Behind High Walls: The Tragedy of America’s Forgotten Refugees

Photo: BBC

By Sydney Fernandez


As American discussion of border policy becomes frighteningly vitriolic, the desperate victims of Central America’s corrupt governments and bloodthirsty gangs continue to suffer unendingly. Trapped between extortion by Sicarios and corruption among officials, the death toll among migrants heading north climbs ever higher. Simultaneously, the walls towering over the American southern border loom taller and taller, condemning scores of increasingly helpless migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle to an impossible choice: hope to survive in the blood-soaked streets of their homelands, or attempt the perilous crossing of America’s fortress-like defenses.

The past decade has seen a substantial, if unceremonious, shift in the makeup of the migrant population crossing the U.S. southern border. Traditionally firm American border control policies were predicated on the fact that most migrants were traveling for economic opportunity; a more palatable reason for deportations in the minds of the American public. Now, an exceedingly high number of migrants are arriving in family units (1) and more and more are doing so to escape violence (2) rather than for economic opportunity. A report by the UNHCR compiled firsthand accounts by more than 160 women who tell soul-emptying stories of rape, extortion, forced disappearances, and the ongoing recruitment of children into transnational criminal enterprises. (3) Despite long-established principles of international law protecting individuals (especially children) fleeing across international borders from threats or acts of violence, exceedingly small numbers of asylum applications are accepted in Mexico or the US. (4)

Underpinning the substantial legal challenges facing families and minors traveling north from the Northern Triangle of Central America (or NTCA, consisting of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, three nations from which a substantial portion of Central American migrants originate) is a sinister and ruthless network of rival gangs known as “The Maras” which resulted from the period of political unrest that punctuated the early 1990’s in the Northern Triangle. As governments failed to provide social services to impoverished youths, an intricate system of racketeering and extortion became the lifeblood of helpless, overurbanized communities. However the Maras are far from a criminal empire, they are mired in poverty themselves, relying on the extortion of small businesses just to support their own families. Despite their precarious economic situation, the governments of the Northern Triangle have responded with heavy-handed policing programs that have accompanied sharp spikes in murder rates. (5)

Looking Ahead: Steps to Reducing Forced Migration

For the Governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador:

Reducing the likelihood of forced migration in the NTCA and alleviating the suffering of those displaced should be the primary focus of all actors, including the origin nations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as well as the destination countries of Mexico and the US, and the Maras themselves. All of these actors are partially complicit in the economic disparity or social conditions which have caused forced migration in such large numbers, and all have a role to play in the long-term stabilization of the region.

Governments of the NTCA should reduce their emphasis on “Mano Dura” policing tactics and focus on proven efforts to reduce violence through community engagement. Care must be taken not to give the Maras significant political sway, but tacit support for informal peace agreements (such as that of 2012, in which the murder rate in El Salvador was halved nearly overnight) (6) will substantially reduce violence and pave the way for more durable solutions. Special attention may be given to religious institutions and their ability to reintegrate gang members, and thorough routes to economic vitality for impoverished communities must be established before forced migration from Central America is reduced in any substantial capacity.

For the Government of Mexico:

In Mexico, it is crucial for the government to expand its capacity to process asylum claims in order to protect the most vulnerable. Many victims of heinous crimes such as rape and robbery fail to report them because of fear of deportation; Mexico must endeavor to end this stigma and focus on stopping criminals, not deporting migrants, before they will be able to target the increasingly sophisticated criminal enterprises that prey on Central American migrants. Mexico must create internal task forces to combat corruption, and the widespread extortion of migrants by their own authorities (7) which presents a substantial barrier to migrants assisting authorities in combating crimes such as trafficking.

For the Government of The United States:

The United States must engage meaningfully with its southern neighbors to reduce the root causes of forced migration rather than building ineffective physical border defenses. Just as the American War on Drugs only served to strengthen the economic vitality of the criminal enterprises that evolved to control the drug trade in the last century, so too do the increasingly stringent and militaristic controls on America’s southern border. Without a lawful means to reach safety for those facing an urgent risk of violence, families are forced to turn the the exploitative and ruthless human trafficking networks that operate along their route to provide passage. The increasing sophistication of physical barriers forces migrants to use ever more dangerous routes and methods of entry, allowing human traffickers to increase their prices.

To truly reduce the number of migrants crossing into the United States illegally, the U.S. must prioritize support for countries of origin to combat the push factors that uproot families from their homes. The framework to do so already exists, in the form of the Alliance for Prosperity agreement started under the Obama administration. (8) The agreement earmarks up to $750 million for programs crucial to violence reduction such as development assistance, counter-narcotics funding, economic opportunity and governance programs, and funds for education and health programs.


The nations composing Central America’s Northern Triangle are some of the most violent in the world (9) their rating on the human development index is abysmal (10) and the stories of those fleeing gang violence, sexual exploitation, (11) and forced recruitment are gut-wrenching. It is no wonder that migrants from these three nations composed 85% of those reaching the United States in 2015 alone. To reduce these numbers, relevant actors must look away from ineffective methods of border control and iron-fisted policing strategies, and undertake the substantial task of rebuilding Central America’s broken economies. Daunting as it may be, reduction in migration is predicated exclusively on the long-term reduction of violence.



1) : Border Patrol figures, 2016, confirm that increasing numbers of family units in relation to individuals compose irregular border entries now.
2) : Children from El Salvador overwhelmingly cite fears of violence as the reason for leaving their homes, being causal to other considerations such as family reunification and education or work.
3) : The UNHCR’s report “Women on the run” includes harrowing stories from victims of the American migrant route
4) : This source indicates that less than 1% of unaccompanied children who reach Mexico are granted asylum status, although a far greater number likely qualify.
5) : El Salvador’s “Mano Dura” (iron fist) policy has largely failed to reduce violence in the impoverished nation, or to free communities plagued by racketeering and extortion.
6) : Crime rates fell rapidly after authorities supported an informal peace agreement between El Salvador’s biggest criminal factions
7) : source (7) reveals that shockingly high numbers of Central American migrants claim extortion or other abuse occured at the hands of Mexican authorities.
8) The Alliance for Prosperity agreement massively increased U.S. government expenditure on critical infrastructure in the Northern Triangle targeted at reducing criminal violence as well as drug and human trafficking.
9) The Council on Foreign relations accurately reports the stupifying murder and assault rates in the NTCA, while also providing information on the staggering number of migrants eminating from the region.
10) El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras ranked 117, 125, and 130 respectively on the International Human Development Index in 2016.
11) The Guardian captured harrowing stories of women and girls surviving sexual exploitation on the Central American migrant route.


Author’s note on sources

While not explicitly cited above, I would like to extend a great deal of gratitude to the International Crisis Group for their excellent reporting on the Central American Migrant Crisis. Their work provided a bevy of research, sources (some of which are used here) and solutions which were crucial to the writing of this article. You can find two superb articles regarding this issue below, and I thoroughly encourage all those interested in further reading to begin here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s