Daily violence, evident despite the decline in daily homicide rates, is the main trigger for the growing irregular migration in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).
There was a time when Central Americans went to the North to meet up with their relatives who years ago fled from armed conflict (1980-1992), economic uncertainty or harassment from the first “maras” (gangs), which also emerged in the United States.
However, a recent forum organised by the organisation Alianza Américas and the Regional Coordinator for Economic and Social Research (Cries) pointed out that insecurity replaced family reunification as the leading cause of irregular migration in the region. A new phenomenon began a couple of years ago, the so-called “migratory caravans”, which originated in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, or in Salvador del Mundo Square, in El Salvador, and coordinated to meet in Guatemala and advance en masse towards the North.
Such caravans threatened the authorities of the region and the United States, where then-President Donald Trump was leading a crusade against migration, criminalising migration from what he shamelessly called “a shithole”.
The “zero tolerance” policy was a banner of the Trump administration, with the famous wall on the border with Mexico and the decision to remove Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from thousands of migrants arriving from conflict zones and who had lived a lifetime in the United States.
However, Trump’s relationship with President Nayib Bukele was more than good, perhaps due to their similar traits: they were two “outsiders” of politics, extroverted, controversial and
In fact, during Trump’s final months a “safe third country” agreement was imposed – and accepted, under which El Salvador would receive asylum seekers processed by the United States. Joe Biden abrogated the treaty upon assuming the presidency.
The problem, however, is getting worse over time.
Arrests are increasing
According to the United States’ Office of Customs and Border Protection, one and a half million Central American migrants were detained in 2021 either while trying to enter or when already within North American territory,
So far, almost 88,000 Salvadorans have been intercepted, almost triple the number three years ago, when 37,000 migrants from this Central American nation reached the North American borders in search of better living conditions, but above all security. Detainees are segmented into unaccompanied minors, single adults, and family groups, although the behaviour of each is different. The case of the thousands of minors who arrived alone, vulnerable and terrified is particularly concerning.
According to official statistics, since last April Salvadoran migrants exceeded 10,000 monthly detentions, the flow increasing gradually until reaching 12,656 last month.
But that count only includes those who were detained. How many managed to enter? And what’s more, how many entered the United States legally, with a tourist or study visa, and decided not to return? It is difficult to calculate for sure, but they are not few in number.
It is estimated that almost a third of the 6.3 million inhabitants of El Salvador are the “distant brothers”, as they call the diaspora that practically supports the country through remittances, and make migration from this country “the most sophisticated ” in the region.
This is the opinion of activist Celia Medrano, who explained to Prensa Latina the concept to the media based on comparisons with other Central American countries that share culture and motivations to migrate.
“Salvadorans have a better organisation of networks of “coyotes” (human traffickers) and support bases, especially family and community in the United States, as well as a greater ability to pay their way compared, for example, with Haitians and Hondurans,” explains the expert.
Medrano points out that such circumstances allow Salvadorans to access less insecure and more effective migration routes.
Even so, although an identity card is enough to enter Guatemala legally, it is customary to cross the borders through the so-called “blind spots”, in the hands of the “coyotaje”, with the certainty that a dignified life will only be possible outside your own country.
In fact, in a recent dialogue with Russia Today, Medrano considered the alleged drop in migration figures “a mirage”, which the Bukele administration attributes to its public policies to combat violence.
“That different officials have boasted that the decrease in migration to the United States is due to the success of the Territorial Control Plan only evidenced the lack of comprehension and understanding of the issues of human mobility on the part of these officials,” she said.
To return home or not
Bukele said that one of the aspirations of his government was to build a country worth living in, with the basic conditions so that no one feels the need to leave and to take risks in the search for something similar to the life they dream of.
Such perspective coincides with the idea of Biden, who obtained the approval of a budget of 4,000 million dollars for local development programmes in Central America, focused on combating violence and poverty.
However, international analysts question whether money alone can solve the problem, due to the corruption entrenched in the region and the resentment of the rule of law, which casts doubt on the transparency and efficiency with which such funds would be used.
Thus, the area enters a kind of vicious cycle, with thousands of people fleeing their country and thousands more being returned to the same – or worse – circumstances that forced them to leave.
There are certain non-governmental organisations that serve many of those returnees, look for jobs for them, represent them, and advise them, but the reintegration of these groups is not easy: if those who stayed can barely get a job, what will remain for those who left?
In addition, the United Nations Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) warned about the problem of the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, who are victims of natural disasters, poverty, insecurity, violence and discrimination.
According to UNHCR, 12% of asylum applications worldwide were made by citizens of the Northern Triangle of Central America, where nearly nine million people are suffer from growing food shortages.
A closed door
For Medrano, Biden’s arrival left behind “Trump’s xenophobic, racist and anti-immigrant discourse,” but she stuck by her message to Central Americans who plan to go to the United States in an unregulated manner: don’t even try.
Similarly, Bukele called on Biden last July to fulfil his campaign promise to provide a permanent solution to migrants with TPS, the benefit created in 1990 that grants employment permits to migrants from countries affected by war, crime or persecution politics.
Washington extended the programme for migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Nepal and Sudan until 31 December 2022, after Trump’s attempts to revoke it collided with a court ruling in the case of Ramos v Nielsen. For lawyer Helena Olea, from the organisation Alianza América, the goal should be for people to have the option of emigrating, and not for them to be forced to leave their country.
However, not everyone has the patience – or the life – to wait for utopia. (PL)