Archives For Central America

Dara Lind parses a new report from Human Rights Watch on the plight of Hondurans who came to the US illegally to escape gang violence, got deported, and are now in grave danger back in their home country:

The Hondurans interviewed in the report fled Honduras because their lives had explicitly been threatened — mostly by gangs. One man had been shot in the back repeatedly by a gang initiate, and had to spend two months in the hospital and relearn how to walk. Even though he’d initially been targeted at random — the initiate was told to kill the next person he saw — he found out after he recovered that the initiate was now obligated to track him down and finish the job. Another man had sent his wife and son to the US after gang members tried to kidnap his son, then left on his own once he heard they were safe. And at least two of the 25 deportees had fled the country after they watched their mothers killed by gang members — knowing that witnesses of gang murders aren’t allowed to live.

Now that they’ve been returned to Honduras, their only priority is to make sure the gang members looking for them don’t know they’re back in the country. And because gangs are so powerful, and the government provides no protection, that means making sure no one knows they’re back in the country. Deported Hondurans hiding from gang violence can’t work, stay in their homes, or even see their children.

Caitlin Dickson focuses on what the report has to say about our asylum process – none of it good:

The report explains that there are two stages asylum-seekers must go through when apprehended at the border. First, a CBP agent must flag them for a “reasonable fear” assessment. In the second stage, an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will meet with them to determine whether they have a credible fear of returning home and whether they have a good chance of being granted asylum in immigration court. According to 2011 and 2012 CBP deportation data obtained by HRW, at least 80 percent of Hondurans detained at the border are placed in expedited removal proceedings while only 1.9 percent are flagged for credible fear assessments.

Comparatively, during those same years CBP flagged 21 percent of migrants from other countries for credible fear interviews. These statistics, plus the anecdotal evidence collected through more recent interviews, lead HRW to argue that “the U.S. is violating its international human rights obligations to examine asylum claims before returning [asylum seekers] to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.”

Obama’s Border Crisis Plan

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 28 2014 @ 6:40pm

Late last week, Obama rolled out a proposal to start processing refugee status applications from young, would-be migrants in Honduras before they make the treacherous northbound journey (NYT). The pilot plan, which could be expanded to El Salvador and Guatemala, envisions receiving around 5,000 refugee applications and accepting 1,750 of them over the first two years, at a cost of $47 million. Alec MacGillis applauds:

There is no shortage of questions that immediately spring to mind. Doesn’t 5,000 applicants seem awfully low, given that since October 1 more than 16,500 minors have traveled to the U.S. border from Honduras alone? How would the U.S. personnel at the embassy in Tegucigalpa decide which young applicants were so threatened by gang violence that they qualified for the coveted status and entry to the U.S.? What would this new approach mean for the young Central Americans who already made the risky journey to the U.S. in recent months?

But the proposal comes with two clear benefits, one substantive and one political. First, it is a big step toward addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis: It will deter at least some young people from making the dangerous trip, thereby reducing demand for the migrant traffickers who are profiting off the children’s desperation. … Shifting the entry point for at least some of the young Central Americans to their countries of origin will hopefully redefine the problem as what it is: a challenge to our country’s laws and policies on asylum, which as now written do not directly address the plight of young people in gang-ravaged societies; and, more broadly, a reckoning with our responsibility to our southern neighbors.

But Roberto Ferdman outlines why the proposal won’t be enough on its own and could have unintended consequences:

The current proposal, which assumes that some 5,000 children will apply in Honduras, would cost nearly $50 million over the course of two years. And Guatemala and El Salvador might see a similar program implemented if the pilot is deemed successful. But less than 2,000 children would be selected from those that apply in Honduras. That’s a mere fraction of the more than 16,000 that have been apprehended at the U.S. border this year (and the thousands more that are likely still in transit).

There’s also the potential for confusion over the definition of the word refugee. The U.S. launched similar screening programs in Vietnam in the 1970s and in Haiti in the 1990s. But those were set up in the aftermath of a war and devastating hurricane, respectively. “There’s serious worry that if the proposal is enacted it will stretch the current meaning of the word refugee,” [Columbia University political scientist Carlos] Vargas-Ramos said.

Why Honduras, any way? Well, because it’s the worst off:

Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world. According to the latest report from the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, the Central American nation saw 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012. The majority of the violence in Honduras is carried out by two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18. Both were created in Los Angeles by Salvadoran immigrants, between 2001 and 2010. The U.S. deported more than 100,000 convicted members of both gangs back to Central America, where corrupt law enforcement and political instability—particularly in Honduras, which underwent a coup d’état in 2009—allowed them to spread out and take control of entire cities, kidnapping, torturing, and brutally murdering anyone standing in their way. San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second largest city and a gang stronghold, is considered the most dangerous city in the world. According to the CIA World Factbook, Honduras had 17,000 refugees or people displaced within the country as a result of extortions, threats, or forced gang recruitment in 2013.

Jeremy Relph reports from the country’s Bajo Aguán region, where land disputes and government corruption are keeping the violence going:

These days Bajo Aguán is virtually off-limits to the country’s army and police. Campesinos have been the victims of private security and government forces, and the Honduran government has done little to halt it. The ruling right-wing National Party protects rich landowners. They’ve focused on maintaining security and addressing violence with force. The left paints the campesinos as victims and pacifists. At stake is fertile land, and massive profits.

Bajo Aguán is the rural center for palm oil production and land rights battles. Palm oil is in everything from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Johnson’s baby shampoo to Pringles. During the last decade, large energy companies like BP have begun heralding palm oil as the next green biofuel. Across Africa the spread of plantations has threatened chimpanzees with extinction. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s leading producers, its extraction is linked to human rights abuse. Honduras is no different.

In an interview with Susan Glasser, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández articulates his understanding of how the American drug war has contributed to his country’s crisis and what the US should do differently:

We all share responsibility, from those who produce the drug to the transit countries, but also the country that uses the drugs. And the United States is the great consumer of the drugs. The advantage that you have here—if you can call it an advantage—is that the violence has been separated from the transit of drugs. That’s why for many officials and public servants the drug problem in the United States is one of public health. In Central America, the drug problem is life or death. That’s why it’s important that the United States assume its responsibility. … A Central America at peace, with less drug violence, and with opportunities, is a great investment for the United States. On the contrary, if they are only investing in border security and not in the source of the problem, in the genesis of the problem, then we will have more of the same.

No Country For Young Women

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 25 2014 @ 8:35am

U.S. Agents Take Undocumented Immigrants Into Custody Near Tex-Mex Border

Among the many horrors that the Central American refugee children are fleeing, Mónica Ramírez and Anne Ream focus on the epidemic of sexual violence, which is often ignored, or even committed, by the police:

One key factor driving this crisis is the well-documented and widespread sexual and gender-related violence in Latin America. In a 2014 report conducted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 70 percent of children interviewed cited domestic violence as well as violence at the hands of gangs, cartels, or “state actors” (such as police), as reasons for fleeing homes in Mexico and Central America. Sexual violence has become so widespread in Guatemala in recent years that in 2009 Doctors Without Borders launched its first Latin American mission dedicated to treating rape and abuse victims. And gender-based violence is now the second highest cause of death for women of reproductive age in Honduras. …

Anti-violence advocates on the ground say that two factors drive the high incidence of sexual and gender-related violence in the region: a lack of awareness about the nature of gender-based violence, which has historically been downplayed or normalized, and the absence of official efforts and channels that might encourage reporting of such crimes. The fact that law enforcement and judicial systems are most often dominated by men who are disinclined to pursue sexual violence or trafficking cases, and may in fact be implicated in such violence themselves, further exacerbates the crisis.

Previous Dish on the chaos in Central America here and the child migrant crisis here.

(Photo: An undocumented immigrant sits after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents some 60 miles north of the U.S. Mexico border on July 23, 2014 near Falfurrias, Texas. She said she was from Guatemala, one of a group of immigrants Customs and Border Protection agents caught moving north through dense brushland in Brooks County. By John Moore/Getty Images)

EL SALVADOR-GANGS-TRUCE

Alec MacGillis shines a light on US gun trafficking to Central America, making the argument that our loose gun regulations are contributing to these countries’ gang violence problem:

According to data collected by the ATF, nearly half of the guns seized from criminals in El Salvador and submitted for tracing in the ATF’s online system last year originated in the U.S., versus 38 and 24 percent in Honduras and Guatemala, respectively. Many of those guns were imported through legal channels, either to government or law enforcement agencies in the three countries or to firearms dealers there.

But a not-insignificant number of the U.S.-sourced gunsmore than 20 percent in both Guatemala and Honduraswere traced to retail sales in the U.S. That is, they were sold by U.S. gun dealers and then transported south, typically hidden in vehicles headed across Mexico, though sometimes also stowed in checked airline luggage, air cargo, or even boat shipments. (Similar ratios were found in traces the ATF conducted in 2009 of 6,000 seized guns stored in a Guatemalan military bunker40 percent of the guns came from the United States, and slightly less than half of those were found to have been legally imported, leaving hundreds that were apparently trafficked.)

“It is a problem,” says Jose Miguel Cruz, an expert in Central American gang violence at Florida International University. “The problem is we don’t have any idea how many [of the trafficked guns] there are. It’s a big, dark area.”

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, tells Dylan Matthews that an effective US response to the crisis must address its root causes:

Of the $3.7 billion requested by the administration for dealing with the child migrant crisis, a very small percentage of it, about $295 million, goes to addressing root causes of the violence. I think that ever since the United States, starting with the end of the Bush administration, began to pay more attention to Central America as the drug violence was spilling over from Mexico to Central America, there’s been an overemphasis on security and controlling drug trafficking and also just not enough resources overall. …

There’s been a focus in the US and elsewhere in the region on capturing drug kingpins, but I think a lot of people who have looked at this, given the weakness of institutions, including police and law enforcement, including the judiciary, have said that a better approach is to try to reduce the violence connected with local illegal markets, and focus on providing citizen security to the general population. You can’t abandon the attempt to capture major traffickers, but you cannot do that without providing for safer communities and creating greater resilience at the individual and the community level.

Previous Dish on the violence in Central America and the US’s role in it here and here.

(Photo: A member of the “18 street” gang takes part in an event to hand in weapons in Apopa, 14 Km north of San Salvador, El Salvador on March 9, 2013. Gang leaders surrendered about 267 weapons as part of the truce process between gangs in El Salvador. By Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)

Taking a hard look at the refugee crisis, Frum blames it primarily on US immigration policy, which has unwittingly strengthened the gangs from which these children are fleeing. “If you want to migrate to the United States from Central America,” he writes, “you will probably have to seek the aid of a criminal gang. That fact implies a few follow-on facts”:

First, for all the talk of the “desperation” of migrants, those who travel here from Central America are not the poorest of the poor.

The poorest of the poor can’t afford it. Illegal migrants either have the funds to pay for the journey—or can at least receive credit against their expected future earnings. The traffickers don’t only move people. They also connect them to the illegal labor market in North America, and then act as debt collectors once the migrants have settled in their new homes. Salvadorans in the United States are less likely to be poor than other Hispanics are: illegal migration networks don’t have any use for people who can’t generate an income. On the other hand, Salvadorans are also less likely to own a home—their smugglers have first claim on their earnings.

Second, if these latest migrants gain residency rights in the United States, the gangs who brought them to the country will be enriched and strengthened. Gangs, like any business, ultimately depend on their customers. If too many people find that their $5,000 to $8,000 investments in border-crossing are not paying off, the illegal-migration business will dwindle. If, on the other hand, the gangs succeed in exploiting the opportunity Obama created, they’ll attract more business in the future.

Third, each wave of illegal settlement induces and produces the opportunities for the next. The unaccompanied minors smuggled into the United States this year all have relatives back home. If resettled in the United States, they’ll acquire the wherewithal to pay for the transit of those relatives. And, of course, many of these minors either currently belong to the gangs carrying out the smuggling or will soon be recruited by them. That’s another way to pay the cost of the trip.

Recent Dish on the sources of the crisis here and here.

The South-Of-The-Border Crisis

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 14 2014 @ 7:14pm

In a must-read counterpoint to the media narrative that the Central American children pouring across our border are fleeing gang violence, Saul Elbein argues that the problems in Guatemala are far more extensive. He paints a picture of a failed state offering a veneer of legitimacy to a corrupt, feudal “deep state” that maintains itself through violence and exploitation:

The only model of power that exists in Guatemala is … terroristic, extra-legal, and dominated by violence. So is it any surprise that after the war, on the streetswhere people grasped for the scraps that weft, where children grew up with no chance at wealth and less at respectpirate organizations like the MS-13 grew? What we’re seeing in Guatemala is not quite, in other words, a crime wave. It’s simply the way things have been there for a long time, pushed to the next level. If you are a civilian there, beneath the labelssoldier; gangster; policeman; army; cartelis but one underlying reality: men with guns who do what they want and take what they want. Your options are to buy your own security and gunmen; to join a gang yourself; or to leave.

And so many leave.

Meanwhile, Central American migrants are now being barred from Mexican cargo trains:

On Thursday, a freight train derailed in southern Mexico. It wasn’t just any train, though:

 It was La Bestia—”the Beast”—the infamous train many Central American immigrants ride through Mexico on their way to the United States. When the Beast went off the tracks this week, some 1,300 people who’d been riding on top were stranded in Oaxaca. After years of turning a blind eye to what’s happening on La Bestia, the Mexican government claims it now will try to keep migrants off the trains. On Friday, Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong said in a radio interview that the time had come to bring order to the rails. “We can’t keep letting them put their lives in danger,” he said. “It’s our responsibility once in our territory. The Beast is for cargo, not passengers.”

In light of the situation, Keating advocates a major rethink of how we respond to chaos in Latin America, not to mention our own role in creating it:

I don’t claim to have an immediate fix for Central America’s ills, but surely there are more creative strategies out there than pouring money into a failing drug war and then walling ourselves off from the victims. Latin American issues tend to get shortchanged in the U.S. foreign policy conversation relative to more remote regions. I suspect this is part of the reason why Central America’s instability is only garnering attention now that the consequences of it have quite literally arrived at our doorstep.

On a broader level, the crisis should be a reminder that the U.S. is not immune from events to its immediate south. We’re an American country—in the regional sense of that word—and it’s time to start thinking like it.

(Photo: Central American migrants boarding the “La Bestia” train. By Pedro Ultreras.)