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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 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

Gang Violence in HondurasSan Pedro Sula, Honduras is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Thus, organizations and local leaders are combating gang violence in Honduras by helping young people find and make their own families.One teenager skateboards with friends he considers brothers. Another works on diagramming a family tree. Others join in soccer

One teenager skateboards with friends he considers brothers. Another works on diagramming a family tree. Others join in soccer games, or hang out at recreation centers. These activities have the same goal: to prevent gang violence from becoming a way of life for the next generation.

In a country where the maras, or gangs, recruit kids as young as 12, it becomes of vital importance that teens and youth find love and support elsewhere.  They want these kids to find support in their friends, families, and neighborhoods.

In the interest of halting gang violence in Honduras, USAID has partnered with local citizens to open nearly 50 outreach centers. Teens can go there to learn computer skills, play musical instruments, and participate in sports. Some outreach centers, like Casa de la Esperanza (House of Hope), organize movie nights and other events. The U.S. has also supported the clearing and revitalizing of 10 abandoned soccer fields to prevent gang violence in Honduras.

Fun activities, when combined with a confident leader, can form stable, even familial, bonds. The best example of this may be Jesse Recinos, who founded the club Skate Brothers. Recinos was nearly killed at the age of 16 after being wrongly accused of stealing from a member of a rival gang. In the aftermath of the experience, he decided to change his own life, and the lives of others, by bringing at-risk youth together to do skateboarding, BMX, rollerblading and breakdancing.

The club is about more than just busting tricks, and Recinos is more than just an instructor. He invites the kids to his house for meals and meets with their school teachers. Recinos is intent on keeping “his guys” away from gang violence and crime. He is at once a teacher, parent, and big brother.

Some programs focus on strengthening trust and communication inside the home, such as Proponte Mas, which offers counseling sessions to teens and young adults who are at risk for joining gangs.

Over the course of a year, the counselors work to reconnect the youth with separated family members. The separations typically occur either because violence has ruptured lines of communication or because relatives have migrated elsewhere.  Extended families draw closer together, offering the youth a strong support system to fall back on.

Being part of a family, the teens learn, also means being accountable. They are encouraged to do their schoolwork and to ask permission before leaving the house. Activities like the family tree diagram help spark an interest in family history. They learn to identify themselves as part of their family before any other group.

Sometimes, accountability to a family goes hand-in-hand with being able to provide for a spouse and children. Proyecto METAS, a program sponsored by the Education Development Center, was founded to provide unemployed young people, particularly at-risk youth or those who had left gangs, with skills they can use in the workforce. By March of 2017, the program had reached 56,000 youth and created 4,000 jobs and internships.

Tragedy still strikes frequently. Children die. Families flee. Moreover, the killers continue to walk away with impunity.  Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 60 out of 100,000 residents become homicide victims. Rampant corruption among the police and the government means that only 4 percent of these crimes result in convictions.

The American Justice Society (AJS), a Christian nonprofit association, is committed to halting gang violence in Honduras by putting these murderers behind bars. Its teams consist of a lawyer, an investigator and a psychologist, and they assist the government in building homicide and sexual abuse cases. AJS connects victims and witnesses to officials who are trustworthy.

One of the biggest challenges in prosecuting homicides is getting witnesses to appear in court. Witnesses who speak out, particularly against gang members, risk becoming murder victims themselves. The organization says that it can take anywhere from four to 15 visits to convince a witness to testify.

Psychologists provide emotional support for the victims and witnesses and their families. They go over testimony with the witnesses and give them exercises to calm their fears. In cases of sexual abuse, the psychologists continue to work with victims and their families even after the trial is over.

As criminals are put behind bars, halting gang violence in Honduras is, even more, dependent on the country’s youth. For things to truly improve, programs must expand their scope and work with youth who are already gang members.

Those who fight for the protection of human rights must also be kept safe. The U.N. has recently opened a new human rights office in Honduras, and is working to improve relations between human rights workers and the government.

Journalist Sonia Nazario, in a Sunday opinion column for the New York Times, urged the U.S. to put pressure on Honduras to spend more of its budget on violence prevention. She also brought up the problem that much of the aid that the U.S. sets aside for Honduras becomes caught up in U.S. bureaucracy and does not reach the nonprofits and local citizens who need it. There is still work to do. However, at least for now, progress has been made.

Emilia Otte
Photo: Flickr