Central America today is one of the world’s most homicidal regions, with the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala considered one of the most dangerous areas in the world. In 2016, two of Honduras’ cities were in the global top five for murder rates. San Salvador also made the top ten and Guatemala City the top 25, while the title ‘Murder capital of the world’ bounces back and forth between El Salvador and Honduras. But a recent homicide report points to improvements in violence trends with murder rates in El Salvador and Honduras declining since 2015, and Guatemala’s already lower rates stagnating.

This being said, these rates remain drastically higher than elsewhere; El Salvador’s murder rate towers around 20 times higher than the global average. What is behind such violence and how will it be affected by increasingly hostile US policy towards its Dreamers–those most vulnerable who fled to the US as children, and now face deportation?

Poverty can be largely ruled out as the main factor driving Central America’s violence, as the region’s lowest murder rate belongs to its poorest country, Nicaragua. Much like El Salvador, Nicaragua was a crucial Cold War battleground, battered by decades of US-fuelled armed conflict. Civil wars and revolutions agitated by US interventions have long shaped a violent crime epidemic in Central America. But the forces driving the Northern Triangle’s violence today have evolved. Widespread government corruption has been a key enabler of violence in the region as authorities fuel gang crime for their own ends.

In El Salvador, the two main political parties were found colluding with gangs – including the infamous MS-13 – in order to win the 2014 general election. The parties paid the gangs more than $300,000 to mobilise some voters and suppress others.

Similarly, in Honduras, a US investigation into its former President, Porfirio Lobo, revealed that Lobo took bribes from drug traffickers to turn a blind eye to their illicit operations. The same testimony claimed that the campaigns of the current President Juan Orlando Hernandez were financed by drug money, although neither has been officially probed.

With corruption rife, gangs are free to decay institutions and coerce the vulnerable. In Guatemala, extortion reaches unions, small businesses, and public transport systems. The message to all of them is the same: pay our tax, or pay with your life. It is often the poorest who are unable to afford the tax. Between 2006 and 2013, 617 bus drivers and 199 store assistants were murdered in Guatemala after refusing to pay protection money to racketeers. In the past two years, almost a third of the corner stores in Tegucigalpa closed as a result of extortion, with many owners filing for bankruptcy or fleeing the city. Out of 7,506 reports of extortion received by the Salvadoran National Police between 2013 and 2015, only 424 resulted in conviction.

Caught between the clutches of gangs and weak support systems, many see little choice: run or die. Violence in the Northern Triangle has forced massive waves of migration, including an estimated 714,500 people displaced across Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Over 150,000 citizens of these countries applied for asylum in the United States between 2011 and 2016 – a figure that continues to grow.

But those who make it to the US may not find sanctuary. Beyond its dismissal of Latin America as a land of ‘shithole countries’ filled with ‘bad hombres’, the Trump administration has shut numerous doors on Northern Triangle migrants. The sudden cancellation of the Central American Minors program – a fast-track which allowed children fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras with family legally in the United States to apply for asylum – has eliminated a safe and legal passage to the US without addressing the violent roots of displacement.

President Trump recently stripped 200,000 Salvadorans of their Temporary Protected Status, meaning the group legally living and working in the US since 2001 will be deported back to the dire conditions they left. The aftermath of DACA’s cancellation will be a deciding milestone of how US migration policy impacts Latin America. If Democrats and Republicans are unable agree on a substitute immigration deal by March 5th, 800,000 Dreamers risk deportation; 88% of them back to Mexico and the Northern Triangle.

What’s less obvious is how these policies could further empower violence in the region. In the case of El Salvador, murder rates steadily rose in the 1990s and 2000s alongside the rate of deportations from the United States. A recent report by Crisis Group goes further and investigates the current situation of Salvadorans deported during the 1990s and 2000s in an attempt to inform expectations under the current administration’s immigration policy. The report revealed one key finding: such policies had several unintended consequences, especially regarding gang recruitment. Youths in the Northern Triangle have traditionally been ripe for recruitment by organised criminal groups, and as a high proportion of potential deportees are young, the United States could provoke new depths of violence by inadvertently staffing the Northern Triangle’s gangs. It is clear that the current policy would leave Dreamers particularly endangered upon return.

But what’s more is that over half of the Dreamers are women, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 25. Femicide rates in all three Northern Triangle countries are in global top ten, with violence against women trending for the worse: femicides in Honduras rose 263% between 2005 and 2013, while Guatemala reported 11,299 cases of sexual violence in 2015 – one every forty six minutes.

As things stand now, history is threatening to repeat itself. Central America’s deadliest gangs such as the MS-13 and B-18 were not formed in San Salvador, but Los Angeles. Made up of disenfranchised and impoverished migrants who fled the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, many entered the United States as refugees and, tragically, left as criminals. The gangs were then deported back into the war-torn Northern Triangle and allowed to seize the transnational power they wield now. Without strong institutions that can properly reintegrate today’s deportees back into society, life under the shadow of gangs will force their hands: become killers, get killed or run once again.

About the author

NIK MCNALLY writes on international relations and the intersection of culture and politics, particularly in the Americas and Middle East.