Gangs, Violence and Displacement in Central America

Of course, I’d heard about the gang violence in Central America, the rampant crime, the sky-high homicide rates, the proliferation of maras and pandillas. But I hadn’t really thought about the extent to which gang violence causes displacement until I went to El Salvador to participate in a workshop organized by UNHCR and the Central American Integration System with support from the European Union. UNHCR had asked me to help facilitate some of the sessions, explaining that they needed particular expertise in internal displacement. A few years ago UNHCR developed guidelines for people fleeing to other countries because of the effects of criminal violence and was (unfortunately) gaining experience in applying those guidelines to refugee claims, but probably most of the displacement was taking place within the borders of the country. While I was happy to share my knowledge on internally displaced persons with the 50 or so participants in the workshop, I’m sure I learned as much from them as they learned from me.

In particular, I was struck by three observations. First, how little we know about displacement caused by criminal gangs. Is the scale hundreds of people? thousands? tens of thousands? I remember reading a figure of 200,000 people displaced in Mexico from criminal violence but there are no figures, not even rough estimates, in Central America. Instead there are newspaper stories and personal anecdotes. There are reports of neighborhoods in Honduras where all the houses have been abandoned. The week I arrived there was a story in the newspaper about the murder of a man by a criminal gang; his family of 16 people immediately left their home and went to a police station where they stayed for a week before they went to a neighboring country where they were granted refugee status. I was told by a Nicaraguan participant in the workshop that 99 percent of asylum claims in Nicaragua these days are from gang-related violence.

Persecution for political reasons is grounds for refugee status, how about people standing up for their rights against the murders, kidnapping and extortion of criminal gangs?

The second thing that struck me was how similar the reasons are for flight from criminal armed group and from conflicts. We looked at profiles of people likely to be displaced by organized crime violence – gang members who wanted to leave the group, teachers trying to keep their students out of gangs, people (and their family members) resisting extortion, journalists, etc. The parallels were striking. Just as a soldier defecting from Assad’s military or a fighter defecting from FARC is in danger, so too are gang members who want to escape. Persecution for political reasons is grounds for refugee status, how about people standing up for their rights against the murders, kidnapping and extortion of criminal gangs? I struggled to find ways that this displacement is different from the more traditional reasons for flight, but I came up short.  

It is important to underscore that there is a difference between victims of crimes committed by individuals and those who run afoul of armed criminal gangs. These gangs, though motivated by personal gain rather than political ideology, have much in common with other armed groups. They seek to control territory. They demand loyalty from their members. They engage in conflict both with the state and with other armed groups. Their numbers and organizational capacity exceed those of government security forces. Increasingly they are transnational in nature.

Finally, the third thing that struck me was the circular nature of this displacement. Many credit the deportation of tens of thousands of Central Americans from the US – many steeped in gang violence in Los Angeles – with the establishment of the maras in Central America. Many of these Central Americans had fled the civil conflicts that had torn their countries apart in the 1980s and early 1990s. And today, some parents are sending their young sons on the dangerous journey to the US to escape forced recruitment by the same gangs that had their roots in the US.

Those displaced within their countries by organized criminal violence are internally displaced persons. Under the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, national authorities are responsible for protecting and assisting them and for supporting durable solutions to their displacement. In my next blog post, I’ll reflect on some of the implications of this gang-induced displacement for national governments. Unfortunately, although Central America is the region of the world most affected by violence from criminal gangs, this is a global phenomenon likely to become worse.