When gang members come knocking, Central American households are offered a sinister choice: give us your children or let them stay and be killed. 

Not surprisingly, many of the region's most desperate families are fleeing their homes in record numbers. 

This past year alone, more than 62,000 children and adolescents made the perilous trek from the northern triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — to what they hoped would be safe refuge in the U.S.

The scale and pace of the displacement crisis is staggering. This year, U.S. custom officials picked up 17,500 unaccompanied children from Honduras, 15,700 from Guatemala and 14,500 from El Salvador.

Five years ago, there were just over 3,000 from all three countries combined. 

Most of these kids are currently in limbo, interned in the roughly 100 shelters scattered along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

This massive surge in "unaccompanied alien children," as they are labelled, was first characterized by the White House as a humanitarian crisis. And with good reason — immigration authorities registered a sharp increase in under-12 year olds crossing the border. 

This being an election year in the U.S., talk of assisting terrified children morphed quickly into a partisan slanging match over ways to deport the "illegals" back home. That debate shows no sign of abating.

But what is seldom acknowledged in Washington is that Central America's displacement catastrophe was largely manufactured in the U.S. in the first place.

Civil war in all but name

A long time in the making, this current crisis is first and foremost a result of the catastrophic levels of violence in Central America's northern triangle, a region that registers the world's highest violent death rates, with Honduras leading the pack. 

With a homicide rate of 187 murders per 100,000 residents, San Pedro Sula, Honduras's second-largest city, is the most dangerous on the planet. El Salvador's and Guatemala's capitals are not far behind, with murder rates exceeding those of Afghanistan and Syria.

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A couple from violence-ravaged El Salvador walk with their three-year old son on the train tracks in Saltillo on Aug. 4, 2014. The family is part of an ongoing exodus and was hoping to catch the cargo train, nicknamed The Beast, to the U.S. (Daniel Becerril / Reuters)

Although Central America's last civil war ended in the 1990s, many of its cities are affected by warfare in all but name, the violence fuelled by a combination of international gangs, drug trafficking and weak law enforcement. 

Rival gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 (M18) operate in virtually every Central American country where they run extortion rackets, child prostitution rings and sell their services as assassins for hire.

They also recruit heavily from the region's poorest neighborhoods.

But the recent explosion in gang violence can be at least partly attributed to U.S. deportation policies, beginning with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996.

Gangs like MS13 and M18 first emerged in California during the 1980s and 1990s. Many of their original members were the sons of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran refugees who had been granted shelter.

Since 2000, though, the U.S. has deported more than 150,000 immigrants with criminal records to Central America, with most occurring in the last few years. 

About 90 per cent of those deported were shipped to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. (Between 2002 and 2003, Honduras received more than 65,000 criminal deportees alone.) 

The Obama administration recently stepped up these deportations, including through the Secure Communities program.

And this removal of tens of thousands of Central American convicts coincides with a massive surge in criminal violence and the exodus of adolescents and children from the northern triangle.

'Crime colleges'

Another element in this crisis is that measures intended to dismantle U.S. gangs in recent decades backfired, spreading once localized "cliques" operating out of Los Angeles to Central American countries. 

Some of them began working with Colombian and Mexican cartels to shift cocaine and, today, MS13 and M18 operate in 40 U.S. states as well Canada, law enforcement agencies say. 

The U.S.-led deportations, coupled with America's on-again, off-again "war on drugs," also unintentionally short-circuited Central America's dilapidated penal system. 

Instead of rehabilitating and reintegrating convicted felons, the region's hellish and over-crowded prisons now incubate criminal networks. Locals refer to them as "crime colleges," since the institutions are frequently run by veteran gang members.

There are at least 70,000 hard-core gang members distributed across Central America, though the number could be much higher. No one knows for certain. 

El Salvador's justice ministry estimates that as many as 600,000 Salvadorians — out of a population of 6.3 million — are somehow involved in the gang business. 

But regardless of how many they number, the region's gangs now operate as franchises with recruits from Argentina to Alaska. 

With some exceptions, Central American governments typically pursued an iron fist approach to putting down the gangs. 

Local politicians advocated harsh prison sentences for kids as young as 12, and sent out their armies to hunt down anyone with incriminating tattoos. Not surprisingly, prison populations soared. 

Washington also provided military, policing and development assistance to all three countries, launching, in 2008, the Central American Regional Security Initiative. 

The program has directed more than $800 million toward fighting the gang menace, but has few concrete results to show for its efforts. 

A different approach

Although simmering for years, the sheer dimensions of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Central America are really only now coming to light. 

Aid organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, the Red Cross and World Vision are finally sounding the alarm. Faith-based groups are also cobbling together food and shelter. 

It is not clear whether the solution to ending mass migration lies in the U.S. alone. Comprehensive immigration reform is stalled in a partisan Congress, and there are signs that President Obama is preparing to take a harder line. 

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Recent polls show most Americans don't have a lot of sympathy for illegal migrants, including the tens of thousands of children trying to reach their borders from gang-ridden Central America. Little wonder it has become an election issue for the coming midterms. (Reuters)

Last month he asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with crisis, including $1.8 billion to care for the children, $995 million to detain and deport them and another $822 million to shore-up law enforcement capacities in Central America. 

Rights activists fear that this heavy-handed approach will only make matters worse. 

The reality is that more than three-quarters of the minors pouring into the U.S. come from a handful of poor and violent cities in just three countries in the northern triangle — suggesting an urgent need to focus aid on preventing violence in Central America's hot spots and generating the political will to shut gangs down.

Any solution will certainly require significant investments to strengthen safety, reduce the apparent impunity of the most violent gangs and eradicate the grinding poverty in much of Latin America.

At the very least, the option to be killed, forcibly recruited, or take flight must be taken off the table.