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Central American ganglands spark child refugee crisis

  • 23 July 2014

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