Blog post by Cherisse Lewis, a graduate student at the American University

U.S.-Mexico border relations are tense and increasingly challenging, and migration is a huge part of that. This piece will focus on folks from the Northern Triangle – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, who venture along treacherous paths, literally and figuratively, to seek a better life with new opportunities and relatively safe surroundings. Approximately 2.9 million Hondurans, 1 million Salvadorans, and 3.7 million Guatemalans are contending with the crisis of food insecurity and each year hundreds of thousands attempt to flee. Four in every ten people in Latin America and the Caribbean face hunger. To fathom why one would take the risks involved in fleeing to the U.S., one must understand the history of U.S. involvement that resulted in these countries’ strife.

The Northern Triangle countries have long histories of autocratic rule, weak institutions, and corruption. The region’s inequality and violence, in which the U.S. has long played a role, is driving people to leave their homes to seek refuge and opportunity. In El Salvador, after a coup resulted in a military-civilian junta, the U.S. government supported the junta even as its civilian members resigned, and it grew more violent. In Honduras, there was also a military coup in 2009, which the U.S. denounced but still supported the military which debilitated the citizens’ livelihood. Finally in Guatemala, a military coup overthrew the President and led to a civil war, with the U.S. aiding the culpable military. All interventions resulted in a tumultuous and violent era which have had long-lasting effects on its citizens. History shows that by backing military coups or support for civil wars, the U.S. government has only exacerbated the problematic conditions in these vulnerable countries.

Problems of corruption, violence, and weak institutions, also limit the governments’ abilities to respond to crises such as natural disasters and food insecurity. For example, ongoing corruption, particularly in Guatemala, has crippled its governments’ ability to provide social services. These services are meant to help people who cannot afford healthcare or food, assist with education needs and housing programs. When social services are limited in a society, chaos is bound to ensue and it’s where gangs tend to form and thrive.

Gangs in Northern Triangle

For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention have disrupted stability in the region, in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen. Many migrants face a lack of protection from gang violence and extortion in their home communities. Research has found that Salvadorans and Hondurans who have been victims of multiple crimes have significantly higher migration intentions than those who have not. Gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th street gang (M-18), frequently resort to violence while engaging in neighborhood turf wars to control local drug distribution, extortion, and other illicit activities. Presently, these gangs terrorize citizens and recruit youths to partake in criminal activity. Although the pandemic and government lockdowns initially disrupted criminal activities, reports suggest domestic violence increased and gangs and illicit trafficking groups quickly adapted to the changed circumstances. As a result, many residents are forced to flee. When community members feel safe and have the resources to prosper, they are less inclined to leave their countries through desperate means; a journey which typically involves trekking on foot across deserts and rivers for days and being subjected to human smugglers.

Interventions committed in these countries by the U.S. further explain the historical context that has diminished resources, caused tensions and other safety problems in the region. The United States often portrays these interventions as methods of humanitarian aid or quelling the spread of communism. It should be incumbent upon the U.S. government to remedy their wrongs committed in the countries. Both national and local governments should aim to build safer communities especially for marginalized and at-risk citizens. This centers women and youths as two of the most vulnerable groups to be taken advantage of or forced into illicit activities. Improving the safety, education and health can lead to better livelihoods, so people do not have to desperately seek these opportunities via migration.

What can the U.S. do now?

In general, governments in the Northern Triangle have adopted more aggressive law-enforcement approaches than other Central American countries. At the same time, these gangs terrorize citizens and recruit youths to partake in criminal activity.  I propose that the U.S. government should consider implementing U.S.-backed law enforcement and surveillance units in gang-stricken neighborhoods in these three principal countries. As the World Bank has noted, “high levels of crime and violence take a toll on development,” and addressing that violence perpetrated by gangs can help address the consequences of economic inequality and food insecurity that these citizens face. This strategy will aim to combat these crimes by finding its leaders and eliminating the primary source of illegal money, guns, and drugs. By using surveillance technology, law enforcement can monitor areas where gangs are known to operate which can help police target their efforts and track the movements of known gang members.

Through extensive research and familiarity with the regions, its history and current state, these next steps will likely reduce criminal violence and improve security in the region. Critics of my proposed solution have alluded that it could escalate violence between U.S. actors and the Latin American gang members. Understandably, our intelligence and security forces may have some hesitancy towards this plan but will have had prepared for such repercussions. Overall, while surveillance can be a useful tool in the fight against gangs, it is unlikely to be a complete solution on its own.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.