Why are so many minors fleeing Central America for the U.S. border?

Gang violence drives dangerous journey

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Lawmakers continue to grapple this week with solutions to the crisis on the US southern border, where a mass of unaccompanied minors have flooded the border to escape what the White House has called “an urgent humanitarian crisis”.  

Since 2012, the southern U.S. border has processed a growing number of unaccompanied children from three countries in Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. 

Why are so many children fleeing their homelands?

These countries make up a region known as the “Northern Triangle,” where gangs and drug-trafficking organizations have gained power as states have weakened.

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service identified two groups, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street) as the most active gangs in the region. 

Graphic: Elizabeth Scheltens, Scripps News


Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post reporter who covered the civil and drug wars in Central and South America and now works as a national security consultant, writes that sources in the Northern Triangle estimate that transnational drug-trafficking organizations such as Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha control between a quarter and half of the land in the Northern Triangle.

Security experts like Farah and Steven Dudley, director of the research group InSight Crime, note that U.S. immigration policy is partly to blame for the rise of these groups in Central America. In the 1980s, thousands of migrants fled the Northern Triangle to escape brutal civil wars. They settled in cities like Los Angeles, and formed 18th Street and MS-13 to counter the dominance of the established Mexican-American gangs. Immigration legislation passed in the U.S. in the 1990s led to a surge in deportations of Central American gang members. 

The weak Northern Triangle governments couldn’t handle the influx of deportees. Overcrowding and violence plagued the prison system in El Salvador, where officials decided to separate the members of rival gangs. InSight Crime’s Dudley writes that the separation only seems to have increased the gangs’ capacity to organize.

The increasing power and prominence of these gangs has made the Northern Triangle one of the world's most dangerous places to live. A recent U.S. report shows that murder rates in these countries are among the highest in the world. 

Data show that in Honduras, for example, more than 30 percent of homicides are related to gang and organized crime activity, although spotty reporting on the part of police departments makes such assessments problematic.

A recent report by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense highlighted the cases of several unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the United States from gang violence. Here are a few excerpts from the report:

  • An immigration judge held that a fourteen-year-old Guatemalan girl endured persecution when gang members forced her into their car at gunpoint and threatened to harm her if she reported them to the police. Shortly after this incident, she witnessed gang members kidnap two girls from her school who were later found dead.
  • An immigration judge found that a Salvadoran boy was “hounded at school by the gang members . . . and was personally threatened with death” The boy witnessed gang members threaten and badly beat his brother, all while under the age of eleven. Nevertheless, the judge ruled that he did not suffer past persecution.
  • Despite Edgar Chocoy’s credible testimony that gang members would kill him if he were sent back to Guatemala, an immigration judge denied his claim due to his activities as a former gang member. Seventeen days after he arrived in Guatemala, Edgar was murdered by the gang members he feared.


For those children who happen to live in places where these gangs are most powerful, the risky journey to the U.S. border is a dangerous but preferable alternative to abuse at the hands of these groups.



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