Overlooked War: Why Central American Refugees are Fleeing to the U.S.


Jamie Stark • Contributing Writer

When dusk pulls over the mountains outside the small town of San José Las Mesas, El Salvador, all is peaceful. Or at least, it seems that way.

It’s hard to believe the violence that happens under these calm skies, in the small farming towns like San José Las Mesas and in the big cities crowded with marketplaces and belching school buses. But in many neighborhoods here in El Salvador, residents can’t be outside after sunset, an unofficial but deadly curfew set by controlling gangs.

One October night in 2014, at around midnight, three gang members arrive at a small house made of corrugated sheet metal and palm tree fronds. Inside, Veronica lives with her two young children. She’s a spiritual woman who sometimes wears a white headcover like many evangelical Christian women in Central America. To provide for her family, she sells vegetables house to house, carrying her goods in a bucket on her head.

In Central America's rural areas, stalled economies and few job opportunities make it easy for gangs to oppress families. Photo by Agatha Bacelar.

While working, many Salvadorans are approached by gang members and asked for “rent” money—forced payments to the gang in exchange for protection by and from the gang themselves. Tonight, they’ve come to Veronica’s house to collect.

“They are bad men. I saw the number one, and I saw the number eight on his mouth,” Veronica says, referring to gang tattoos for Barrio 18, one of the area’s two rival gangs.

One of the men puts a foot on her older son’s back to keep him on the ground. Others beat up Veronica, and cut her hair with a knife before sexually abusing her in front of her children. They then leave the house, making their message clear: pay up, or else.

Countless casualties of the violence

Two rival gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, protect their territory, street by street, across cities and small towns in much of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the region in Central America known as the Northern Triangle.

The street gangs, mostly young men under 30, have grown to assume control of neighborhoods like a quasi-government, oppressing their countrymen. Those who don’t hand over money are often killed.

In a place where gang affiliation may mean survival for you and your family, it’s not difficult to understand how these organizations thrive. Young boys are at extreme risk, as many are drafted into gangs to serve as informants and make deliveries. Veronica has seen boys as young as eight given guns.

In the past, gangs tried to recruit Veronica’s eldest son, a teenager at the time who was able to flee to safety in the United States. After this attack, Veronica feared the gangs would come for her youngest sons, ages nine and five at the time. She felt she had no option but to run.

In this photo, people cross the border between Guatemala and Mexico by raft. According to the UNHCR, gang violence in the Northern Triangle contributed to a 41% increase in refugees fleeing the region. Photo by Agatha Bacelar.

Nothing new, migration is often an act of survival

Ninety-five percent of homicides in the Northern Triangle region go unsolved and unprosecuted. Such impunity rates embolden criminal activity and erode citizen trust in police and government institutions. Death waits around every corner, and there’s no one to turn to for protection. Staying means hiding in other communities, but the network of 85,000 gang members in the region means it is nearly impossible to stay undiscovered.

After Veronica’s devastating attack by Barrio 18, she made the decision to flee. The gangs already killed her 22-year-old brother-in-law, and in the last year, an 11-year-old neighbor. If anyone knew she had survived the attack, she was certain they’d come back for her, too.

The family took a bus to the capital city, San Salvador, where her brother helped them board another bus over the border to Guatemala.

“We couldn’t live there anymore,” she says. “When you escape like that you no longer exist.”

It took the family six weeks to hitchhike their way north through Guatemala and Mexico. They slept in gas stations, sometimes going for three days without food. In December 2014, Veronica arrived at the U.S. border and handed herself over to border patrol. Today she and her family are staying with relatives in California’s Central Valley, awaiting judgment on their asylum application that determines whether they can stay in the U.S.

Thousands of families suffer daily persecution and fear

Veronica’s story is a common one. One in four Salvadorans and up to 70 percent of small businesses in the country suffer extortion at the hands of gangs. Gang members show up demanding a “collaboration” and threaten to kill those and their families who don’t pay. The threats are seldom reported to police, as few of such crimes go investigated.

Up to 70% of small businesses in El Salvador face extortion by gangs. Photo by Agatha Bacelar.

This summer, the number of migrant families crossing the border into the U.S. is expected to increase. Thousands of individuals are leaving their homes in Central America, many fleeing a situation that looks like war. Rival gang factions battle police and each other for territory in the Northern Triangle.

Since the 1980s, 10 percent of residents in the region have emigrated, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Many fled the civil war and reside in the U.S. as permanent residents or through TPS, a temporary protection program for those fleeing natural disaster or civil war.

But disaster strikes every day across the Northern Triangle. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are three of the world’s five most dangerous countries. The smallest of the three, El Salvador has the highest homicide rate of any country in the last 20 years, according to the World Bank, with a death toll averaging 18 murders a day.

Thousands of families suffer the same effects of open warfare in other places. But the violence in the Northern Triangle does not look like a traditional war, and therefore U.S. policy and attitudes fail to view many immigrants from the region as refugees of violence or worthy of asylum.

Raids meant to deter, but some migrants still flee from fear

Right now the U.S. government is conducting its largest-yet raid of Central American immigrants, which ultimately could send dozens of families straight back to the same violence they fled. They are families who never had an opportunity to apply for asylum or had inadequate legal representation. Not all entered illegally – many of these individuals, hoping for asylum from violence at home, presented themselves at the border.

Such arrests and raids are intended to deter others from heading north. But most, like Veronica and her family, feel they have no choice. For those most oppressed by criminals, the only options are heartbreaking: stay and be killed, live in hiding and fear, or attempt the dangerous journey for a new home.

The UNHCR reports that in 2015 there were 54,877 new asylum applications submitted in North and Central America by individuals from the Northern Triangle region. Photo by Agatha Bacelar.

Everyone is affected

In south Texas, three hours’ drive from the border, attorney Barbara Hines regularly represents clients like Veronica. She helps people fleeing war-like terror to apply for the right to a safe existence in the U.S.

Amid the government’s latest wave of family raids, Barbara and her colleagues have been working feverishly to save mothers and their children who have been slated for deportation. Barbara tells the story of a four-year-old client she represented, along with his mother.

“Why don’t you want to go back to El Salvador?” Hines asks the boy in Spanish.

“I’m afraid of the gang members,” he says. He saw them when he and his mother were robbed at gunpoint back in El Salvador. He holds up tiny fingers in the shape of a gun. “They kill.”

Many families who reach the U.S. present themselves to border patrol, only to be denied asylum and deported back to the extreme violence they fled. Photo by Agatha Bacelar.

What's Next?

  • Read Marshall Fitz's essay about the flawed strategy behind immigrant deportation
  • Read the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' call for action in response to the Central American refugee crisis
  • Watch a video explainer about the refugee crisis from the Center for American Progress