Op-Ed

Central American migrants easy prey for criminal gangs

Two children on a road in Honduras are questioned by police to find out if they are victims of people smuggling to the U.S.
Two children on a road in Honduras are questioned by police to find out if they are victims of people smuggling to the U.S. MCT

They come across in rafts, in buses, hidden in cars or walking along remote paths — and some wind up in brothels or worse in towns along Mexico’s 720-mile southern border. Mostly young and mostly poor, they are another “product” to be smuggled north toward the United States by organized crime networks.

Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from Central America are caught in a dangerous web — where they face kidnapping, extortion, sexual exploitation and other violent crimes. Yet they still risk the journey, as many feel they have no alternatives.

Governments across the region — namely, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. — must work together on policies to ensure that there are better alternatives. In the meantime, they should guarantee those fleeing violence the opportunity to seek asylum through fair and efficient procedures.

The United States took one step on Tuesday by expanding some of the programs to assist those who have legitimate claims to asylum because of the violence they face in their communities. They also will allow some most at risk to travel to Costa Rica where UNHCR will help while the still exhaustive U.S. review takes place. However, it remains very small, likely to only apply to 200 over six months.

While important, the reality is that the problem is far larger and the U.S. has subcontracted to Mexico the burden of coping with the lion’s share of the 400,000 Central Americans who migrated north last year. However, it has not matched that assignment with greater support for asylum claims to be heard, for shelter and help with integration for growing numbers who are granted refuge in Mexico.

When President Barack Obama and Mexican President Peña Nieto met in Washington last Friday, they discussed the migration challenge but announced no significant or specific new actions. The lack of progress is perhaps not surprising in an election year when the issue of immigration has been a lightning rod. Both Obama and Peña Nieto rejected Donald Trump’s proposed new wall along the border as unwise and ineffective.

However, more urgent action is required.

Tougher border control, with the U.S. deporting 75,000 last year and Mexico turning back more than double that number along its southern border, has the unintended consequence of strengthening criminal gangs and the corrupt officials who look the other way. By making the passage more difficult, the gangs can charge more, extort more and take their pound of flesh at will.

Desperate to leave an El Salvador that last year had the highest homicide rate of any country not at war, or Honduras which had the title a year earlier, migrant families risk the dangers to take their chances with the smugglers. The combined murder rate in the Northern Triangle is more than triple the rate in Mexico and well over ten times that of the U.S.

The International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that works to prevent deadly conflict, has just issued a report urging the U.S. and Mexico to stop treating what is now in large part a violence-driven refugee crisis as if it were still solely an economic migration problem.

Analysts interviewed migrants on both sides of the Mexico-Guatemala border for the report, “Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Violence”. They heard stories like those of Cindy, a 23 year-old from San Pedro Sula, in northwestern Honduras, who walked all night through the brambles of the border, determined to find work either in Mexico or the U.S. so she can get her children away from the local gangs who recruit kids as young as 6 or 7 as lookouts.

A UN study last year of Central American and Mexican women seeking asylum found that 64% had been targeted by direct threats or attacks, or had lost a close relative to violence.

The Northern Triangle migration routes overlap with the drug trafficking corridors that carry cocaine from Colombia or via Venezuela. So it is not surprising that many of the smugglers are either controlled or taxed by cartels like the Zetas in Guatemala and Mexico, or home-grown organized crime networks that also dominate human trafficking operations. The most vulnerable are unaccompanied children or those traveling with their mothers, adolescents and single women. The sex industry along the Guatemala-Mexico border is largely supplied by migrants, especially adolescents.

One way the U.S. could help Mexico shoulder the migration burden would be to offer direct financial aid to Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance to evaluate asylum petitions and to provide alternatives to detention for families seeking refuge to remain together while their cases are heard. Another would be to work with humanitarian agencies and community organizations to protect migrants who have been victims or witnessed violent crime, abuse or corruption so they can testify against their abusers.

Both Mexico and the U.S. should adopt a policy of not deporting minors until safe return can be guaranteed. That will require Mexico to offer more humanitarian visas for more Central Americans who reach that country and the U.S. to extend Temporary Protected Status to those in the U.S. , starting with minors, who fear a return to violent neighborhoods in the Northern Triangle.

Finally, more needs to be done to change the conditions that push citizens from the Northern Triangle to flee, particularly to address gang violence, corruption and pervasive inequality. President Obama’s Central American Alliance for Prosperity development program is a wise investment, but it should be extended for at least five years, with resources conditioned on Northern Triangle countries making policy changes that address both impunity and inequality.

These steps would be far more acceptable and effective over the long term than building a high wall along the U.S-Mexico border.

Mark Schneider is senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. He is a former director of the Peace Corps and past head of Latin America for USAID.

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