El Salvador and Honduras are locked in an unholy race for the world’s highest homicide rate, with surging crime and drug violence across the region threatening to trigger an even larger surge of migrants seeking to get into the United States.
More than 17,000 homicides were recorded across the three nations of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — in 2015, an 11 percent jump from a year earlier, according to preliminary statistics from local police agencies released last week.
Although the northward flow of migrants from Mexico to the U.S. has dropped in recent years, the numbers have soared from the crime-ridden countries to Mexico’s south, fueling a widening crisis for the Obama administration and heated criticism from presidential contenders on both the left and the right.
Nearly 10 percent the triangle’s 30 million residents fled their homes over the past decade. Most have found their way northward, according to an analysis last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, which said the number of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras living in the U.S. leapt from 1.5 million in 2000 to as many as 2.7 million in 2013. More than 1.2 million of them are in the country illegally, according to estimates.
In just the past two years, more than 100,000 unaccompanied children, and nearly as many mothers and children traveling together, have been caught sneaking into the U.S. along the southwestern border. An increasing number are making claims of asylum, saying they have fled for their lives and face a real danger of being killed if they return to their homes.
The surge calls into question the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s efforts to beef up security and encourage economic opportunity in the region, the lack of which is largely to blame for the migrant surge, according to analysts.
The Obama administration’s 2016 budget nearly doubles foreign aid to Central America for the coming three years — with an additional $750 million Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle spending package aimed mainly at police and prosecutor training and youth outreach in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Now, with the rate of migration picking up again this winter, Homeland Security officials have announced a get-tough approach, approving a series of raids to round up and deport some of the Central Americans who came in 2014 but who face court orders to be sent home.
Critics left and right
Critics on the right say the surge of Central Americans is drawn by lax enforcement in the U.S., pointing to Border Patrol interviews with migrants who say they believed they could earn “permisos,” or free passes, from the administration. Those critics say deportation is the best way to send a signal back to Central America that there are no free passes.
Advocates on the left accuse the president of heartlessly sending destitute families back to the unstable and dangerous world they fled.
“We have a refugee crisis, not an immigration problem,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said as he rallied advocates at a press conference outside the White House on Friday.
Hispanic lawmakers say they see a double standard in President Obama’s staunch support for taking in Syrian refugees fleeing that country’s civil war while his administration is cracking down on those fleeing violence and repression in Central America.
“How does that make any sense?” said Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, New York Democrat.
The crosscurrents in U.S. policy underscore how complex the crisis of illegal immigration and U.S. relations with Central America has become during recent years, said Michael Shifter, who heads the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, which specializes in Latin American issues.
“There’s a problem of coordination and coherence in U.S. policy,” Mr. Shifter said, including a “contradiction” between the current Homeland Security Department crackdown and what the State Department — the main overseer of the $750 million aid package — is trying to do in Central America.
“The crackdowns are aggravating an already bad security situation,” he said. While many of those being rounded up and deported by Homeland Security are women and children, there is also a significant number with deeper criminal records who are being shipped back to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Officials in those countries are bracing for a larger number of deportees returning from the U.S. after a marked decline last year. El Salvador’s government last week issued tips to its nationals in the U.S., telling them that immigration agents have to present an order signed by a judge to enter their homes, according to the Agence France-Presse news service.
“We’re worried about the deportations because, beyond the human drama it causes, there is a difficulty due to adult unemployment,” Marisol Garcia, who monitors migration issues at the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America, told Agence France-Presse. For young people and families forced back to their homelands, there was also the “exposure to an environment of insecurity that they had fled.”
The re-entry of those individuals can trigger more violence in those already volatile nations, Mr. Shifter said. “At the same time, in order to stop the immigration crisis from these countries, it’s absolutely critical to strengthen police forces and justice systems there,” he said.
The administration’s aid package is “a step in the right direction but still won’t be enough to solve the problem,” he said.
Lack of buy-in
Hampering U.S. efforts is a lack of buy-in from the countries that the money is meant to help.
“We’ve had some good signals recently, but it’s not like what we had with Plan Colombia, where we had a very close partnership with the government of Colombia and an alignment of interests between Bogota and Washington during the early 2000s,” he said. “With the Northern Triangle right now, we have very weak governance and institutions with high corruption.”
The Obama administration dispatched Vice President Joseph R. Biden to Guatemala in March with the head of the Inter-American Development Bank to seek greater commitments from local leaders on anti-corruption, police training and other initiatives.
The goals ranged from the short-term, including new job training centers in high-crime neighborhoods, to the more ambitious, such as a new gas pipeline running from Mexico to Central America.
But the grim homicide numbers that emerged last week suggest that basic questions of government competence and public security remain.
A recent wave of violence appears to have pushed El Salvador to the top of the world homicide rates, surpassing Honduras, which has led the grim list in recent years.
The rate hit 92 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in Honduras in 2011, according to World Bank data, but has dropped to an estimated 57 per 100,000 in 2015, according to police records.
In El Salvador, the rate was 104 per 100,000 in 2015, a nearly 70 percent spike over 2014, with the nation’s government registering at least 6,657 homicides among its roughly 6.3 million people, according to news reports. Guatemala’s rate for 2015 was 36 homicides per 100,000 people, with 5,718 — slightly less than the previous year. Other countries in the region with elevated per capita homicide rates include Venezuela, Belize and Jamaica.
In comparison, Britain’s homicide rate is about one per 100,000 residents, the U.S. rate is about four and Brazil’s is 25, according to the latest available data from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Authorities in El Salvador blame most of the killings there on rival gangs involved in drug trafficking, extortion rackets and other criminal activity. The “maras,” as they are known, have a heavy presence in poor neighborhoods across the country and have increasingly moved into rural areas as well.
Bloodshed spiked after the 2014 breakdown of a truce between the nation’s two most powerful syndicates — the 18th Street gang and the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Both have established deep ties inside the U.S. because they were founded by Central American immigrants in Los Angeles.
But their current reach is felt most in the Northern Triangle. Jeannette Aguilar, a researcher at Jose Simeon Canas Central American University, told The Associated Press that the soaring homicide rate in El Salvador “reflects the inability of the Salvadoran state and the Salvadoran society to guarantee the most fundamental right there can be in a society, which is life.”
Such assessments have widened a political wedge that immigrant rights advocates are eager to exploit as the debate rages on the campaign trail over the Obama administration’s response to the surge of migrants from the countries south of Mexico.
On the Republican side, presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on the southern border — to be paid for by Mexico — has captured the headlines, but virtually all of the Republican candidates stress the need for greater border controls and what they say is the failure of the Obama administration to enforce the country’s immigration laws.
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernard Sanders fired off a letter Thursday demanding that the administration halt its latest round of deportation raids, which U.S. officials say have netted at least 121 illegal immigrant parents and children.
Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent who is running as a Democrat, urged Mr. Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to declare Central America so unsafe that people from that region are allowed to stay and work in the U.S. — a policy known as temporary protected status.
“I urge you to immediately end these raids and not deport families back to countries where a death sentence awaits,” Mr. Sanders wrote.