Central American Migrants Increasingly Flee Gang Violence, Yet Few Seek Asylum in Mexico

A growing number of Central Americans are fleeing their home countries because of violence related to gangs and organized crime, refugee agency officials say.

Central American Migrants Increasingly Flee Gang Violence, Yet Few Seek Asylum in Mexico

Mayela Sanchez, GPJ Mexico

Los Invisibles: Nuances of Migration Along Mexico’s Southern Border
Part 8 in a Series

CIUDAD IXTEPEC, MEXICO – Last year, a gang member entered a clothing store in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, with a pistol at his waist. He told the husband and wife working there that if they did not want problems, they had to “collaborate,”says the wife, who declined to publish her name for safety reasons.

That meant letting him come into the store whenever he wanted and take what he liked without paying, she says. Terrified, the couple agreed.

A month later, the man returned, this time with other members of his gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. They told the couple they had to pay them a $200 toll monthly, as the rest of the businesses in the area did.

“The only thing they told us was if we opened our mouths or if we opposed them, they were going to kill us,” the wife says. “As simple as that.”

She speaks in a quiet voice, sitting behind the women’s dormitory at the Hermanos en el Camino migrant shelter in Ciudad Ixtepec, a city in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. She, her husband and her brother-in-law fled Honduras to escape the Mara Salvatrucha.

The gang members continued to extort the couple for several months, the woman says. She and her husband lived in fear that the gang members would kill them and their two children would become orphans.

The woman and her husband were familiar with the clique that was extorting them, she says. It was the same one that her husband’s younger brother had belonged to years earlier.

Seven years ago, her husband’s brother left the gang, she says. As punishment for desertion, the leader of his clique ordered another gang member to kill him. But the gang member who was supposed to kill him let him escape, and the brother went into hiding in the city. Eventually, though, the gang members found out he was still alive.

He, his older brother and his brother’s wife decided to leave El Salvador, fleeing the Mara Salvatrucha. The married couple left their children behind with the wife’s parents. The Salvadorans arrived at the shelter in Ciudad Ixtepec in July 2013.

At the shelter, they look at the other migrants with distrust. They do not speak with anyone and keep apart from the others. Although they are in Mexico, they remain afraid the gang will find them.

Violence linked to gangs and organized crime is causing many Central Americans to flee their countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Young people run the highest risk of gang violence, according to the international refugee agency. Because of these migrants’ vulnerable situation, they can seek refugee status in Mexico, but many do not realize it is an option or are determined to reach the U.S.

Central America is the most violent region in the world, with a homicide rate of 41 per 100,000 people, according to a 2012 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The homicide rate is even higher in some countries, at 69 in El Salvador and 92 in Honduras per 100,000 people.

Gangs and organized crime are among the principal causes of this violence, according to a 2011 report by the World Bank. An estimated 70,000 gang members operate primarily in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Central America’s dominant gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as the MS-13, and the 18th Street Gang, also known as Barrio 18, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Both groups trace their roots to neighborhoods in Los Angeles in the U.S., where Salvadoran immigrants and refugees fled to escape the civil war of the 1980s. About 10 years later, the U.S. government deported large numbers of gang members convicted of crimes to their home countries. Today, these gangs engage in robbery, extortion, kidnapping, murder, and the trafficking of humans and contraband.

Violence linked to gangs and organized crime is causing many Central Americans to flee their countries, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

The U.N. refugee agency’s office in Tapachula, a city in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, monitors several states in southern Mexico where migrants enter or travel through the country, says Rafael Zavala, the head of the office. Through this tracking, the agency has seen an increase in the number of petitions for refugee status in Mexico in general.

Central American migrants have long left their homes in search of economic opportunity, Zavala says. But he links this recent rise in applications to increased violence in the region because of gangs and organized crime. Some of these migrants suffered direct threats, while the generalized violence in the region and the desire to live in a safer place motivated others.

The agency draws from data from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, the government agency that processes petitions for refugee status. Comprehensive statistics are not available on the specific reasons people apply to prove the increase because of violence, but published data offer some indication.

More than 62 percent of people seeking refugee status between January and August 2013 were from Honduras or El Salvador, according to statistics from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance. Honduras and El Salvador were the most violent countries in the world as of 2012, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report.

Between 2002 and 2010, 578 Hondurans and 454 Salvadorans filed petitions for refugee status, according to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance. In contrast, between January and August 2013 alone, 335 Hondurans and 201 Salvadorans filed for refugee status.

Between 2002 and 2011, 21 percent of successful petitions for refugee status were granted on the basis of internal conflicts, with 2.1 percent granted for generalized violence, according to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance. The government agency, which was established in 2002, does not publish statistics for individual years or specify reasons for successful petitions for data after 2011 to verify an increase because of violence.

Young people run the highest risk of gang violence, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Alberto, who declined to publish his full name for security reasons, is a curly-haired 18-year-old with a wispy moustache who applied for refugee status in Mexico after fleeing El Salvador in 2013 to avoid recruitment by a gang.

The Mara Salvatrucha tried to recruit Alberto earlier in 2013 when he was 17, he says. He remembers the night when gang members called him on the phone at his house in San Salvador.

“When they called me and told me they were going to recruit me, they asked me if I wanted life or death,” he says.

They threatened to kill him if he did not join.

Alberto thinks the gang members wanted to recruit him because he was a minor and had various friends who were already involved with the gang.

“I truly do not understand why they get involved in that,” he says.

He worries that his friends could be killed or imprisoned for crimes they did not commit just because they are gang members.

“It hurts a lot because they were my friends,” he says. “I met them when we were little.”

Alberto was never interested in becoming a gang member, he says. When the Mara Salvatrucha sought him out, he was no longer in school and was working. He had studied until eighth grade but wanted to resume his studies and to become a lawyer.

Alberto had to abandon his plans, his jobs and his family, though, in order to avoid joining the gang, he says. He left his country to head to Mexico in April. Since then, he has lived at the migrant shelter while awaiting the Mexican government’s response to his petition for refugee status.

Gang-related violence affects all sectors of society, but young people are a specific target of this violence, according to a 2010 report from the U.N. refugee agency.

The Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang, the two principal gangs in Central America, depend heavily on the forced recruitment of young people in order to grow and to maintain size, according to the U.N. refugee agency report. Those who refuse to join are at greater risk for becoming victims of the gangs. The gangs tend to recruit youth who are poor, homeless, or from socially marginalized sectors of society.

While young men run the risk of being recruited by the gangs, young women can suffer violent repercussions if they rebuff sexual advances from gang members or refuse to let the gang convert them into “sexual property,” according to the U.N. refugee agency report.

At the 72 Hogar Refugio Para Personas Migrantes migrant shelter in Tenosique, a city in Tabasco state not far from the Mexican-Guatemalan border, a 34-year old Honduran woman says her world crumbled when she heard her 14-year-old sister had fallen in love with a gang member. The woman, who declined to publish her name for safety reasons, says the girl met the gang member in their neighborhood in Honduras a year earlier and had even visited him in prison after he was imprisoned.

It is common for gang members to choose young teenagers as girlfriends, according to a 2010 study of gender relations by Interpeace, a nonprofit international organization and strategic partner of the United Nations dedicated to building lasting peace and to address conflict in nonviolent ways. These girls tend to not be members of gangs and to be between ages 13 and 15.

The Honduran woman had heard that when a girl got involved with a gang member, she became his property and would not be allowed to be with another man for the rest of her life, even if the man left her for a different woman.

The younger sister, who did not want to flee, cries as her sister tells her story. Her small, girlish body is stooped. She only lifts her pale, young face to say that she knew her boyfriend was a criminal but she was not afraid of him because he did not belong to the Mara Salvatrucha but to another gang, which she declined to identify by name.

“She does not understand the scope of how serious it is to get yourself involved with one of those people,” her older sister says. “It is like putting yourself in a place that you cannot escape from.”

As the older sister talks, she shakes her hands nervously. Her face registers anxiety, fear and exhaustion.

“When they no longer want a girl like her – they do not want her, she does not serve them – they send someone to kill her, or they give her to someone else,” the older sister says. “It is something terrifying.”

To keep the girl away from the gang member, her sisters locked her in the house and prohibited her from using the telephone, the older sister says. After three months on lockdown, the older sisters and their mother decided the best option was to bring the girl to the U.S. to live with one of their sisters who lives there because they were afraid the gang member would harm her.

They elected the 34-year-old woman to take her because she is the oldest, she says. Her husband decided to accompany the women in order to protect them, and they left their two children behind in El Salvador. They are not sure whether they will stay in the U.S. or return home to their children.

The older sister is afraid they will bump into someone at the shelter who will recognize the younger sister and will tell the gang member in prison, she says.

Under Mexican immigration law, foreigners who have left their countries because generalized violence, internal conflicts or human rights violations have threatened their security or liberty can seek refugee status in Mexico. But many do not realize it is an option or prefer to continue their trek to the U.S.

The number of Central Americans seeking refugee status, while rising, is still low when compared to the total number of migrants from the region who enter Mexico, Zavala says.

Between January and August 2013, 569 people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – the Central American countries where violence is concentrated – applied for refugee status in Mexico, according to Mexico’s refugee commission. Just 141 received refugee status.

In comparison, more than 56,600 people from these three countries entered the country during the same period and were taken into custody, according to data from the National Institute of Migration, Mexico’s federal migration authority.

Not all Central American migrants are victims of violence, Zavala says. Still, he thinks that more migrants from the region would apply for refugee status if they knew it was an option.

The Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance has not done enough to inform migrants who are victims of violence that they can seek refugee status, Zavala says.

“I think the principal challenge is that the people know that they can seek asylum, that they know that they can be protected by Mexico,” Zavala says.

Migrants should realize they do not have to make the dangerous trek to the U.S. in order to re-establish their lives, he says.

When the former clothing vendor from El Salvador and her husband and brother-in-law decided to flee their country, they planned to travel to the U.S., where the woman has a brother. They did not realize they could seek refugee status in Mexico until they arrived at the Hermanos en el Camino migrant shelter and a staff member informed them of their options.

José Alberto Donis Rodríguez, the shelter’s coordinator, says that when staff members suspect people may be fleeing violence, they tell them they can apply for asylum and help them through the process if they decide to do so. Sometimes staff members from the U.N. refugee agency’s office in Tapachula come to the shelter to talk to residents about applying for asylum.

But the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, which is tasked with attending to the rights of refugees and processing their petitions for refugee status, does not do the same sort of outreach, Donis says.

The Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance has just three offices in the country: in Mexico City – the capital – and in the states of Veracruz and Chiapas. Migrants who want to apply for refugee status from other states have to do so through the state offices of the National Institute of Migration, which brings their petition to one of the commission offices.

But this can slow the process. Some migrants also may be afraid to go to the National Institute of Migration offices because the institute is also responsible for holding and repatriating immigrants who entered the country illegally.

Representatives of the Mexican refugee commission did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Administrative difficulties aside, some migrants who are fleeing violence in Central America do not seek refugee status in Mexico because they leave their countries with the goal of reaching the U.S., Zavala says.

The Honduran woman who is bringing her sister to the U.S. falls into this category. Although she is aware that the journey to the U.S. is dangerous, she prefers to take the risk instead of seeking refugee status in Mexico, she says. She has a sister in the U.S. who can help them, but if she stayed in Mexico, she would have no support.

The Salvadoran woman, in contrast, says that she plans to apply for asylum, along with her husband and brother-in-law, now that they know it is an option. Her life was stable in El Salvador, and she and her husband looked forward to watching their children grow, knowing their grandchildren and growing old together.

“It is a hope that I do not lose,” she says.

She knows she will have her children with her again at some point. Still, not knowing when while she and her family members apply for asylum torments her.

“We did not choose this path in order to grow,” she says. “But obligatorily, we had to take it.”

Although the struggles of migration have frequented the media, coverage has been shallow about the diverse issues that Central American migrants who enter Mexico illegally face as they try to settle in the country or travel north. Mayela Sánchez, senior reporter for GPJ’s Mexico News Desk, spent one month along Mexico’s southern border delving into the nuances of employment, health, violence, gender justice and various human rights issues that push people to migrate and confront them along their journeys. GPJ will feature this series on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.


GPJ translated this article from Spanish.