Honduras and El Salvador ranked 12th and 13th, respectively. Guatemala was 19th. High impunity rates “play a huge factor into feeding hopelessness,” said Farah.
When crimes are not prosecuted, it reinforces the belief that authorities are corrupt and that criminal groups control them. In Honduras, for example, the national police commissioner was arrested in October and accused of money laundering, among other crimes.
In other cases, the authorities show a complete disregard for rule of law. Security forces tasked with tackling gang violence in El Salvador, for instance, have been accused of extrajudicial killings.
The result is that people often take matters into their own hands. Guatemalans in Villa Nueva, just south of the capital, responded to the lack of police protection by forming a self-defense group. In July, the group took to the streets, carrying high-powered weapons, after gang members murdered two residents, according to Prensa Libre.
In the end, without rule of law, many people flee.
3. Corruption at Highest Levels
Corruption in the Northern Triangle reaches the highest levels. The cases include two former presidents in El Salvador, one who is accused of embezzling $351 million from government coffers and the other of stealing some $300 million of public funds.
In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales is currently embroiled in an illicit campaign finance scandal. His predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned over his alleged involvement in a massive corruption scheme within the country’s customs agency. And in a recent investigation, InSight Crime revealed that his predecessor, Alvaro Colom, took campaign contributions from drug traffickers.
SEE ALSO: Elites and Organized Crime
In Honduras, prosecutors in June accused 38 government officials of misusing more than $12 million of government funds for political purposes. Some of the money allegedly went to a program that was part of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s first bid for office in 2013.
The cases have led to protests and some successful prosecutions. But for many, it is not enough, and they leave.