Why Refugees are Fleeing Central AmericaThe northern region of Central America is currently one of the most dangerous places on Earth. So, it’s no surprise that refugees are fleeing Central America. This circumstance has caused high levels of migration as many refugees are fleeing for their lives. In countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, many people experience gang-related violence, human trafficking and extreme poverty. The brutality forcing refugees to leave their homes is constant and not improving.

Moreover, poverty in Central America is widespread. In some regions, half of the population lives below the poverty line. Consequently, the number of asylum-seekers is increasing in neighboring countries, such as Mexico and the U.S. In 2014, there were 2,000 asylum applications in Mexico. In 2017, applications escalated to more than 14,000. As this crisis continues, it is important to understand the reasons why refugees are fleeing Central America.

Gang Culture in Central America

In the 1980s, civil wars weakened countries in Central America, leaving a legacy of violence and fragile governments. Due to these civil wars and mass deportations from the U.S., organized crime groups flourished. These groups grew into the overwhelming gangs present today.

Over the last 15 years, gangs have taken over rural and urban areas within Central America. They target poor, and thus vulnerable, communities by imposing their own authority. They also recruit boys as young as 12 years old and living in poverty as they lack educational or economic opportunities. Because of gang violence, the Northern Triangle is considered one of the deadliest places in the world, outside a war zone. For example, between 2014 and 2017, almost 20,000 Salvadorans were killed due to gang-related violence.

Gang culture has deeply penetrated the social fabric of northern Central America. Their grip on society is so severe that many migrants fear that their deportation will result in death. For example, 82 percent of women reported they would most likely be tortured or killed if they were to return home. Despite decades of authorities trying to eliminate gang activity, these criminal groups remain defiant and seemingly unbreakable.

Extortion and Human Trafficking

Similarly, extortion-related crimes are common in this region. Gangs extort small businesses and local individuals by forcing them to pay protection payments. If these individuals cannot afford these amounts, the gangs will murder them. For example, it is estimated locals in Honduras pay $200 million in extortion fees every year. Extortion fees cost Salvadorans $756 million a year. This results in a significant financial loss for local businesses and endangers many lives.

Moreover, human trafficking is another common reason why refugees are fleeing Central America. Women and young girls are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Often, gangs target and traffick young children for the sex trade. In Guatemala alone, at least 15,000 children are victims of child sex trafficking networks.

Gangs also manipulate children. They subject children to forced labor, making them sell and transport drugs throughout El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Though widespread, authorities prosecute an extremely low number of people accused of human trafficking. In Guatemala between 2009 and 2013, police detained 604 human traffickers. However, only 183 went to trial and only 33 were convicted.

Helping Central America

A huge reason why refugees are fleeing Central America is lack of opportunity. Of course, this is largely due to the rampant crime and violence in the region. While the reality is grim, there is a reason to be optimistic. Many organizations and volunteers help these migrants in any way they can. In particular, Doctors Without Borders has been providing medical relief and mental health care to refugees traveling along migration routes through Mexico since 2013. The organization reported they provided more than 33,000 consultations at mobile health clinics and other facilities. Many patients need mental health care, especially women who are victims of sexual abuse. In fact, 31 percent of women reported being sexually assaulted along their journey.

UNICEF also recognizes the humanitarian crisis happening in Central America. UNICEF has offices in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In these countries, UNICEF is working directly with people to prevent violence and alleviate poverty. They also help reintegrate deported children into their home countries and support children in asylum countries, protecting them from discrimination and xenophobia. UNICEF’s work in Central America is necessary as it is bettering the lives of many vulnerable people.

Often times, the only ways for migrants to escape the persecution and violence plaguing their hometowns is to seek asylum in another country. No matter how bleak these circumstances may be, hope can be found through the compassion and understanding of volunteers around the world. By understanding why refugees are fleeing Central America, people and organizations can begin working to change the conditions in these countries.

Marissa Pekular
Photo: Flickr

Gang Violence in Honduas

Honduras is one of the most impoverished nations in Central America. In 2016, figures showed that over 66 percent of its population lived in extreme poverty. These figures also reveal an estimated one out of five rural Hondurans is trying to survive on less than a mere $1.90 per day. Since poverty and criminal activity seem to have a close correlational relationship, it is no surprise that Honduras has held consistently high crime rates along with high poverty rates. What many may not know is that much of Honduras’s crime is due to gang violence. Below are seven facts about gangs in Honduras.

Seven Facts About Gangs in Honduras

  1. The two largest gangs in Honduras are the MS 13 and the Barrio 18. MS 13 is expanding internationally. Its scope and influence on crime in Honduras are hard to verify. In fact, since gang activity is so common in Honduras, it is hard for government officials to discern how much violence in the country is strictly due to gang-related activity.
  2. One gang runs several legal businesses. Recent investigations into the massive MS 13 gang activities in El Salvador uncovered a multimillion-dollar structure of legitimate businesses owned by the gang. MS 13 is a violent and massive gang that operates primarily in Honduras but also in El Salvador. Additionally, the gang has close ties with Mexican drug cartels.
  3. Honduras is attempting to rid its law enforcement of corruption. Since 2016, the nation of Honduras has dismissed around 4,455 police officers. This purge was an attempt to cleanse its law-enforcement from corrupted officials. These were officials who dabbled with organized crime and carried out extra-judicial killings. The country is also trying to create a new police training curriculum that centers on human rights.
  4. Ex-cops are being recruited into gangs. Despite good intentions, many of the released ex-police officers are now being hired by the vicious MS 13 gang as bodyguards and trainers for gang-related activities. MS 13 reportedly pays ex-officers 2.5 times the amount they made inside the police force. This allows the gang to become better-trained to conduct violent business.
  5. Families are leaving their homes to escape gang violence. Between 2016 and 2017, over 1,900 people fled their homes and communities because of gang-related death threats or extortions. It can be insidiously dangerous for residents of Honduras to live unaware of gang turf. Many may accidentally cross those invisible lines and put themselves in harm’s way.
  6. Homicide rates are decreasing, but Honduras still has one of the highest. Honduran homicide rates in 2018 are half of what they were in 2012. In 2012, Honduras experienced 86 murders per 100,000 citizens. In 2018, this number decreased to 42 murders per 100,000 citizens. Although making progress, Honduras still has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
  7. Honduras has increased the budget for protection from gangs. The budget for Honduran security and justice institutions has increased by over 50 percent in the last five years. In the last couple of years, the El Pozo and La Tolva maximum-security prisons were built. Some of the nation’s criminal and gang leaders are now incarcerated there. Security officials say this has limited their abilities to operate within the prison system.

These key facts about gangs in Honduras indicate that Honduras is trying to lessen the violence that plagues its streets. This is in tandem with foreign partners such as the United States. Overall, global attention and innovative thinking are necessary to provide solutions to the gang epidemic.

– Haley Hiday
Photo: Flickr

10 Facts About Violence in the Northern Triangle
The Northern Triangle is a region in Central America comprised of three countries: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The title originally described a series of trade agreements but the area is now one of the world’s most violent regions. Listed below are 10 facts about violence in the Northern Triangle.

10 Facts About Violence in the Northern Triangle

1. Asylum Seekers – In 2015, the number of asylum seekers fleeing from the Northern Triangle region reached 110,000, an increase of five times higher than reports from 2012.

2. High Homicide Rates – All three countries have homicide rates which have consistently ranked as some of the highest globally, even given that each has witnessed a recent decline in their respective rates. In 2018, InSight Crime reported that El Salvador’s homicide rate was 51 per 100,000 individuals, a drop from 81.2 in 2017; the report estimated Honduras’ rate at 40, a drop from 42.8; Guatemala’s was 22.4, a drop from 26.1. These high rates of homicide translate to the Northern Triangle’s low rankings on the 2019 Global Peace Index (GPI), which measures nations based on levels of peacefulness, where El Salvador ranked 113th, Guatemala 114th and Honduras 123rd out of 163 countries.

3. Domestic Violence – Many asylum seekers fleeing the region are women and children. This can be credited to female homicide rates that are some of the highest in the world. In Guatemala, only two percent of the over 50,000 cases of violence against women in 2013 saw the perpetrator convicted. The majority of these cases, and those elsewhere in Honduras and El Salvador, involved domestic abuse.

4. Gang Violence – Those living in the region are under a constant threat of violence from gangs, the largest being Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18). The combined membership for both gangs is an estimated 85,000.

5. Drug Trafficking – The Northern Triangle region of Central America has become a major shipping route for illicit drugs coming into the U.S. In 2015, an estimated 90 percent of cocaine seized in the U.S. was of Columbian origin and had traveled through routes in Central America. Despite this high rate of cocaine shipments into the U.S., the region has much lower numbers of other illicit drugs traveling along the same routes, such as heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl.

6. Extortion – In 2015, estimates indicated that Salvadorans paid $390 million, Hondurans paid $200 million and Guatemalans paid $61 million in extortion fees. The primary victims of these extortionists were public transportation operators, small businesses and residents of poor neighborhoods.

7. Corruption – High levels of corruption at the state level have hindered progress in the region. According to a 2016 index of corruption perceptions by Transparency International, all three countries ranked on the bottom half of the scale.

8. Unemployment – There is a remarkably high number of young people in the region who are out of school and without a job, over one million in total. In El Salvador, this correlates to 24 percent of the youth population, 25.1 percent of Guatemalan youth and 27.5 percent of Honduran youth. This is another factor of economic in-opportunity which leads many to flee or become involved with local gangs.

9. Poverty – Poverty in the Northern Triangle and the lack of economic opportunity play a large role in the proliferation of violence and mass migration. An estimated 60 percent of people who live in rural areas in the region are living in poverty.

10. High Impunity Rates – For all of the recorded violence and homicide covered in these 10 facts about violence in the Northern Triangle, the rate of impunity for crimes is 95 percent or higher. This acts as an incentive to criminals and a further deterrent to public confidence in law enforcement.

While these 10 facts about violence in the Northern Triangle continue to paint an alarming picture of living conditions in the region, it is important to recognize the small steps toward improvement. The Borgen Project is currently working to gain support for the United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act (H.R.2615), which aims to address the root causes of the migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

– Alexandra Schulman
Photo: Flickr

Captain Planet
Age is never a barrier in the fight for social justice. At least, Captain Planet teaches this lesson. During the animated series’ six-year span, “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” sought to educate and empower young people to take an interest in environmental issues.

Origin

Media mongrel, Ted Turner, conceived of the idea for Captain Planet. To bring this superhero to life, Turner sought the help of longtime environmentalist and film producer, Barbara Pyle. Inspired by people she met during past projects, Pyle created the Planeteers: Kwame, Gi, Linka, Wheeler and Ma-Ti. Together, the Planeteers and Captain Planet work to combat ecological and global problems.

“Captain Planet and the Planeteers” premiered worldwide in 1990 and the children’s animated series gained popular success as well as critical acclaim. Captain Planet was one of the first television shows to openly advocate for the environment. Apart from addressing environmental issues, the television show also encouraged young people to have an interest in the issues plaguing their own communities. Here are two examples of how Captain Planet challenged its audience to be advocates for nonenvironmental social justice issues.

Issue #1: HIV/AIDS Epidemic

In the early 1990s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic devastated the United States. The number of reported cases was over 100,000 and it affected everyone in sight. Ryan White was one of the first children diagnosed with the deadly virus. Doctors diagnosed White with AIDS when he was 13 years old after he received a blood transfusion. After this diagnosis, White’s school banned him and his community ostracized him, similar to other individuals. People were afraid of White due to the misperception that AIDS could transmit by air or touch.

During the middle of the epidemic, Captain Planet addressed the issue of HIV/AIDS in its episode, “A Formula for Hate.” The episode challenged the audience to put aside ignorance and fear to reduce discrimination against people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. The plot of the episode parallels White’s situation after his diagnosis with AIDS. In the episode, the townspeople learn about a student’s (Todd Andrews) HIV-positive diagnosis. The townspeople turn against Andrews and his family, going as far as burning his mother’s vegetable stand. Captain Planet and the Planeteers intervene by educating the townspeople on the virus, dispelling the misperception that HIV cannot be transmitted by casual contact. As a result, Andrews and his family were once again accepted by the townspeople and no longer discriminated against.

Issue #2: Gang Violence

Gangs and firearm violence were on the rise in the United States during the 1990s, especially among young people. In 1990, the number of fatal and nonfatal violent crimes with a firearm was at an all-time high at 18,253. In 1993, 45 cities reported that over 100,000 young people were involved in a gang. The rise in violent crimes created toxic environments among youth and places considered safe zones for young people, like parks and schools, became battlegrounds.

In 1994, Captain Planet addressed the issue of gang and gun violence in the episode, “Teers in the ‘Hood.” The episode’s plot revolved around a shootout between two rival gangs and The Planeteers became caught in the middle of the conflict. Captain Planet and the Planeteers defused the situation by talking about the peace messages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi. The episode also debunked the myth that gangs offer positive communities for its members. After two of the Planeteers infiltrated one of the rival gangs, the gang quickly pressured them to use violence in order to gain acceptance. In short, the episode’s message was on the power of positive community and peace.

Today, Captain Planet continues providing fun, innovative opportunities to support environmental issues worldwide. To get involved or learn more, visit www.captain planet foundation.org.

– Paola Nunez
Photo: Flickr

Fighting Corruption in the Northern TriangleThe Northern Triangle, consisting of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, is home to some of the highest levels of political and economic instability in the world. The nations of the Triangle (Or NTCA, Northern Triangle of Central America) are characterized by high rates of poverty and gang violence. Subsequently, this is exacerbated by rampant corruption, from local to national levels. This instability, along with the hazards of living in a poverty-stricken region, has led to an increase in the outflow of migrants from the Northern Triangle into the United States.

Nevertheless, things are getting better. With the Northern Triangle having received more international attention in recent years and immigration issues leading American political discourse, the underlying problems of the region are coming to light. Some U.S. and United Nations’ programs are successfully circumventing government channels to provide aid directly. However, other initiatives are attacking the problem of corruption at its source. Fighting corruption in the Northern Triangle requires a longterm method addressing the economic insolvency of these countries. Here are five ways the world is fighting corruption in the Northern Triangle.

5 Ways the World Is Fighting Corruption in the Northern Triangle

  1. Guatemala and the CICIG
    Guatemala hosts one of the most effective and successful anti-corruption NGOs in the region. The U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity (known as CICIG, per its Spanish initials) was implemented in the early 2000s to address the rampant corruption sprouting up in the wake of Guatemala’s civil war. The commissioner, Iván Velásquez, is a distinguished veteran of Colombia’s criminal justice system, where he worked to expose links between paramilitary groups and public officials—an identical background to the types of corrupt practices that burden Guatemala’s public sector.
  2. Identifying Criminal Ties to Government Officials in the NTCA
    In a list released in early May 2019, the U.S. Department of State has named over 50 senior government officials in the NTCA as guilty of corruption. This list includes officials in the orbit of all three countries’ presidents, some of whom are direct relatives. Representative Norma Torres (D-CA) noted that the release of the list was a step in the right direction, forward progress for the Trump administration recognizing the severity of corruption in the Northern Triangle. While many of the anti-corruption bodies operating in the NTCA need international backing to be as effective as possible, the State Department’s list indicates the U.S. has not completely voided its assumed role as stabilizer in the Western Hemisphere.
  3. Slow but Steady Progress in El Salvador
    Like the rest of the NTCA, El Salvador ranks low in global measures of corruption and impunity for government officials. However, the country’s most recent attorney general, Douglas Melendez, made it his mission to attack the systemic and embedded corruption permeating the government. While he was recently forced out of office by the national legislature, Melendez successfully prosecuted three former presidents and his own predecessor as attorney general. His failure to secure reappointment reflects both El Salvador’s closed-door (and thus inherently political) process of selecting an attorney general, and a backlash of the country’s political elite against his progress fighting corruption.
  4. Experts Discuss Corruption and Human Rights in the NTCA
    In May 2019, a panel of experts led by the nonprofit, Inter-American Dialogue, discussed the current initiatives fighting corruption in the Northern Triangle, and how they could benefit from expanding their focus to include human rights. Guatemala’s CICIG was brought up, as was the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). A major point of emphasis was the commonalities across all three countries, specifically the way in which corrupt kleptocratic networks are indirectly committing human rights violation by embezzling money earmarked for public services. The discussion lauded the work of CICIG and MACCIH in Guatemala and Honduras, respectively, and emphasized the need for a similar external agency in El Salvador.
  5. MACCIH Brings its Twelfth Major Case to Court in Honduras
    The Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) has been operating since April 2016, presumably inspired by the success of CICIG in Guatemala. Unlike CICIG, which is a U.N.-backed Commission, MACCIH is organized by the Organization of American States, an international charter that was created in the late 1800s. Through the OAS, MACCIH can share investigation data with other member states, which is particularly effective when investigating transnational organization—namely, drug cartels. In May 2019, MACCIH brought forward its twelfth integrated case, this time addressing a federal-level scheme to launder millions in cartel money.

Fighting corruption in the Northern Triangle is not linear. Pushback from political and business elites has been a significant problem both for MACCIH in Honduras and for El Salvador’s nascent anti-impunity work. This is to be expected of any anticorruption initiative, however, as it deals with the removal of power and resources from officials that abuse them. Flagging programs within the member states of the Northern Triangle only emphasize the need for robust foreign support, which the U.S. continues to provide.

Rob Sprankle
Photo: Flickr

10 facts about violence in honduras
In Honduras, the homicide rate is currently 43.6 per 100,000, meaning for every 100,000 of Honduras’ inhabitants, about 44 people will be murdered every year. With this statistic alone, it is easy to see Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. However, by evaluating the implemented solutions working to combat violence, homicides in Honduras appear to be dropping; raising the possibility of losing its position as the murder capital of the world. Here are 10 facts about violence in Honduras.

10 Facts About Violence in Honduras

  1. Murder – In 2011 Honduras experienced a peak in murder rates making Honduras the holder of the highest homicide rate in the world. Between 2011 and 2015, the murder rate in Honduras decreased by 30 percent. Homicides went down from 88.5 per 100,000 residents to 60.0 per 100,000 and have remained constant or decreased slowly depending on the year. However, in Honduras, only 4 percent of reported homicide cases result in arrest showing there is still lots of room for improvement.
  2. Lack of Trust – Police and judicial systems in Honduras suffer from corruption, lack of training and a list of cases so long that even honest, well-equipped officials struggle to keep up. As a result, members of the most vulnerable Honduran communities often do not trust the police, public prosecutors or judges to do their jobs. Fearing retaliation from violent perpetrators, they often refuse to provide witness testimony necessary to bring about a conviction. This causes Honduran judicial officials to lose trust in victims. This lack of trust and support fuels a vicious cycle of violence and impunity that has contributed to Honduras’ status as one of the most violent countries in the world. The Special Commission to Purge and Reform the Honduran Police is working to rid the force of corrupt leaders, strengthen public and police relations and reorganize their internal and external goals. Today, the Special Commission to Purge and Reform the Honduran Police has put in nearly 15 months of work and suspended or removed 5,000 police from the force.
  3. Poverty – Poverty and violence are directly related, and they work together to generate difficult living conditions in Honduras. As of 2017, 64 percent of Honduras’ population lives in poverty. Further, Honduras has the second smallest middle class in Latin America, at only 10.9 percent of the population. A larger middle class would result in stronger public institutions, stronger economic growth and greater societal stability. Therefore, Honduras would see lower levels of violence because of stronger societal relations. Working to stem both violence and increase economic opportunities is the key to sustainable development.
  4. Illegal Drug Trade – Central America serves as a transit point for at least 80 percent of all cocaine shipments between the Andean region and North America. Criminal groups in Honduras are very aware of this and profit primarily from drug trade and extortion as well as kidnapping for ransom and human trafficking. In February 2019, authorities in Honduras arrested four Colombian citizens caught in an attempt to smuggle over 100 kilograms of cocaine into the United States through a remote region of the country’s eastern coast. This is one example of thousands.
  5. Gangs – Gang presence in Honduras is common in poor urban areas and where territory is controlled by members of rival gangs, the most powerful being the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18. The most common age for Honduran gang members is between 12 and 30. Gangs constitute a real but often misunderstood feature of these 10 facts about violence in Honduras. While there is little doubt that they are involved in significant levels of violence, gangs are highly diverse and linked more to localized insecurity rather than the transnational danger ascribed to them by the media and certain policymakers. It is understood that 40 percent of gang members claim to be involved in gangs to ‘hang out,’ 21 percent because they had gang member friends and 21 percent to evade family problems. There is also a correlation between youth unemployment and gang membership: only 17 percent of gang members were employed and 66 percent actively characterized themselves as unemployed.
  6. Domestic Violence – One woman is murdered every 16 hours in Honduras, and the country has the highest femicide rate in the world. Shocking numbers of rape, assault and domestic violence cases are reported. However, 95 percent of cases of sexual violence and femicide in Honduras were never investigated in the year 2014. As mentioned above, widespread underreporting is likely to be linked to the lack of trust in governmental figures such as police and judicial systems. Rape is widespread and is employed to discipline girls, women and their family members for failure to comply with demands. In Honduras, there is a 95 percent impunity rate for sexual violence and femicide crimes and the lack of accountability for violations of human rights of women is the norm rather than the exception.
  7. Honduras Youth – The expansion of gangs and the increase in violence is linked to the lack of opportunities for the youth of the country. Many young Hondurans turn to gangs for their welfare protection and identity construction because they see no other way. Gangs emerge in this context as an option that is often desired for the marginal youth as it provides a form of transition from adolescence to adulthood. About 2 percent of females go completely uneducated, compared to 3 percent of males. Likewise, secondary school lasts between two to three years between the ages of 13 and 16, and 38 percent of females drop out compared to 33 percent of males.
  8. The Public and Prevention – In areas with low levels of violence, residents have taken incidents of crime and made an effort to minimize conditions that might allow violence to thrive. Kindernotheilfe has partnered with the community-formed group Sociedad más Justa (ASJ). They are dedicated to improving the living conditions of children and young people in Tegucigalpa and protecting them from violent abuse. Since 2004, parents, children, young people, teachers, churches, justice officials, city administrations and other NGOs have gotten involved. Some of their help include psychological and legal counseling, neighborhood patrolling and organized children’s clubs and activities.
  9. USAID and Honduras Citizen Security – On Sept. 30, 2016, the U.S. Agency for International Development programs for Honduras invested in a $34.17 million project lasting until Feb. 13, 2021. They are working to support the Government of Honduras’ efforts to improve the service delivery of justice institutions; increase the capacity of police to work with targeted communities; and incorporate respect for human rights to help reduce violence, decrease impunity and implement human rights standards within government institutions. During the third quarter of year one, they achieved key targets, including launching five city events, holding an international conference, instituting a Supreme Court Innovation Committee, connecting with the LGBTQI committee and collaborating with other donor programs.
  10. The Peace and Justice Project – The Peace and Justice Project provides investigative, legal and psychological support for people with few resources who have been victims of violent crimes and push for structural change in Honduras’ security and justice systems. The project has a 95 percent conviction rate, almost 24 times the national average. This has reduced the impunity rate in key communities from 4 percent convictions to 60 percent convictions for violent crimes, while also reducing the overall homicide rate drastically. Over the last 10 years, 600 lives have been saved through interventions in these violent communities.

These 10 facts about violence in Honduras prove that while strides have been made, violence in Honduras is still a major global concern. Communities and citizens of Honduras should continue to make a difference by demanding higher standards and continuing prevention actions. Furthermore, other nations should continue to support by becoming involved in helping strengthen institutional, governmental and police and judicial systems to see long term change.

Grace Arnold
Photo: Flickr

10 Facts About Gangs in Guatemala
Guatemala is a Central American country, home to volcanoes, rainforests and gang violence. Guatemala is ranked as one of the most violent countries in the world, sitting alongside Honduras and El Salvador. These three countries have been named the Northern Triangle, known specifically for their gang violence. Here are 10 facts about gangs in Guatemala.

10 Facts About Gangs in Guatemala

  1. Origin of Gang Activity
    After Guatemala’s civil war in 1996, there were a plethora of retired and unemployed men with easy access to weapons. The most notable groups to emerge from the postwar era became known as illegal clandestine security apparatuses (CIACS). CIACS are composed of several ex-generals and former high-ranking intelligence officers. The CIACS are still operational, assisting in drug trafficking, the making of false passports and contraband. CIACS are especially powerful gangs because of their close connections to the government. CIACS members are typically former war veterans with connections to government officials. This allows CIACS to corrupt the government to get away with federal offenses.
  2. Persistence of Violence
    Corruption and a weak, underfunded institution lend their hands to the persistence of violence. Tax revenues in the Northern Triangle are among the lowest in the world. Guatemala’s gross domestic product stood at 12.4 percent in 2016, which was straining public services such as police resources and health care facilities.
  3. Immigration
    Gang violence is one of the main reasons Guatemalans flee their country. With violence, forced gang recruitment and extortion, the Guatemalans are seeking asylum in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The four countries have seen an increase in asylum seekers since 2008, but most migrants hope to settle in the United States. In 2015, more than 80 percent of immigrants who settled in the United States fleeing from violence.
  4. Police Involvement
    In any society, police are expected to assist in the maintaining of public order and are responsible for handling criminals. In early 2000, Guatemalan laws defined the word “gang” in broad terms. This ultimately resulted in the mass incarceration of anyone fitting the description. A 2014 article from InSight Crime states Guatemalan prisons are at a “280 percent capacity.” The massive overcrowding epidemic makes prisoners susceptible to control the prison. According to the Public Ministry, 80 percent of Guatemala’s extrusions are perpetrated by incarcerated prisoners.
  5. U.N. Involvement
    In 2007, the United Nations enacted the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The organization investigates and prosecutes criminals believed to have infiltrated state institutions. Proving successful, the U.N. met with Guatemala’s attorney general in 2015 to investigate corruption schemes in Guatemala.
  6. U.S. Involvement
    Because of the surge in migrants in 2005, the Bush administration enacted Operation Streamline. This was a zero-tolerance policy that would criminally prosecute and deport anyone crossing the border illegally. In its last year, the Bush administration passed a security package for Mexico and Central America known as the Merida Initiative. Mexico then left the Merida Initiative, and it was renamed the Central America Regional Security Initiative. Through CARSI, the U.S. was able to funnel money into Central America and up to $1 billion was provided to improve governance and police force.
  7. Gang-Related Homicides
    According to a recent U.N. Development Programme report, Latin America and the Caribbean saw a 12 percent increase between 2002 and 2012. These two places are the only regions in the world that saw an increase in homicides. Homicides became categorized as an “epidemic.” There are three working theories as to why homicides have increased in Guatemala. One theory identifies street gangs as a cause, which is the case for Guatemala’s capital, Guatemala City. A study done by the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop in Guatemala found 40 percent of those polled in Guatemala had concerns with extortion. The UNDP examined the violence in Guatemala between 2004 and 2007. They noticed the victims changed their phrasing from “gangs” to “common thieves” mainly due to media coverage of the issues.
  8. Youth Gangs
    In 2017, the 18th Street gang was involved in a riot that killed three police officers. Thirteen suspected gang members were detained for possession of firearms, including a grenade launcher, an assault rifle and several small-caliber weapons.
  9. Gang-Affiliated Crimes
    Aside from the extortion and possession of firearms, Guatemalan gangs are also involved in poppy cultivation to meet the demand for heroin in the United States. Moreover, they are involved in human trafficking and kidnapping, among other criminal offenses.
  10. Gang Hotspots
    A great deal of gang activity takes place in Guatemala’s capital city, Guatemala City. In 2016, the Guatemala National Police reported approximately 4,500 homicides, 5,800 aggravated assaults and over 3,500 missing people.

With gangs in Guatemala continuing to plague and terrorize the country, Guatemalan residents are forced to flee to other countries for safety. Although a vast majority make it to their destination, the threat of eliminating asylums poses another obstacle for Guatemalans seeking safety.

Andrew Valdovinos
Photo: Google Images

Gang violence in El Salvador

El Salvador is known for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world with one of the highest homicide rates. Most of the violence in El Salvador comes from the presence of gangs and the harsh retaliation from law enforcement. Below are 10 facts about gangs in El Salvador and potential solutions to tackle the issue.

Top 10 Facts About Gangs in El Salvador

  1. There are two main rival gangs in El Salvador: MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and 18th Street (Barrio 18). They have claimed unofficial territories in several regions in El Salvador and have been known to engage in several criminal activities including murder, rape and extortion. In 2017, there were a total of 3,954 homicides, 1,850 reported cases of rape and 1,414 reported cases of extortion, all linked to the gangs.
  2. As of 2018, El Salvador ranked 5 among countries with the highest homicide rates in the world. An estimated 60 percent of homicides are related to gang activity, and many are committed against women in addition to sexual and physical abuse. One woman dies every 24 hours solely based on their gender.
  3. An estimated 60,000 gang members are living in El Salvador, which is about 1 percent of the population. Gang members live among civilians and often attend the same schools, making other students more susceptible to gang threats. As high as  60 percent of schools in El Salvadoran are affected by Gang threats, which have led thousands of students to drop out. In 2015, approximately 39,000 students dropped out.
  4. Extortion is one of the most common crimes committed by gang members. The gangs in El Salvador obtain revenue by extorting it from civilians and local businesses. Gang members will often go as far as to execute individuals or their friends and family when their payment is overdue or insufficient. In 2015, one in every four Salvadorans has reported that they have been a victim of extortion. At least 80 percent of small businesses in El Salvador have claimed that they pay extortion fees to the gangs, forcing some to close or go bankrupt.
  5. Gangs often recruit unemployed or out-of-school youth. About one in four young men ranging from ages 15 to 29 aren’t employed or in school, making them more vulnerable to gang involvement. Most members claim to have joined a gang at 15 years old. These boys are frequently pressured into joining gangs either through the promise of security or the promise of social acclaim and power.
  6. The government has been brutally cracking down on gangs. In 2003, the government launched La Mano Dura, also known as Iron Fist, which is a government intervention policy that allows for the extrajudicial killings and mass incarceration of suspected gang members by law enforcement. This policy temporarily decreased crime rates by 14 percent in 2004 shortly after it was launched; however, rates spiked up in the years following until a recent drop in 2015.
  7. Many El Salvadorans seek the help of “coyotes” to take them to the U.S. border. “Coyotes” are essentially migrant smugglers who help people who are in danger and transport them north to the U.S. border to pursue safety and escape from gang violence. In 2018, 235,708 people migrated from El Salvador in hopes of escaping violence and conflict, and most migrated to the U.S. Early into 2019, the migration rates are still on the rise.
  8. There have been efforts towards a gang truce in the past. In 2012, MS-13 and Barrio 18 negotiated on a truce that resulted in a 53 percent decrease in homicide rates in the first 15 months. However, the truce did not persist under the 2014 administration because of the lack of government involvement in negotiations, and the homicide rates began to rise again. Nevertheless, this data exhibits that a gang truce is a viable solution towards reducing violence.
  9. Gang-related homicides have been on a decline since 2015. This is in part due to USAID projects including the Education for Children and Youth at Risk project, which prevents the Salvadoran youth from getting involved in gangs. The project has provided access to quality education for more than  370,000 middle school students in 750 schools and has provided support to 23,000 youth who are out of school so that they can return to classes. This project implements longer school days, interactive teaching methods, extracurricular activities and tutoring.
  10. There are local efforts to reduce gang violence in El Salvador. Creative is a nonprofit organization that employs young people who are at risk of getting involved with gangs. Creative has provided “more than 3,000 youth in 10 municipalities” with economic opportunities by partnering with businesses such as Microsoft to train them and provide them entry into the workforce. Creative also builds community-oriented infrastructure and offers counseling programs for teens.

These 10 facts about gangs in El Salvador demonstrate that violence has long been a major, cataclysmic issue. However, through local efforts to prevent youth involvement in gangs and rigid opposition against cutting foreign aid to Central America, El Salvador may see slow but steady improvements towards rebuilding their economy and reducing conflict.

Louise Macaraniag
Photo: Flickr

Fleeing El Salvator

Poverty, political instability, corruption and gang violence force many to uproot their families and flee their homes in El Salvador. The number of asylum seekers fleeing their country has increased dramatically since the 1980s. Below are eight facts about why so many are fleeing El Salvador and what/who can aid in this humanitarian crisis.

8 Facts about Fleeing El Salvador

  1. El Salvador has one of the lowest economic growth rates in Central America. While rates of poverty have slowly been decreasing in recent years, the high rates of crime and violence create challenges for a growing economy. According to the World Bank, crime and violence make doing business expensive, have negative impacts on investment decisions and also hinder the creation of jobs.
  2. Coffee rust intensifies the threat of poverty. Hemileia vastatrix, also known as “coffee rust”, is a fungus that many Salvadoran coffee farmers fear. This fungus can greatly decrease the amount of mature (sellable) coffee beans in a harvest. With coffee representing 7.5 percent of El Salvador’s exports and sustaining 650,000 jobs, “coffee rust” greatly threatens income and stability of many families.
  3. The threat of climate change also aggravates the cycle of poverty. More than one-third of Salvadorans live in rural areas and depend on agriculture. However, environmental disasters such as floods, droughts and volcanoes combined with changes in climate threaten harvests and income. Within the next few decades, increasing temperatures pose the possibility of declining crop yields by up to 30 percent. Thus, this creates even more worry for Salvadorans whose lives depend on the quality of their harvests.
  4. Uprisings, wars and extreme gang violence contribute to political instability. In 1932, the Salvadoran government massacred approximately 30,000 peasants. From 1979 to 1992, the Civil War (and the Salvadoran army) left another 30,000 dead. Today, gangs contribute to high levels of extortion and hinder an already weak economy. High trends of violence and corruption contribute to reduced trust in government. Furthermore, the government does not have institutions strong enough and prepared to combat rampant gang violence.
  5. Many flee El Salvador due to direct threats of gang violence. In a country with a total population just over 6 million, it’s estimated that there are approximately 60,000 gang members in El Salvador. That’s one gang member out of every 100 people. Between 2014 and 2017 alone, violent gangs are responsible for the deaths of nearly 20,000 Salvadorans. In a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, it make sense that there have been waves of migrants fleeing El Salvador for decades.
  6. Gangs particularly render women and children vulnerable. El Salvador has one of the highest rates of violent deaths of women in the world. More than 25 percent of Salvadoran women report intimate partner violence. Additionally, criminal gangs routinely target girls and women and force them into relationships with gang members or force them into sexual slavery. Some women will try to stay in their homes with their children, not even leaving for school or work in an effort to be safe from the violence.
  7. Save the Children is active in El Salvador. This nonprofit organization supports families by providing means of income for families. In addition, the organization is improving food security and providing health education and care that can deter preventable deaths for mothers and children.
  8. For years, the US gave foreign assistance to El Salvador. Claudia Ivette Canjura de Centeno, the Salvadoran Ambassador to the US, recently said in an interview that US foreign assistance funds to El Salvador are distributed among programs promoting safety, youth empowerment and security. This is done through creating jobs and opportunities and developing spaces of recreation. However, President Trump threatens to suspend economic aid to El Salvador. This will have a huge impact on the progress El Salvador has experienced.

You can do something to make an impact. Call and email your Congressional representatives. Encourage them to oppose cuts to foreign assistance to Central America. People have been fleeing El Salvador with their families and will continue to do so until they no longer feel the threats of poverty, political instability, corruption and gang violence.

El Salvador has a deep history of violence and corruption that contribute to the present situation where many are fleeing their country. For many, the grueling process of migrating and trying to start a new life is too challenging to try. Despite the challenges of that process, it might provide safety, security and opportunities. This outweighs trying to feed one’s family under constant threats of violence and governmental instability. While organizations like Save the Children provides essential aid to Salvadoran communities, addressing deep, systemic issues is what is going to create sustainable security. Please call your representatives and urge them to oppose the suspension of foreign assistance to Central America.

– Keeley Griego
Photo: Flickr

causes of poverty in Central America
Central America links North and South America and includes countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama. Tropical and evergreen rainforests bring a wealth of biodiversity and beauty to the region; however, these countries face high infant mortality, low life expectancies and especially devastating poverty. Here is an analysis of the main causes of poverty in Central America.

 

Oppressive Histories

The Central American countries have histories which involve changes in power to those who wish to conquer them. This began with Columbus and the Spanish conquest of the region, where oppression was the norm as the years went on and the region was ruled by different European elites who put down the indigenous people.

This treatment and “status quo” continued until independence reached the region in the 19th Century. By this point, though, a classist system had already been put in place, and the effects of which can still be seen in modern times. Many attribute Costa Rica’s relative success to the fact that there was only a small indigenous population when the Spaniards conquered the region, the numbers allowing them to avoid the tiered class system that developed in neighboring countries.

 

Unequal Distribution of Wealth

Of the main causes of poverty in Central America, unequal distribution of wealth is by far the most consistent. The region has seen periods of boom and bust since the end of World War II, yet the vast difference in wealth distribution remained unchanged for decades. If wealth inequality remains the same, the only way to reduce poverty is by raising incomes.

In this region, industry remains limited due to a lack of mineral and energy resources making factory jobs scarce while agriculture still dominates. These factors make it increasingly difficult for citizens to gain increased incomes; however, an adjustment to wealth inequality may not increase incomes, but it does reduce poverty.

From 2008 to 2014, there was a period of decreasing wealth inequality due to a rise in minimum wage. This change led to an almost doubling of the middle class, and with formal employment, millions were able to ascend classes and overall statistics improved, including a 65 percent decrease in infant mortality. Yet, despite these promising changes, the region remains the most unequal region in the world for prohibiting the decline of poverty.

 

Gangs and Drug Violence

One of the largest setbacks faced by Central America is the success of gangs and the drug trade. Many of the Central American countries are referred to as “transit countries” as they transport cocaine and other drugs from South to North America. With the increase of drug trafficking, there has also been an increase in organized crime brought about by competition between trafficking groups as well as the governments of the countries they operate within.

Instead of putting money into social programs which could alleviate poverty, the government must use resources to fight against these illegal activities and violence. The effects of the drug trade and organized violence can be seen in the number of children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador found in Mexico attempting to flee their home countries. This number reached 16,000 in the first few months of 2016.

These main causes of poverty in Central America are certainly problematic, but all hope is not lost. These countries have made significant improvements in different areas in recent years and will continue to do so in the address of the most pressing problems. With foreign aid and government cooperation, these countries can move past these issues and put the lives of their citizens first.

– Megan Burtis

Photo: Flickr