CHICAGO — Around 60,000 Central American immigrant children have fled the poverty and violence that permeates their lives in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to find refuge in the United States. Due to rising crime and gang activity in many Central American countries, families have sent their children to trek across Mexico and find family members who already live in the U.S. But, the journey and the huge wave of new people take a toll on both the traveling children, and the country scrambling to receive them. Here’s a look at the conditions in their home countries that are causing many to flee, with information from the Human Rights Watch World Report of 2014 and the World Bank.
Guatemala suffers from powerful criminal organizations that stir up violence and intimidation to further their own political objectives. Mexican drug cartels, like Los Zetas, who have been operating since the late 1990s, rely on drug trafficking for 50 percent of their revenue, and use brutal tactics toward rivals and those who defy their control.
Transnational gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, which actually originated in Los Angeles but the majority of which live in Central America, are notorious for their violence. Some community members are frustrated with the lack of criminal enforcement against gang violence, and have resorted to their own forms of vigilantism. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman, 29 people were killed in lynchings from 2012 to February 2013.
President Otto Perez Molina, who was elected in 2011 and is a retired military officer, often uses the Guatemalan military in public security operations. The Guatemalan government has declared states of emergencies many times, which allows for the suspension of basic rights of its citizens. During these times, the military has been used to assist police in putting down public protests.
Of the crimes in Guatemala, 98 percent don’t result in prosecutions due to the lack of an effective witness protection system and corrupt judicial systems. In 2010, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported that 21 percent of children ages 5 to 14 were involved in child labor. This is contrary to the basic minimum age for work globally, which is 14. The government has failed to address issues of children being exploited in child pornography, organized crime and sexual tourism, much like its failure to address multiple human rights issues across many different areas of Guatemalan life.
After Honduras’s June 2009 military coup, the de facto government at the time suspended key civil liberties like freedom of the press and assembly. The military was then able to occupy any opposition media outlets, and responded to the mainly peaceful demonstrations with unnecessary and highly violent force.
Honduras’s murder rate is the highest in the world with a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000, and violence and threats against journalists, LGBT individuals and human rights defenders and activists is a common occurrence. Perpetrators of the violence and threats are rarely persecuted.
Not only are citizens violent, but police violence is also rampant. From January 2011 to November 2012, the police in Honduras killed 149 civilians, with 18 of these civilians under the age of 19, according to a report by Honduras’s National Autonomous University. Rural violence is also common. Over 90 people have been killed in the last few years because of land disputes in the Bajo Aguán Valley.
Finally, Congress passed legislation empowering itself to remove justices and the attorney general at will, after randomly dismissing four Supreme Court judges in December 2012. This allows the government to completely control the judicial system, and adds to the corruption in the country.
El Salvador follows closely after Honduras with the fourth highest murder rates in the world. In 2012, the country’s murder rate was 41.2 per 100,000. This is, however, an improvement from the country’s peak homicide rate in 2009 at 71 per 100,000. El Salvador suffered from a long and deadly civil war in the 1980s that left around 75,000 inhabitants dead, and didn’t end until the United Nations brokered a peace agreement in 1992. Just when the nation was starting to recover from war, they experienced multiple natural disasters, including Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in 2001, that left at least 1,200 dead.
In March 2012, El Salvador’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, announced a truce, and the country’s daily homicide rate plummeted by nearly 70 percent in the months that followed. But, in recent months the truce has been falling, and the El Salvadorian government reported in April this year that killings and attacks against the police have risen once again. In the first three months of 2014, the murder rate increased to about 8.9 killings per day.
The hardships that immigrant children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador face don’t end when they reach the United States. Many are transferred to border patrol stations, and then to military facilities in California, Texas, and Oklahoma while family ties in the U.S. get examined. If it turns out they don’t have existing family in the country, it’s not clear what will happen to the kids. Meanwhile, more children will continue to walk hundreds of miles to try and escape the violence in their countries.