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The crisis of child migration

Central America migration is a humanitarian issue, but it has been caught up in the illegal immigration debate, argues Robert Muggah.

By: /
22 August, 2014
Robert Muggah
By: Robert Muggah

Co-founder, Igarapé Institute; research director, SecDev Foundation

They are usually given the choice to leave immediately or stay, and be killed. Central America´s desperate, or deseperados, are fleeing their homes in record numbers. This year alone more than 60,000 undocumented children already made the perilous trek from the northern triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – to the United States.

The scale of the displacement crisis is staggering. U.S. customs officials picked-up 17,500 unaccompanied children from Honduras, 15,700 from Guatemala and 14,500 from El Salvador this year. There were just 3,000 from all three countries combined in 2009.

Many of these children are now in limbo, interned in 100 shelters scattered along the US-Mexico border. They join an estimated 11.7 million pool of “illegals” who negotiated extreme hardship in pursuit of a better life.

The massive surge in “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs) was first characterized by the White House as a humanitarian situation. And with good reason – there has been a sharp increase in under-12 year olds crossing the border. The United Nations refugee agency documented a 712% increase in asylum applications from the northern triangle over the past five years.

Not surprisingly, President Obama’s political adversaries quickly conflated the recent arrivals with the wider issue of illegal immigration. Owing to 2008 legislation designed to prevent child trafficking, the UACs cannot be deported without due process in the courts. Some politicians are concerned that the law is in fact stimulating migration.

One of Obama’s most vocal critics, Texan Governor Rick Perry, has repeatedly accused the President of lip service and empty promises. Perry recently authorized 1,000 National Guard to “secure” the border, though few observers believe this amounts to more than a symbolic gesture. Meanwhile, comprehensive immigration reform is stalled in U.S. Congress.

There are signs that President Obama is adopting a harder line. Last month he asked U.S. Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with crisis, including $1.8 billion to care for the children, $995 million to detain and deport them and another $822 million to shore-up law enforcement capacities in Central America. Rights activists fear that this heavy-handed approach will only make matters worse.

Virtually everyone agrees that the present child migration crisis was a long time in the making. After all, the northern triangle registers the world’s highest violent death rates, and Honduras leads the pack. With a homicide rate of 187 murders per 100,000 residents, San Pedro Sula, the Honduras’ second city, is the most dangerous on the planet. Meanwhile, El Salvador and Guatemala’s capitals are not far behind, with murder rates exceeding those of Afghanistan or Syria.

Although Central America’s last civil war ended in the 1990s, many of its cities are affected by warfare in all but name. The violence is propelled by a combination of transnational gangs, drug trafficking and weak law enforcement. Rival gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 (M18) run extortion rackets, child prostitution rings, and hire themselves out as assassins. And they are recruiting heavily from poorer neighborhoods throughout the region.

Regional links

While seldom discussed in Washington D.C., Central America’s displacement catastrophe was manufactured in the U.S. The explosion in gang violence can be at least partly attributed to U.S. deportation policies, beginning with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996. Gangs like MS13 and M18 can be traced to California since many of their original members were the sons of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran refugees.

U.S. authorities authorized more than 150,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Central America since 2000, with significant increases over the last few years. About 90% of those deported were shipped to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The recent escalation of deportations from the U.S. coincides with a massive surge in criminal violence and exodus of adolescents and children from the northern triangle.

Measures intended to dismantle gangs during the 1990s and 2000s backfired, spreading once localized “cliques” based in Los Angeles to most countries in Central America. Some of them began working with Colombian and Mexican cartels to shift cocaine, and today, MS13 and M18 operate in 40 US states. Others began consolidating their power and influence at home.

U.S.-led deportations also unintentionally short-circuited Central America’s dilapidated penal system. Instead of rehabilitating and reintegrating convicted felons, the region’s hellish and over-crowded prisons now incubate criminal networks. Locals refer to them as “crime colleges” since the penitentiaries and jails are frequently run by veteran gang leaders.

There are at least 70,000 hard-core gang members distributed across Central America, but no one knows for certain. El Salvador’s Justice Ministry estimates that as many as 600,000 Salvadorians – out of a population of 6.3 million – are somehow involved in the gang business. Regardless of how many they number, the region´s gangs now operate as franchises with outlets spreading from Argentina to Alaska.

With some exceptions, Central American governments typically pursued iron fist, or mano dura, approaches to putting down the gangs. In 2003, El Salvador mounted its first campaign with Honduras and Guatemala quickly following suit. Local politicians advocated harsh prison sentences for kids as young as nine and sent out their armies to hunt down anyone with incriminating tattoos. Not surprisingly, prison populations soared.

According to crime specialist Steven Dudley, “[Central American] gangs are emboldened by elites and their government operatives who are bleeding these nations dry.” Few governments are taking responsibility for the crisis, according to Arturo Matuto who oversees a local organization in Guatemala. “The only serious social program to have a positive impact on preventing violence – a scheme to keep schools open during the evenings and weekends – was abandoned by the government”.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government also provides military, policing and development assistance to all three countries, launching the Central American Regional Security Initiative in 2008. The program has directed more than $800 million toward fighting the gang menace, but with few concrete results to show for its efforts. In 2012 the U.S. went one step further and declared the M18 an “international criminal organization.”

Although simmering for years, the sheer dimensions of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Central America are only now coming to light. Aid organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and World Vision are finally sounding the alarm. Faith-based groups are trying to provide food and shelter. But it is obvious to all of them that Band-Aid solutions are not enough.

More than three quarters of the minors pouring into the U.S. come from a handful of poor and violent cities in just three countries in the northern triangle. Meanwhile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, while experiencing their own crime waves, are vastly safer. The solution to the migration crisis will require major investments to strengthen safety, reduce impunity, and eradicate grinding poverty at home.

At the very least, the option to be killed or take flight must be taken off the table.

An earlier version of this story appeared on

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