Issue 69 - Article 4

Forced displacement and violent crime: a humanitarian crisis in Central America?

June 8, 2017
David James Cantor and Malte Plewa
San Salvador, Cojutepeque Penal Center. Detainees in their cell.

The idea that conflicts generate humanitarian and refugee crises is uncontroversial. In Latin America, though, it is increasingly evident that such situations can also arise from other situations of violence. Even in relatively prosperous middle-income countries such as Colombia and Mexico, changing modus operandi among organised criminal groups are producing new patterns of forced displacement, albeit often hidden from public view. D. J. Cantor and N. Rodríguez Serna (eds), Los nuevos desplazados: crimen y desplazamiento en América Latina, ILAS, 2015. Nowhere is this situation more critical than in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the three countries that make up the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA).

NTCA violence: as deadly as conflict?

Over the last decade Central America has held the dubious distinction of recording some of the highest homicide rates of any part of the world. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Global Study on Homicide 2013: Trends, Contexts, Data, 10 April 2014. This, the most recent
comparative study available, uses national data up to 2012.
This violence has been particularly acute in the NTCA. Despite the fact that neither El Salvador nor Honduras is formally at war, recent rates of violent deaths in these two countries in certain years appear to be second only to Syria. GDAVD, Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015, p. 58. 2015 homicide levels in El Salvador are not included in the GDAVD analysis but would place the country second, assuming that rates in Syria and elsewhere remained constant. Alongside this spate of killings, which disproportionately affect young men, the countries of the NTCA also display a panoply of other forms of violence, including assaults, extortion and sexual violence. The violence currently gripping the NTCA countries is not only as deadly as contemporary armed conflicts, but more deadly than many conflicts currently taking place across the globe. D. J. Cantor, ‘As Deadly as Armed Conflict? Gang Violence and Forced Displacement in the Northern Triangle of Central America’, Agenda Internacional, 23 (34), 2016.

Violence as a strategy of power

The upsurge of violence in the NTCA is anything but ‘random’ criminality. Unless otherwise indicated, the analysis in this section and the following is drawn from D. J. Cantor, ‘The New Wave: Forced Displacement Caused by Organized Crime in Central America and Mexico’, Refugee Survey Quarterly, 33:3, 2014. Rather, it closely reflects patterns of control and confrontation by organised armed actors. As in many other contexts in the Americas, state security forces and the multiplicity of private security companies each play particular roles in producing this violence. However, one prominent feature of the NTCA is the instrumental use of violence by powerful organised criminal groups.

Urban areas (and some semi-rural and rural areas) in all three of the NTCA countries are home to a huge number of street gangs, In 2015, the Salvadorian Minister of Defence alluded to an unsubstantiated figure of 60,000 gang members, in a country with a combined police force and army of 50,000. See T. Molina, ‘Pandilleros de El Salvador superan en número a efectivos de seguridad’, Panam, 23 October 2015. with complex and shifting relationships of collaboration and co frontation. Many local gangs are affiliated through larger identity-based structures such as Barrio-18 (B-18) and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS). Each local gang operates with a large degree of autonomy, using violence to control a ‘core’ territory, impose its will on local inhabitants and carry out extortion – the gangs’ lifeblood – especially of businesses in its ‘extended’ zones of operation. In principle, local B-18 or MS gangs also answer to a prison-based council that provides leadership at the national level, including arranging truces with the government and other powerful actors. Gang disputes in the NTCA are increasingly over control of local drug markets in urban localities.

In parallel, the cross-border smuggling routes that run through the countries of the NTCA are used by a range of groups involved in drug-trafficking. The resources available to the larger groups mean that they wield considerable social and political influence. They are also well-organised, heavilyarmed and disciplined. In poor communities, working for these groups represents a scarce source of income, and they can be generous in the provision of material support. Compared to urban gang zones, the populations of these regions often seem to be less exposed to generalised predatory practices like extortion, with violence targeted more towards specific individuals who pose a threat to these groups or are an obstacle to the realisation of some definite end.

Displacement as a product of violence

Instrumental violence by armed actors is a primary factor in displacement. Generally, forced displacement in the NTCA seems to be urban-to-urban, furtive and gota-a-gota (person-by-person). Movement patterns are diverse, reflecting differences in the specific causes of displacement. For instance, being labelled a ‘traitor’ or enemy by a street gang is usually tantamount to a death sentence, such that the person concerned has little option but to flee, usually to another urban area. Drug-trafficking groups take the same approach, producing a pattern of rural–urban movement as individuals and families considered enemies by one or other drug trafficking group flee rural areas of the NTCA, or are forced to sell land in zones strategic for cross-border smuggling. In some cases, a small fortune is offered for the land, and in others the offer is risible – yet any refusal to sell is met by the threat of violence.

Other grounds for displacement in urban areas include more diffuse fears about the wider climate of insecurity created by gang violence. Even if no direct threat exists, individual families may move to another urban area for fear that their children will attract the attention of the local gang, or simply out of frustration with increasing levels of crime and violence. Finally, a distinct form of displacement results from violence produced by the shifting patterns of cooperation and competition between street gangs in the NTCA. These disputes often produce a general increase in insecurity or a hardening of gang attitudes towards the population, such that extortion quotas are raised or those who do not pay are killed immediately.

Upsurge in displacement: a crisis moment?

Migration flows northwards from the countries of the NTCA are hardly new. Nor, sadly, are the dangers that such migrants face en route. However, it is evident that violence and insecurity in these countries are now an important motivation for movement among a significant proportion of migrants. See, for example, UNHCR, Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection, 13 March 2014. In parallel, over the past five years asylum applications lodged by NTCA citizens have been rising at an alarming rate. UNHCR, Call to Action: Protection Needs in the Northern Triangle of Central
America, August 2016.
The fact that a steadily growing percentage of asylum claimants are recognised as eligible for international protection suggests an increasingly important refugee component within the flow of people from these countries.

Preliminary data also suggests high levels of internal displacement in the NTCA countries, despite the fact that they are not ‘at war’. In 2014, a Honduran government study determined that approximately 4% of the population of the 20 municipalities surveyed identified themselves as internally displaced, with 7.5% of those reporting having been displaced twice, and 2% three times. Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS), Characterisation of Internal Displacement in Honduras, November 2015. An academic survey in El Salvador, also in 2014, reported that some 4.6% of respondents had been forcibly displaced that year alone (approximately 275,000 people, if scaled up to the national population). IUDOP, ‘Evaluación del país a finales de 2014’, Boletín de prensa, 5,
December 2014.
Such rates of internal displacement are on a par with those in active war zones. Against this background, the NTCA countries are only now starting to recognise and respond to the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and in-country protection options are limited, both for IDPs and for NTCA citizens deported from Mexico and the United States and who end up as IDPs.

Responding to the humanitarian situation

The current upsurge of violence in the countries of the NTCA is not merely an expression of common criminality. Rather, violence is being used instrumentally by armed and organised actors to pursue their own diverse social and political projects. Its impact is considerable, not least in terms of the scale and diverse patterns of forced displacement that it produces.

Thus far, the NTCA states have focused on attempting to address the security-related implications of organised crime. Yet the special vulnerability of NTCA refugees and IDPs, and their compelling protection needs, call for a more robust recognition of the humanitarian consequences of the violence. It is encouraging that some governments, international organisations and NGOs are beginning to take these challenges seriously. The 2016 San Jose Action Statement, UNHCR and Organization of American States (OAS), San Jose Action Statement: ‘Call to Action: Protection Needs in the Northern Triangle of Central America’. which maps out a set of regional responses to the displacement crisis in the NTCA, is one roadmap for action in this area. Whether initiatives such as this will be bolstered or weakened by the new US administration remains to be seen.

In the meantime, we should be careful not to underestimate the practical and conceptual challenges responding to forced displacement in the NTCA poses, including:

  • questions about the links between migration and displacement flows;
  • the complex circular movement patterns of NTCA citizens across the region;
  • the political sensitivities surrounding the topic of displacement in the NTCA;
  • reluctance to recognise crime as a cause of displacement;
  • complications in humanitarian access and interlocution with gangs;
  • nascent donor interest in such ‘new’ forms of displacement; and
  • shrinking humanitarian space globally for refugee protection.

Getting to grips with these challenges now is imperative, and not just for the sake of displaced people in the NTCA. In a world where internal armed conflict is increasingly marked by organised criminality, and organised criminality is closely linked to other situations of violence, humanitarian practitioners are required ever more frequently to address displacement crises provoked by these ‘new’ dynamics of violence. Insights from research and humanitarian action in the NTCA thus offer a first step towards responding to these new global displacement challenges.

David James Cantor is the Director of the Refugee Law Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. This article is based on research from his ESRC Future Research Leader project ‘Pushing the Boundaries: New Dynamics of Forced Migration and Transnational Responses in Latin America’ (ES/K001051/1). Malte Plewa is a Masters student in Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation at Lund University, Sweden.


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