Despite decades-long prevention efforts by local authorities and foreign-backed law enforcement, gangs remain defiant and undefeated. The phenomenon has grown so rapidly since the 2000s that it has penetrated deep into the social fabric of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, meaning police operations alone aren’t enough to defeat the gangs. Top state officials in the region are aware of the magnitude of what they face, and behind closed doors agree that they are “fighting a war they cannot win.”
Nevertheless, the governments from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras continue to rely almost solely on security crackdowns to tackle gangs. This has indirectly created yet another reason for the local population to flee. As an NGO worker in El Salvador told me recently: “The situation is so bad that sometimes people are more scared of the police than the gangs.”
While law enforcement is an inevitable part of the fight against violent crime, the impact in communities where gangs are present can be hugely counter-productive. Especially in El Salvador and Honduras, residents get caught in daily armed confrontations caused by gangs’ turf wars, as well as operations by security forces in their communities to combat them. This is on top of the usual harassment that the gangs inflict on local families, like trying to recruit their children or extracting weekly extortion payments. “In my previous neighborhood I couldn’t trust anybody, it is like not knowing who the enemy is,” a man displaced from his community in central Honduras by gang violence told me when I met him in Tegucigalpa. In El Salvador, it is very common that teenagers living in “red zones” are harassed by security forces, who consider them usual suspects of gang membership.
This situation has left thousands of Central American families stuck between a rock and a hard place. They know how dangerous the trip to the U.S. is, but are forced to leave to save their lives. “If I stay here, I will die,” a Honduran woman told me in tears during a group interview with victims of forced displacement in Tegucigalpa. Her fear was retaliation from gangs after her son and mother had been killed in the same week.
When I have asked displaced people over the past few months if U.S. migration policies deter them from fleeing, they usually reply that the prospect of being caught by U.S. migration officials makes them anxious, but that “there is no scarier place” than their home countries. This is why, no matter how hard and sometimes inhumane this administration’s anti-immigration policies might be, many Central American parents and their children will be determined to make the trip north anyway.
Many don’t leave much behind, not even their houses. This is why, as a friend from Guatemala who once considered making the trip recently told me, they are still willing to go through the perilous journey: “We know you can get killed, and how dangerous it is especially for women [to try entering the U.S. without papers] ... but when it’s a life or death situation, I bet you would do the same.”