The Current

Why migrants are desperate to flee Central America to cross U.S. border

Migrants aren't fleeing the so-called Northern Triangle countries to pursue the American dream. They're risking their lives to escape gang violence, according to a Central American analyst.

Parents don't want their kids recruited by gangs or made into sex slaves, says expert

Central American migrants who spent weeks travelling across Mexico walk to the U.S. side of the border to ask authorities for asylum, April 29, 2018. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Read story transcript

Thousands of migrants fleeing Central America making their way to the southern U.S. border are escaping criminal violence, not pursuing the American dream, says an expert.

Sofia Martinez, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that in places like El Salvador, gangs are in control of urban and rural territories with established checkpoints and roadblocks. These gangs also extort businesses on a daily basis to get funds for illicit activities.

"I've interviewed families in Honduras and in El Salvador that have kids that have turned 11 or 12 and they're telling me that they're scared that their kids go out to play in the street because it's quite likely that they'll get a call from a gang," she told The Current's guest host Mike Finnerty.

"In Honduras, on top of the gang violence, you also have levels of drug trafficking."

Families have reason to be worried about gang recruitment, said Martinez. Kids in extreme poverty are sometimes given expensive gifts such as sportswear as an incentive to join gangs. 

Matthew Rooney, director of economic growth with the George W. Bush Institute, says the U.S. bears some responsibility for the gang violence that many migrants are fleeing.

"The gang problem was actually incubated in the United States and was only transferred to Central America when the United States began deporting non-American citizens," Rooney told Finnerty.

This phenomenon greatly affected the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, he explained.

Gang violence, Rooney said, creates a vicious cycle challenging the sovereignty of the state that results as a deterrent to invest in creating jobs.

"That again feeds the gang problem because young people coming out of school don't see opportunities for themselves except to join the gang. So that is a serious problem and a cycle that needs to be broken," he said.

"I do think that breaking that cycle and making sure that the economy is ready to offer opportunity as the security situation resolves itself is one of the keys to the problem."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler.


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