These Victims of Gang and Cartel Violence Are Making Surprising Moves

These Victims of Gang and Cartel Violence Are Making Surprising Moves

By Anna-Cat Brigida


Because human movement helps make the world go round.

By Anna-Cat Brigida

Family trips are, for many of us, the magical substance that elevates childhood from mere growing up to the stuff of lifelong nostalgia. Unless you’re in a place like El Salvador. When Yancy Argumedo Luna packed her family for the trip of a lifetime, it was not for a week at the beach. When gangs infested Luna’s neighborhood, she had to ditch any thoughts of sand castles and strategize about survival instead. So of course the family headed to the U.S … Except they didn’t, because they couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars for a smuggler, and going it alone through Mexico would no doubt mean encounters with gangs, bandits or human traffickers.

Their new homeland? Costa Rica. Which, in all coincidence, has the ring of vacation to it.

Luna and her family aren’t alone. More and more asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the Northern Triangle — are looking away from the U.S. and heading south instead. The development has unfolded over the past two to three years, spurred by a deteriorating security situation in the Triangle, says David James Cantor, director of the Refugee Law Initiative at the University of London. Since 2013, asylum requests through the agency have doubled. In 2015, more than 700 Northern Triangle migrants requested asylum in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a small number in comparison to the 40,000 asylum requests the U.S. received from these countries in 2014. But the Northern Triangle stats are probably much higher — UNHCR statistics don’t account for people such as Luna, who is undocumented, and her husband, who gained legal status through a family member with Costa Rican citizenship.

Full-blown war zones aside, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are three of the most violent countries in the world, with all credit due to street gangs, drug cartels and drugs, according to a report by InSight Crime. Gangs, as so many Americans have either seen on TV or actually lived through themselves, kill for wearing the wrong color, crossing imaginary territory lines or failing to make extortion payments. Violence in these parts, particularly in El Salvador, is intensifying. August 2015 was the deadliest month for the country since the end of a bloody civil war in 1992. And these problems show no sign of going away, “so the people want to leave,” says Hector Monterroso, an Episcopalian bishop from Guatemala who works with migrants in Costa Rica. “They are going to go to the closest place where there is another possibility.”

Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are three of the most violent countries in the world, with all credit due to street gangs, drug cartels and drugs

Armando de Paz, a lawyer for human-rights group Cristosal, which works with internal refugees in El Salvador, agrees. He points to people who don’t have the resources or opportunity to go to the U.S., “or they see that it’s very difficult, or they already tried and failed.” So, he says, they migrate to Nicaragua, Panama or Costa Rica, “because it’s easier to get there.”

There are nearly 60 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. Many flee armed conflicts or repressive regimes, such as the much publicized civil war in Syria. The Northern Triangle, on the other hand, has experienced a distinct type of pervasive social violence, which can be just as deadly as traditional conflicts, according to Cantor. And it’s different from other parts of Central America, which do not experience the same level of violence caused by organized crime. Costa Rica and Panama have accepted Colombian refugees for decades and thus have more institutional capacity to address asylum claims. However, in the long term, the delegation wants to improve security and the social conditions that lead to migration from the Northern Triangle.

Monterroso recently attended a conference in San Salvador where Central American religious and human-rights leaders and ombudsmen met to discuss solutions to propel the region toward an effective long-term remedy. Just a few blocks from their meeting place stands a statue of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a martyr who fought for social justice in El Salvador until his assassination in 1980. The religious community has led Central America in political activism as far back as the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when churches offered refuge to citizens fleeing brutal civil wars. And while much of the Western world, at least on a governmental level, has distanced itself dramatically from religion, here it might be — pardon the pun — salvation. The countries that receive migrants will eventually reach a point where they can’t receive any more, says Monterroso, “so it’s important that we all learn from each other and collaborate.”

To be sure, the trend of refugees here avoiding the U.S. is still small in terms of numbers. The majority of the Northern Triangle’s migrants continue to make the perilous journey to the U.S., where about 1 in 5 Salvadorans, 1 in 15 Guatemalans and 1 in 15 Hondurans reside. 

Meanwhile, Luna plans on setting down roots in Costa Rica despite her status as an undocumented immigrant. She recommends Salvadorans consider migrating to other Central American nations. “You can enter without a visa and it’s much cheaper,” Luna says. “Come here instead of the U.S.”