How can we turn the tide in Central America?


By Vicki Gass, Oxfam America

The challenges Central American migrants face on the journey north to the US mirrors the very same conditions that forced them to flee in the first place:  extortion, gang and sexual violence, xenophobia impoverishment, and criminalization.

Fundamentally, these drivers of forced migration are symptoms of larger structural factors: absent governments, non-existent rule of law, and pervasive corruption and impunity. Perhaps the only difference is the hope that migrants bring with them when they leave home: that life might be better if and when they reach their destination.

That hope is now being undermined from all sides. And if the Trump Administration follows through on its threat to cut foreign aid to Central America, it will only make the situation worse—provoking even greater instability and, consequently, more forced migration.

The hidden nightmare

Central Americans that make the 2000-kilometer migrant journey north are often victims of assaults, robbery and kidnapping by criminal gangs as well as police and immigration officials. Migrants on “La Bestia”, the train that carries people to the border, are extorted by gangs who threaten to throw them off the train if unable to pay a “toll.” Police, migration officials and cartel members demand bribes before allowing migrants to pass certain check points.

If you can’t pay, you risk being kidnapped and held for ransom until family members in the US pay up, or they are forced into drug running or prostitution if the ransom can’t be paid. The March 3, 2019, NYT article “’You have to Pay with Your Body’: The Hidden Nightmare of Sexual Violence on the Border” , for example, painfully describes the stories of women raped on both sides of the US-Mexican border, who paid with their bodies.

In Central America the saying amongst small- to medium-size business owners is “pay to sell”—you pay the extortionists what they demand in order to be able to sell your goods.  A recent Insight Crime/Global Initiative Report, “A Criminal Culture: Extortion in Central America” states that extortion by gangs is so rampant that it is a “normalized fact of life.” You pay with your life if you refuse or are unable to pay.

This violence along the migrant journey and in Central America is, by now, well known. Who can forget the brutal murder of 72 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in 2010 in Tamaulipas, Mexico? Or that last year, homicides in Mexico reached a record 33,341 while over 37,000 people remain missing—attributed to the ongoing drug war—affecting Mexicans as well as migrants.  Some describe Latin America as the deadliest region in the world, with seven of the countries in the region producing more homicides in the last 20 years than the Afghani, Iraqi, Syrian and Yemini wars combined.   The Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—and Mexico are four of those seven countries. Just last week, for example, 25 violent deaths occurred in Honduras in less than 24 hours.

This violence impacts women differently along the migrant journey and in their home countries.  The Northern Triangle is one of the most dangerous regions for women and girls. Just last week, the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported that 117 women have been assassinated this year alone, nearly one a day. In Honduras, the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras estimates that at least one woman is murdered every 17 hours.  Girls and young women are victims of sexual violence by gang members if family members are unwilling or unable to pay the extortion rates. As in all levels of violence that occurs in the region, the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.

And then there is the grueling, grinding poverty.  Nearly one in five Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans live on less than $1.90 a day, and the World Bank reports that nearly 80 percent of the population under the age of 15 in Honduras and El Salvador live in poverty. People leave with what little money and few possessions they have, only to have them stolen on the migrant journey. If a smuggler was paid, the family may incur even greater debt and face greater danger if the debt cannot be repaid.  

Ending the injustice of poverty

We can deplore the human rights conditions in these countries. We can condemn the failed deterrence polices of this Administration. We can offer policy arguments for why aid should be continued. Or we can hand out food and hygiene kits as Oxfam has done since the first migrant caravan left Honduras last October.  

But the proverbial elephant in the region that must be addressed if we are really going to crack these drivers of out migration and challenges along the migrant route are the weak rule of law, corruption and impunity.  Corrupt officials redirect public resources and craft regulations and tax laws for private self- interest, increasingly concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. In El Salvador, for example, the richest 20 percent of the population owns almost 50 percent of the national income while in Honduras, less than 1 percent of mining revenues go to the communities most affected by extractive industries. The endemic corruption and widespread impunity have robbed government institutions’ ability to reduce poverty and inequality, reduce violence and create decent, sustainable jobs.

Government officials have supported anti-corruption efforts in Central America with US tax dollars, but this is waning under the current administration.  This is a mistake. Strengthening the rule of law and combatting the corruption and impunity at the highest levels so public resources are used for the social good will make the decision of people who make the dangerous trek north a choice rather than a need.  

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