Issue 69 - Article 6

A humanitarian response to Central America’s fragile cities

June 8, 2017
Robert Muggah
Hoping to reach the United States to claim asylum, a group of young Honduran refugees and migrants board a boat on the banks of the Usumacinta river in the town of La Técnica, Guatemala.

The world’s fast-growing cities and slums are routinely gripped by multiple and overlapping forms of organised violence. Wartorn cities such as Aleppo, Gaza and Mosul are especially badly affected, with entire neighbourhoods reduced to ruins. In other places the physical devastation may not be so obvious. In cities such as Acapulco, San Salvador and San Pedro Sula criminal and extrajudicial violence has reached epidemic levels – even if the buildings are unscathed.

Not all urban centres are equally violent. North American cities have registered a 40% decline in homicidal violence since the 1990s. By way of contrast, a rash of cities in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean have seen rates of homicide rise over the same period. Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, ‘Curing Latin America’s Homicide Epidemic’, Foreign Affairs, March 2017. Indeed, 47 of the 50 most murderous cities in the world in 2016 are in the Americas. ‘World´s Most Dangerous Cities’, The Economist, 31 March 2017. Some of the region’s most fragile cities are at war in all but name. The acceleration in violence in Latin American cities is occurring despite general improvements in literacy, health and poverty reduction. Robert Muggah, ‘Latin America’s Poverty Is Down, but Violence Is Up. Why?’, Americas Quarterly, 20 October 2017.

The sheer intensity and organisation of violence in Latin American cities is forcing a rethink about the legal and conceptual distinctions between armed conflict and socalled ‘other situations of violence’. While there are no longer traditional international or non-international armed conflicts under way in the region, some types of cartel, gang-related, paramilitary and military-led activities are generating warlike conditions. The fusion of political and criminal violence in some parts of the region is potentially a harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere, including in Africa and Asia.

Fragile cities

The countries and cities of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have some of the world’s highest rates of violent deaths. El Salvador leads the pack and its capital, San Salvador, tops the world’s rankings. The city’s homicide rate is roughly 137 per 100,000, almost 20 times the global average. Honduras and Guatemala are not far behind, with murder rates exceeding those of Afghanistan or Syria. Homicidal violence is of course just the tip of the iceberg. Cities across the sub-region also suffer from high levels of inequality, unemployment and disaster risk.

The violence in Central America is propelled by a volatile combination of transnational gangs, drug-trafficking and weak law enforcement. Rival factions like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M18) run extortion rackets and assassins for hire, and recruit heavily from poorer neighbourhoods and shanty-towns throughout the region. There are an estimated 70,000 hardcore gang members across Central America, but no one knows for certain. Dennis Rodgers and Robert Muggah, ‘Gangs as Non-State Armed Groups: The Central American Case’, Contemporary Security Policy, 30 (2), 2009. El Salvador’s Justice Ministry estimates that as many as 600,000 Salvadorians out of a population of 6.3 million are involved in the gang business. Regardless of their absolute numbers, the region’s gangs have franchised across South, Central and North America. Most gangs are involved in extortion, protection rackets and drug transhipment and retail.

With some exceptions, Central American governments have pursued ‘iron fist’ – or mano dura – approaches to putting down the gangs, and to crime prevention more generally. This involves the deployment of police and in some cases repressive military actions. El Salvador mounted its first mano dura campaign in 2003, with Honduras and Guatemala quickly following suit. Local politicians have advocated harsh prison sentences for children as young as 12, and dispatched the military to hunt down anyone with incriminating tattoos. Mass incarceration also formed part of the strategy.

The US government has provided extensive military, policing and development assistance to all three countries. The Central American Regional Security Initiative, launched in 2008, combines a range of law and order measures with strategies designed to prevent and reduce urban violence. The programme has directed nearly $1 billion towards fighting the gangs, with mixed results over recent years. See Vanderbilt University’s Impact Evaluation of USAID’s Crime and Violence
Prevention Approach in Central America:
In 2012, the US government declared MS-13 an ‘international criminal organization’, resulting in the militarisation of US assistance. Ceasefires and truces attempted across the region in recent years have generated considerable controversy. Robert Muggah, Ami Carpenter and Topher McDougal, ‘The Inconvenient Truth about Gang Truces in the Americas’, InSight Crime, 5 December 2013.


Prolonged urban violence in the Northern Triangle has had massive humanitarian consequences, including a displacement crisis. Displaced people, or desperados as they are often called in the region, are fleeing their homes in record numbers. Some seek refugee status, but most are simply trying to find safer ground, by whatever means possible. Since 2010, the United States and Mexico have apprehended over a million people making the perilous trek from the Northern Triangle to the US. Rodrigo Dominguez Villegas and Victoria Rietig, Migrants Deported from the United States and Mexico to the Northern Triangle: A Statistical and Socioeconomic Profile, Migration Policy Institute, September 2015. This is in addition to the estimated 11.7m ‘unauthorised immigrants’ who have already crossed over illegally into the US in pursuit of a better life. See US Customs and Border Protection at

A considerable number of those fleeing from the Northern Triangle are minors. US immigration authorities intercepted 68,000 children in 2014, and nearly 40,000 in 2015. By September 2016, another 54,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended. Many of them were interned in dozens of shelters along the US–Mexico border. The massive surge in what the US authorities refer to as ‘unaccompanied alien children’ was characterised by the previous White House administration as a ‘humanitarian situation’, and with good reason – there has been a sharp increase in under-12s crossing the border in recent years. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also documented significant increases in asylum applications across the region from people fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle. In 2014, President Barack Obama asked the US Congress for $3.7bn to deal with the crisis, including $1.8bn to care for the children, $995m to detain and deport them and another $822m to shore up law enforcement capacities in Central America. The White House, 8 July 2014, These resources did little to stem the flow, and the situation has since deteriorated.

The displacement crisis shows no sign of abating, and may in fact worsen. In 2017, US President Donald Trump authorised controversial new immigration guidelines calling for parents of unaccompanied minors to be prosecuted for ‘human smuggling’. The guidelines also encourage border officials to become more conservative in determining who has ‘credible fear’ in order to gain asylum in the United States. Homeland Security, Executive Orders on Protecting the Homeland, February 2017,

While seldom discussed in Washington, Central America’s displacement catastrophe was at least partially manufactured in the United States. Between 2013 and 2015, the US authorised more than 300,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador alone. Clare Ribando Seelke, Gangs in Central America, Congressional Research Service, 29 August 2016. Only Mexico received more deportations over this period (over 550,000). The escalation of deportations from the US has coincided with a massive upsurge in criminal violence. The US-led deportations are putting considerable pressure on Central America’s already dilapidated criminal justice and penal systems. Instead of rehabilitating and reintegrating convicted felons, the region’s over-crowded prisons now incubate vast criminal networks. Locals refer to them as ‘crime colleges’, since penitentiaries and jails are frequently run by veteran gang members. As a result, gangs effectively orchestrate their criminal activities across Central America from within the prison walls.

Humanitarian response

Although simmering for years, the sheer dimensions of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Central America are only gradually coming to light. Aid agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and World Vision sounded the alarm early. Raphael Dallaire Ferland, ‘The New Urban Agenda Recognizes the Humanitarian Impact of Urban Warfare’, Humanitarian Law and Policy, Special Issue, August 2016.[footnote]Raphael Dallaire Ferland, ‘The New Urban Agenda Recognizes the Humanitarian Impact of Urban Warfare’, Humanitarian Law and Policy, Special Issue, August 2016.

Faith-based groups are also providing food and shelter, but levels of assistance from governments and non-governmental organisations in Mexico and the US are far below what is needed. It is obvious that stop-gap solutions, whether in the US and Mexico or in the Northern Triangle itself, are inadequate. A more thorough engagement with the causes and humanitarian consequences of urban violence is urgently required.

While most attention on Central America has focused on the US side of the border, some humanitarian agencies have launched interventions in the region proper. For more than half a decade, the ICRC has been quietly testing new programmes to protect civilians and facilitate better access to basic services in San Salvador, Tegucigalpa in Honduras and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, as well as Rio de Janeiro and Medellin. MSF has also initiated violence prevention and mental health-related activities and projects to address at-risk youth, including women and girls, in inner-city neighbourhoods across Central America. International donors are also becoming more seized of the issue. In 2014 the European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) expanded its work on urban violence and disasters in the region.

The decision whether and how to deploy humanitarian assistance to fragile and violence-affected cities in Central America is not straightforward. This is the focus of a four year assessment (2011–15) by the Humanitarian Action in Situations Other Than War (HASOW) project at Many agencies and donors are struggling with how best to negotiate with municipal authorities and communities and engage productively with complex and interconnected urban infrastructures. Most directors of humanitarian organisations first ask very basic questions, including in relation to the extent of their own competencies in cities under fire. What is the organisation’s added value? Will it make a real difference on the ground? Is it safe for staff? What are the legal implications?

Humanitarian agencies that have elected to run violence prevention and emergency response programmes in the Northern Triangle tend to be guided by a set of basic principles. These include being clear on the aims of the intervention, being flexible and ready to adapt, adopting highly localised interventions in partnership with civic authorities, developing strong community partnerships, planning for the long term (while also having an exit strategy) and doing no intentional harm. Elena Lucchi, Humanitarian Interventions in Situations of Urban Violence, ALNAP Lessons Learned Paper, 2014. Agencies are taking advantage of lessons learned in war zones, but also adjusting and adapting them to the distinct settings of the Northern Triangle.

Many of the priorities of humanitarian agencies remain the same in war and non-war zones. The focus continues to be on protecting civilians and civilian assets, mitigating the effects of violence on urban populations and enabling or strengthening protective factors that limit exposure to violence. This includes investing in early childhood programmes, school-based activities, initiatives for single female headed households, projects targeting at-risk adolescents, psycho-social support services and urban improvement schemes.

Another key goal is to supplement – rather than replace – services such as water provision, waste management and health and education. Aid agencies such as the ICRC and MSF have found it imperative to work with government institutions, rather than around them, with an emphasis more on coordination than implementation. ICRC, ‘War in Cities’, International Review of the Red Cross, 901, 2016. Although there is more sensitivity today to the importance of building local capacity and ownership, working with national partners and avoiding the distortion of domestic markets is difficult. For aid agencies used to rapidly delivering aid, setting up logistics systems and working around (reluctant or interfering) state agencies, habits take time to change.

An additional critical lesson emerging from the field is the importance of high-quality data collection and real-time mapping of rapidly changing conditions on the ground. Access to a wide range of high-resolution information on beneficiary populations, service delivery systems and existing organisations and actors is critical. Even in data-scarce environments there are opportunities to harvest and analyse information, including using new technologies. Humanitarian agencies are strongly advised to build this capacity in-house.

Finally, aid organisations have typically started small, built to scale and then handed over their pilots to government or local non-governmental counterparts. Notwithstanding the temptation to undertake large-scale programmes in fragile cities, relief organisations are proceeding with caution. There are meaningful ways to scale up city-based interventions, but only if these are properly aligned with formal and informal delivery providers, with stable resourcing and political investment. To be effective, aid agencies need to keep an open mind, take risks and invest heavily in partnerships from the start.

Robert Muggah is the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute.


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