Central Americans May Be Ready for Their Own Arab Spring
The spread of gangs, the U.S. narcotics trade, and rampant corruption are major factors contributing to mass migration and alarmingly high levels of violence.
Tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans, many of them unaccompanied minors, have arrived in the United States in recent years, seeking asylum from the region’s skyrocketing violence. Their countries, which form a region known as the Northern Triangle, were rocked by civil wars in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of violence and fragile institutions. However, recent developments in Guatemala and Honduras have spurred talk of a “Central American spring” as protesters in both countries have come out in unprecedented numbers to denounce corruption and demand greater accountability from their leaders.
Nearly 10 percent of the Northern Triangle countries’ thirty million residents have left, mostly for the United States. In 2013, as many as 2.7 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were living in the United States, up from an estimated 1.5 million people in 2000. Nearly one hundred thousand unaccompanied minors arrived to the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras between October 2013 and July 2015, drawing attention to the region’s broader emigration trend. At the United States’ urging, Mexico stepped up enforcement along its southern border, apprehending 70 percent more Central Americans in 2015 than it did in the year before.
Many seek asylum from violence at home: Between 2009 and 2013, the United States registered a sevenfold increase (PDF) in asylum seekers at its southern border, 70 percent of whom came from the Northern Triangle. Neighboring Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama all registered a similar rise. Migrants from all three Northern Triangle countries cite violence, forced gang recruitment, extortion, as well as poverty and lack of opportunity, as their reasons for leaving.
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. Gang-related violence in El Salvador brought its homicide rate to ninety per hundred thousand in 2015, making it the most world’s most violent countrynot at war. All three countries have significantly higher homicide rates than neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama.
Extortion is also rampant. A July 2015 investigation by Honduran newspaper La Prensafound that Salvadorans and Hondurans pay an estimated $390 million and $200 million, respectively, in annual extortion fees to organized crime groups; meanwhile, Guatemalan authorities said in 2014 that citizens pay an estimated $61 million a year in extortion fees. Extortionists primarily target public transportation operators, small businesses, and residents of poor neighborhoods, according to the report, and attacks on people who do not pay contributes to the violence. Guatemala’s transportation sector has been hit especially hard: In 2014, more than four hundred transportation workers were killed, and authorities linked most of those cases to extortion.
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