The crossing though Mexico to the US by thousands of Salvadorians, Guatemalan, Honduran and Mexican children has shaken the governments of this region. US military bases, particularly those closer to the Mexican border, have become children refugee camps, and neither the source countries nor the US as the destination have any idea how to deal with what has to be called a refugee crisis instead of an immigration one.
The exodus of unaccompanied boys and girls to the US has become a metaphor of an impoverished region — Central America — that has abandoned its children and mortgaged its future. Pope Francis — who has a deep knowledge of this region — has demanded 'urgent intervention', and has called the US to welcome and protect the children who are risking their lives to find a better one.
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are post civil war countries where organised gang violence is out of control and the economic violence perpetrated by US-recommended neoliberal policies has brought about poverty and social exclusion. These are some of the key reasons behind the forced exodus of children.
The US estimates that since October 2013 more than 100,000 girls and boys have been detained. According to the Washington Office for Latin America, around 34 per cent came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This figure is likely inaccurate, due to the fact that Mexican children detained by US authorities often identify themselves as Central Americans; it is harder to send them back to Central America than to nearby Mexico.
Also, undocumented minors from non-neighbouring countries have a higher possibility of staying in the US for years before being deported. Usually they are detained for a month and then handed over to foster families while the migration legal process continues. And this can take years. Figures confirm this. Only 2000 out of 50,000 minors detained in the US in 2013 were deported.
Maras (criminal gangs) have taken control of large portions of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Neighbourhoods, streets and even primary schools have become enclaves of gang feudalism. Minors are forcefully recruited. They become canon folder, drugs curriers, sex slaves and coerced executioners. A killer who is a minor receives a jail sentence that is much shorter than for adults.
Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world. The homicide rate in Honduras is the highest in the region. In Guatemala it has risen by 70 per cent this year and in El Salvador 12 murders are committed daily, with a rising trend.
In El Salvador, the request for asylum is now higher than during the 1979–1992 civil war. It is significant that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reopened its office in El Salvador, an office that was closed at the end of the civil war.
In the last two decades, these three countries are experiencing a different kind of war: not a civil war between left wing guerrillas and the state, but a war between the maras that has left the state besieged. The government has lost its enforcement monopoly against private armed groups and organised criminal gangs.
Gang violence is not the only reason behind the exodus. There is also the economic violence that has spread in one of the most impoverished regions of the world. Economic violence is subjugation, particularly of children, indigenous people, the rural and urban poor, by exclusionary access to employment, education, health care and means of production.
This economic violence — sponsored by the US neoliberal model forced into these societies — is accompanied by the exploitation of the many by a small local economic and political elite. Any attempt to modify this model — for example to revamp the appalling taxation system — is ferociously opposed by the holders of economic power, leaving the state coffers bare and unable to invest in much-needed social and welfare policy reforms.
Ironically this Washington economic violence has forced thousands of undocumented migrants to flee to the US.
The consequences of a failed economic model are evident wherever you look in Central America. In Guatemala one indigenous child of less than five years dies every two hours due to preventable health problems. Guatemala is a country of young people — 48 per cent — yet has the worst level in the region of government funds allocated to children and adolescents. The educational system is one of the worst in the world.
The exodus of children has reinforced once again the need to reform the US migration philosophy, which has failed due to the lack of engagement with Mexico and Central American countries. Washington's demand — as expressed a few weeks ago by vice president Joe Biden in Guatemala — to Central American countries and Mexico to detain by force the departing and entering minors is unworkable and will make things worse.
Should the US compel southern neighbouring countries to do the 'dirty work' alone, it will only bring about more corruption, extortion, prostitution and human rights violations. State agencies of the region are not able to police these porous borders, which are already under the control of organised crime.
While organised crime continues, economic violence remains unresolved and the US doesn't get its migration policy right, undocumented and unaccompanied children will keep risking their lives.
Antonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and academic. He is the current Director of Journalism, RMIT University.
Image by ES James/Shutterstock: A Special Forces officer of the Grupo Reacion Policial guards an alley during a raid against gang members in El Salvador.