Gangs and poverty triggering mass child exodus from Central America to US

Asylum requests by Salvadorans claiming violence are higher than when country was at war

A child from Honduras at an immigrant shelter in Mexico.
A child from Honduras at an immigrant shelter in Mexico.JORGE DAN LÓPEZ (REUTERS)

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are in the eye of the storm. The wave of underage migrants trying to reach the United States has put the Obama administration in a tight spot, but it has also uncovered the desperation of thousands of people.

The massive exodus is being fueled by poverty and violence, which is intensified by the presence of the maras, the Central American street gangs.

Some specialists view the trend as a case of forcible displacement caused by high crime rates. Guatemala and El Salvador illustrate the gravity of the situation: the number of asylum requests by Salvadorans claiming violence is already higher than back when the region was mired in civil war. And in Guatemala, the homicide rate has grown 70 percent in one year.


Many families in El Salvador have been forced to leave their homes from one day to the next, without any planning. They move to another part of the country and send their children abroad to save their lives. There is no longer a war like the one that pitted the army against left-wing guerrillas in the 1980s. Instead, this relentless conflict is waged between street gangs, who have been the scourge of the nation for the last 20 years.

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Poverty used to be the main driver of immigration flows north. “The forced migration of children, teens and youths to Mexico and the US in search of better opportunities is an old trend, but in recent years the increased violence has contributed to intensifying it,” says Jeannette Aguilar, an expert on violence issues.

“There are no hard facts, yet we know that these waves of forced displacement from Central America to northern countries are closely associated with the brutal violence being committed by organized crime, especially the gangs,” adds Aguilar, who is head of the University Institute of Public Opinion at the Jesuit-run Central American University (UCA). This institute has been analyzing local violence for the last two decades.

El Salvador, with a population of 6.3 million according to official data, has GDP of around $43 billion and per capita income of just under $3,800 a year. Poverty affects 29 percent of the population. It is the fourth-most-dangerous country in the world, with a homicide rate of more than 40 per 100,000 inhabitants and growing. That is 12 homicides a day.

Aguilar feels that youths are “the main targets of many of these groups, especially the gangs, who because of their greater control over the territory in many communities, have increased their violence against youngsters.” Young people are the ones who die in gang wars, and they are the ones pressured into joining them.

“Parents are trying to save their children, and even though they know about the danger of the journey to the US border, they would rather take that risk than let the maras kill them or recruit them,” says Anita Zelaya, director of the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Migrants from El Salvador.

Parents would rather risk the journey than let the maras kill or recruit their children”

The situation has reached such a point that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reopened a local office that was closed after the civil war ended in 1992.

The El Salvador government is in talks with the US administration to deal with the problem. The former would like to see measures that tackle security issues but also economic growth and cooperation. “We are going to adopt some short-term measures,” says Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez. “We are going to launch an awareness campaign to tell people about the risks of migration. There will also be tougher measures against people traffickers and improved readmission mechanisms for returnees.”


Meanwhile, in Guatemala, thousands of children are making their way to the United States, driven by extreme poverty, crime and the dream of family reunification.

In 2013, a child under five died every two hours of preventable causes such as diarrhea or pneumonia. Yet Guatemala is the Central American country that invests the least in children and teenagers. While Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua earmark over six percent of GDP to minors, Guatemala only invests 3.1 percent. This, in a country where 48 percent of the population is made up of children and teens.

“The state is co-perpetrator of this extermination through the systems of exclusion and inequality […]. Every two days a child dies of malnutrition, while an undetermined number suffer chronic malnutrition that stunts their physical and cognitive development,” reads a report on the state of Guatemala’s children published by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric of Guatemala (ODHAG).

Guatemala is the Central American country that invests the least in children and teenagers

Meanwhile, economic rights are faring no better. The bishops’ report notes that six out of 10 working minors suffer workplace exploitation, with 82 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls denied access to social security.

“The only thing our economic model does is maintain poverty levels,” notes the analyst Gustavo Berganza. “Since 2001 the economy has grown an average 3.4 percent, while demographic growth has been 2.4 percent. There isn’t even a remote possibility of reducing poverty in these conditions.”

Guatemala is not an attractive country for investors: the average worker is malnourished, unqualified and lacks a quality education. Effecting change is difficult in a country with the lowest taxes on the continent where any attempts at reform are vigorously rejected by the country’s economic powers.

Meanwhile, the homicide rate among males aged 13 to 29 grew 70 percent in one year, up from 29.9 per 100,000 inhabitants to 42.2 in 2013.

The government argues that these children are migrating by themselves in a bid to be reunited with their parents. But whatever the case may be, these families’ vulnerability allows people-trafficking rings to run a profitable business.

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