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September 20, 2019

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Conflict in Central America: Why thousands flee their homeland in search of a safer existence


Felix Marquez / AP

Central American migrants rest during the annual Migrant Stations of the Cross caravan or “Via crucis,” organized by the “Pueblo Sin Fronteras” activist group, inside a sports center during the group’s few-days stop in Matias Romero, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Monday, April 2, 2018. A Mexican government official said the caravans are tolerated because migrants have a right under Mexican law to request asylum in Mexico or to request a humanitarian visa allowing travel to the U.S. border to seek asylum in the United States.

The influence of gangs

There are an estimated 70,000 gang members in the Northern Triangle according to the U.N. and U.S. Southern Command. The majority of the members are MS 13 or Barrio 18 and most active in Honduras, especially in the nation’s capital, Tegucigalpa, as well as Guatemala and El Salvador. On June 11, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a 31-page decision excluding domestic and gang violence from asylum claims.

Before the Trump administration enacted a zero-tolerance policy, thousands of Latinos had already left their homes in Central America to begin the trek to the U.S. The journey through cartel-controlled states in Mexico is safer than what they face in Central America’s Northern Triangle, comprised of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. With Nicaragua to the south, this geographic area accounts for many of the asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, there were more than 8,900 asylum claims filed by individuals from this region, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The borders of these four countries foster political instability plagued by violence, weak or corrupt governments and poverty, all exacerbated by natural disasters, guerilla warfare, street gangs and the drug trade, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Here are just a few of the main factors contributing to each country’s unrest.


• Immigration status in the U.S.: Guatemalan citizens do not have temporary protected status (TPS), but more than 3,300 Guatemalans have claimed asylum.

Why the region is destabilized:

• Warfare: Lasting from 1960 to 1996, almost 200,000 people disappeared or were killed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. The U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission reported that 83 percent of those individuals were indigenous Maya, and the majority of human rights violations were carried out by government forces. As of 2017, more than 242,000 Guatemalans were still refugees or internally displaced because of the civil war and ongoing drug cartel and gang violence.

• Drug Trade: Drug trafficking groups called transportistas take advantage of Guatemala’s poverty-stricken people and corrupt government to operate from the nation.

• Weak/Corrupt Government: Guatemala’s leading anti-drug investigator and his aides were arrested in the U.S. on charges of drug trafficking in 2005. The nation has a long history of authoritarian governments, with its most modern roots in the 1950s when the CIA supported a coup d’état against the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz. The U.S. viewed Arbenz as a communist threat and helped Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, laying the foundation for the nation’s civil war. In 2007, three Salvadoran Central American Parliament members went to Guatemala for a meeting with other regional delegates. When they entered the country, they were murdered. Their bodies were found burnt on the side of the road. Guatemalan authorities arrested four police officers, according to InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin and Caribbean nations

• Poverty: While it’s Central America’s most populous country, the nation has about half the average GDP of other Latin American and Caribbean nations, according to the CIA. Additionally, the nation has one of the most unequal wealth distributions globally.


• Immigration status in the U.S.: 86,000 will lose their TPS status Jan. 5, 2020.

Why the region is destabilized:

• Natural Disasters In Oct. 1998, Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest hurricane in the Western hemisphere in 200 years, hit Honduras’ shores, leaving more than 11,000 people dead and causing $5 billion worth of damages in Honduras and surrounding countries, including Nicaragua.

• Drug Trade: Honduras is located in the key geographic position separating the South American countries of Colombia and Venezuela from the north. In 2009, Colombian drug traffickers changed their routes to run through Honduras, turning the nation into a key handoff spot between Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers, according to InSight Crime.

• Violence: As of 2017, there were 190,000 refugees and internally displaced Hondurans because of violence, extortion, threats or forced recruitment by urban gangs, according to CIA. The nation has one of the highest rates of femicide globally, with one woman killed every 13.8 hours. In 2000, more than 1,000 street children were murdered by death squads that had police backing, according to the Honduran Committee for the Defence of Human Rights.

• Weak/Corrupt Government: Between 1932-1949, General Tiburcio Carias Andino led the nation’s right-wing National party of Honduras under a 17-year dictatorship. During the 1980s, the executive office remained politically weak with Chief General Gustavo Álvarez wielding considerable power. Under Álvarez’s direction, many Hondurans disappeared and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Honduran government guilty of those disappearances. The 2009 coup of President Manuel Zelaya exacerbated instability in Honduras, and the nation continues to struggle with a strong military shaping its politics.

• Poverty Honduras is the second poorest country in Central America.


• Immigration status in the U.S.: 5,300 Nicaraguans will lose their TPS status on Jan. 5, 2019.

Why the region is destabilized:

• Natural Disasters: Hurricane Mitch wreaked havoc on Nicaragua, along with several other natural disasters, including the 1972 Managua earthquake, the floods of 1982, Hurricane Joan-Miriam in 1988, the eruption of Cerro Negro volcano in 1992 and Hurricane Cesar-Douglas in 1996. These natural disasters caused millions to become homeless, thousands of deaths and billions of dollars worth of damages.

• Warfare: The Cold War-era Sandinista-Contra conflict defined Nicaragua—Guerilla groups found it easy to recruit poor and middle-class locals.

• Drug Trade: Nicaragua’s coastlines and its islands help traffickers move drugs through the nation to the U.S. Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel is the largest transnational criminal organization to have power in the country. Drug robbers known as tumbadores have taken advantage of the flow of drugs, often stealing shipments, according to InSight Crimes. The nation’s large forrest reservation also makes it target for timber trafficking.

• Poverty: Nicaragua suffers from underemployment and is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, according to the CIA.

El Salvador

• Immigration status in the U.S.: 262,500 El Salvadorans will lose their TPS status on Sept. 9, 2019.

Why the region is destabilized:

• Natural Disasters In 2001, El Salvador received TPS status after the country suffered three earthquakes. The country is located on one of the most seismically active regions and is exposed to a variety of other natural disasters, including floods, volcanic eruptions, tropical storms and landslides.

• Warfare The El Salvadoran civil war started in 1980 between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, a coalition of leftist guerrilla groups, and the government, killing 75,000 during the 12-year war. El Salvador and Honduras have long battled over the boundaries their countries share. In 1992, the International Court of Justice ruled to establish new borders, which were inaugurated in 2006.

• Drug Trade The nation is relatively small, but it’s a key location for drug receiving and storage. Routes formerly used to transport cargo during the civil war are now used to transport drugs across borders.

• Gangs MS 13 and Barrio 18 are the dominant gangs in El Salvador. Their growth can be attributed to the nation’s poverty, its pre-existing culture of violence, access to weapons left from the civil war and the arrival of gang members from the U.S., according to InSight Crimes.

• Violence El Salvador’s government implemented years of tough anti-gang legislation, but the policy has had the opposite effect. The prisons were almost 350 percent over capacity as of 2016, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

• Weak/Corrupt Government: Between 2004 and 2008, MS 13 and Barrio 18’s battle for power spilled into overcrowding prison systems. Riots killed dozens and injured hundreds. The government now divides the gangs into separate prisons, but the large concentration of the same gang in one prison has helped with recruitment and retention.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.