Violence from organized crime groups is forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Stories of individuals having to flee their homes are rife, and recounted across society from the stylish cafes of the wealthy elite to the dusty pulperias (corner stores) in remote and humble neighborhoods. Few lives remain untouched by this epidemic of forced dislocation sweeping the region.

Earlier this month US President Barack Obama labeled as a “humanitarian crisis” the huge increase in unaccompanied children pouring into the United States from the Northern Triangle countries, put at 47,017 since October 2013. This rise of 92 percent over the same period last year, added White House director of domestic policy, Cecilia Muñoz, reflected “an increase in sustained violence” as well as worsening poverty.

The children fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras represent just one group of people displaced by the violence that plagues these Northern Triangle nations and Mexico, most of whom have no option but to remain in their terrifying environments. In Mexico, where violence is the most visible, 1.65 million individuals were driven from their homes in the five years between 2006 and 2011 — equivalent to two per cent of the country’s population — according to preliminary data by Parametria, a Mexican think tank. Translated annually, an average of 330,000 Mexicans had to leave their homes in each of the five years. A study carried out by the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez showed that in the city of Ciudad Juarez alone, around 230,000 people fled in just three years between 2007 and 2010 with about half leaving the country and crossing the nearby border into the United States.

This is an abbreviated version of an article that appeared in the Refugee Survey Quarterly. It was reprinted with permission. See full article here.

In El Salvador the scale of displacement was similarly high in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, with 2.1 percent of the population forced to move as the result of violence. Out of these approximately 130,000 individuals, nearly one-third felt compelled to leave their homes two or more times. This rate of displacement compares to levels seen during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s and to those now experienced in the armed conflict in Colombia, the latter widely considered a humanitarian emergency. No comparable data exists for neighbouring Honduras and Guatemala but these nations’ astronomical homicide rates, the former having the world’s highest murder rate according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), point to a similar level of displacement.

The region is in the grip of a humanitarian disaster with the past few years witnessing what appears to be an unprecedented level of displacement. Yet the governments of these countries are virtually silent. The problem of displaced people is viewed as a security matter and often regarded through the lens of the political conflicts that raged here in the 1980s. The subject is also politically sensitive making constructive conversations difficult. Finally, the nature and patterns of this current wave of displacement are vastly complex and poorly understood.

A key misconception is that the perpetrators of displacement in the region form a single entity: “organized crime.” The truth is that three main criminal groups propel people to leave home: street gangs, Mexican drug cartels and drug transporters. The street gangs and Mexican drug cartels are responsible for the lion’s share of displacement. The gangs, largely consisting of maras, operate in El Salvador and Honduras, and to a lesser extent in Guatemala. The Mexican drug cartels conduct operations mainly in rural and semi-rural Mexico and increasingly in nearby cities and the countryside of the Northern Triangle. The drug transporters, or “transportistas,” displace comparatively few people and are based primarily in rural Guatemala and Honduras.

The Maras

The mara street gangs originated in the jails of California and swiftly resort to violence to control people living in cities in the Northern Triangle. The two biggest rival gangs are the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). At the heart of each gang is the clique or “clica” whose members direct the gang’s criminal activities such as extortion — the gang’s lifeblood– and drug dealing. The clica aims to exercise exclusive control over a specific territory that it defends against rival gangs. The territory encompasses a core zone in which the clica members live — typically a poor neighborhood — and the extended zone, which may include marginal as well as affluent areas. The clicas make sporadic forays into the latter often to extort businesses.

Any perceived challenge to the clica’s control can earn the “offender” a death sentence. A shop owner who refuses to pay a mara extortion demand, a girl who rejects the attentions of a gang member or a person seen talking to the police all risk being killed. Even attending a school in a neighborhood controlled by a rival mara can be construed as an act of disloyalty. So intense is the paranoia of some clicas that simply a “wrong” look can have fatal consequences.

Fear of death causes a steady stream of individuals to flee their homes in the cities of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. That fear may be free-floating and not linked to a specific incident. A mother who is anxious that her growing children may attract the attention of the local clica may move her family to another neighborhood. Similarly, residents may feel forced to search for safer surroundings if the near-constant threat of violence becomes psychologically unbearable.

Intensely violent disputes between gangs also force city dwellers to abandon their homes in the Northern Triangle. Shoot-outs over territory regularly erupt between the Barrio 18 and MS13 maras, between maras and other gangs and even between clicas of the same gang. Gun battles between maras may be so frequent that residents resort to using wooden boards in their windows instead of glass.

In the face of an invading gang, some clicas will order individuals without family members in the resident clica to leave their homes or be killed. If the ruling clica is defeated, family members and supporters of that clica have to flee to avoid reprisals from the victorious gang. Displacement is also caused by a general hardening of mara attitudes toward inhabitants reflecting gang members’ increased anxiety. Extortion quotas may be raised and any refusals met with immediate death, with no warning given.

SEE ALSO: The Mafia’s Shadow in the Americas: Modern Slavery and Refugees

The destinations of people driven from their neighborhoods vary according to their income. Poorer residents have no choice but to go to other impoverished areas, usually in the same city, although some move to other cities in the same country. The most financially hard-pressed families without support from extended family can wind up either living on the street or in degrading and vulnerable conditions in distant squatter zones. Better-off residents tend to stay in the same city knowing that they can leave their country altogether — typically for the United States — if their circumstances worsen.

Drug Cartels

Drug cartels drive the displacement epidemic in Mexico. Like the maras, cartels intimidate the local population into submission through extreme violence on a daily basis. Anyone found to be “disloyal” or resistant to their demands, runs the risk of being killed. Also like the maras, cartels seek to exercise exclusive control over territory in which they conduct criminal activities. The cartels, however, with their superior firepower, resources and position in the drug trade, far outstrip the maras in their capacity to inflict violence and displace inhabitants.

The massive displacements that have afflicted Mexico for the past ten years largely reflect territorial disputes between increasingly ruthless and heavily armed cartels. Traditionally, Mexican cartels were rooted in strategically important areas of the country and led by local families. Starting in the 1990s, however, cartels fragmented and become more militarized, and sought to establish total control over territories through which drugs are trafficked. Cartels also began assuming a dominant regional role as drug owners and managers. In addition, many, especially the newer ones, diversified into extortion and charging taxes on various local criminal activities.

Gun battles between these more sophisticated cartels dramatically heighten the insecurity for those people unfortunate enough to live in their midst, causing entire villages to empty out in terror. Such mass displacements are also used intentionally to reduce local sympathy — thus logistical and intelligence support — for the rival by an invading cartel. In the past two years, elements linked to the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) have forced out villagers across the rural mountain zone of Sinaloa state, the cradle of the famed Sinaloa Cartel. Similarly, the Zetas criminal organization has displaced entire towns assumed to support the Gulf Cartel along the drug-running corridor from Nuevo Leon State on the USA border. For its part, the Gulf Cartel has taken away individuals suspected of having links with the Zetas in towns from the neighboring Tamaulipas State causing a substantial number of families to abandon their homes. Although many of the extremely violent confrontations between cartels take place in rural zones through which drugs are transported, the populations of nearby cities are increasingly affected as well as rural areas of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Those people displaced in Mexico tend to move to Mexico City and to other urban areas of Federal States less affected by cartel violence, including southern states such as Chiapas. Mexico’s vibrant economy and greater size, when compared to the Northern Triangle countries, give residents a wider variety of options for relocation. Mexicans are also more likely to be better off financially than their southern counterparts and a substantial number of them emigrate to other countries, principally the United States.


The drug transporters, or transportistas, in rural Honduras and Guatemala, displace far fewer people than either the maras or drug cartels. Their business of smuggling does not depend on exclusive control of territories but the ability to move through them unimpeded. Thus, armed disputes between transportistas are rare. Furthermore, their relationship with the local population is based less on fear and violence — at least in the first instance — and more on buying their tolerance. Transportistas do resort to violence or the threat or it, to force small and medium landowners to sell their land in strategic cross-border smuggling zones if met with refusal. Sometimes the sum offered is a small fortune while at others, it is paltry. Families forced off their land in Guatemala and Honduras tend to move to the outskirts of towns in the region or to rural areas, such as forestry reserves, to seek work as laborers.

Small numbers of individuals and families are also driven from their homes because they are viewed as enemies by one of the transportista groups. These people usually migrate to the capital cities where they hope to either secure State protection or lose themselves in the multitudes. Most are keen to travel to another country, usually the United States, to escape the continuing risk of assassination, but only some have the financial resources to do so.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Displacement

The scale and intensity of the wave of people displaced through violence at the hands of criminal groups in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala leave little doubt of the pressing need for an effective humanitarian policy response. To date, only Honduras has taken the first step toward formulating a coherent national policy by creating the Inter-Institutional Commission for the Protection of Persons Displaced by Violence in November 2013. Certain Northern Triangle governments openly acknowledge their inability to protect particular groups of people at risk of criminal violence. The Northern Triangle countries are financially disadvantaged and institutionally weak yet, along with Mexico, they face a human tragedy of epic proportions. These nations should not be expected to have to address alone the forced displacement of their people. It is timely to ask whether a Central and North American initiative could benefit the victims of these unofficial theatres of war.

*Cantor is the Director of the Refugee Law Initiative, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Jaskowiak is an independent journalist based in London with a special interest in Latin American affairs. This is an abbreviated version of an article that appeared in the Refugee Survey Quarterly. It was reprinted with permission. See full article here.