Central American Refugees Fleeing Gang-run China-style Surveillance State

Of the more than 100,000 migrants who crossed the southern U.S. border in February, Customs and Border Protection reported that more than 44,000 came from from the three countries known as the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The United States has seen a wave of migration from the Northern Triangle over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of individuals residing in the United States who were born in that region increased by 78%. By contrast, the number of individuals residing in the United States who were born in Mexico decreased by nearly 7%.

Migrant Family
Seven out of 10 encounters at the U.S. border resulted in expulsion under Title 42 in February. An asylum seeker from Honduras (R) cares for her infant son as they wait with family outside the El Chaparral border crossing port as they wait to cross into the United States in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on February 19, 2021. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

A central reason for the region's mass exodus stems from its struggle with gang violence.

El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world, Honduras has the fourth, and Guatemala has the 14th. However, referring to these armed groups as gangs fails to properly define the extent of their power.

"I try to use the phrase 'non-state armed actors,' because that is a better description of the level of control they possess," Meghan López, regional vice president of Latin America at the International Rescue Committee, told Newsweek.

"For a Western audience, 'gangs' doesn't sound so bad," she said. "I used to live in Baltimore, where if you know where the gangs are, you don't go there. That's manageable. This is not a manageable situation."

El Salvador gang
Alleged members of the Barrio 18 gang are detained by members of the National Civil Police during an operation in San Salvador on May 11, 2015. More than 10,000 gang members remain in Salvadoran prisons and another 60,000 are believed to be on the streets, according to authorities. PHOTO CREDIT: Marvin RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images

López said living in the territories under gang control is like living in a surveillance state. Gang members monitor who enters and who leaves the community. Anyone who doesn't comply with the gang's wishes goes on a watch list.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, gangs even became enforcers of quarantine regulations.

"There are reports of gangs beating people up who've broken quarantine," López told Newsweek. "(That) makes it known that there is total and absolute control, so whether it's inter-familial violence, whether it's community violence—you're now locked into that."

The three Northern Triangle nations rank among the six poorest in the Western Hemisphere. On top of facing limited economic opportunities, Cynthia Arnson, director of The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Latin American Program, told Newsweek that local shopkeepers face extortion by the gangs.

Demonstrators hold signs during a protest against the government Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti and their alleged involvement in government corruption schemes, in Guatemala City, on April 25, 2015. JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

In communities controlled by MS-13 or La 18, escaping this violence and extortion is virtually impossible. Arnson said gangs maintain control through violence and threats of violence. She said gangs know where people live, where their children go to school, and what routes their children take when walking to school. Defying the gang can lead to punishment in the form of assault, rape or murder.

For many people living in the Northern Triangle, the local equivalent of a 911 call offers next to no relief. Police forces across the region are understaffed, underfinanced and undertrained. Many are corrupt, with some officers working with the gangs to augment their low wages.

Arnson said that the people do not trust the police. With no public trust in the police in countries lacking a strong central government, control of the streets can default to non-state armed actors.

"All of those things that are components of this kind of surveillance," Arnson told Newsweek. "And these gangs maintain that control by having extensive networks of members and informers in local communities."

The two gangs most dominant in the three countries are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (La 18), both of which originated in Los Angeles. Formed in the 1960s, La 18 formed as an alternative for Central Americans who were rejected from the Mexican-dominated Clanton 14 gang, a group dating back to at least the 1930s. Similarly, MS-13 was founded in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants seeking to protect themselves from rival Los Angeles factions.

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), is pictured on Monday, March 4, 2013, in the Criminal Center of Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, El Salvador, one year after the cessation of the violence between the rivalry of two large gangs in El Salvador. Marvin RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images

The formation of both groups occurred in the wake of a Central American political crisis that lasted from the early 1960s through the mid 1990s.

In 1954, Guatemala's democratically elected leader Jacobo Árbenz was driven from office in a coup supported by the CIA. That coup sparked a civil war that lasted more than three decades. By 1979, the country had become a proxy battleground for world superpowers, with opposing forces supported by the U.S. and Russia.

Similar armed conflicts throughout the Northern Triangle at the end of the last century created the conditions in which the La 18 and MS-13 gangs took root and thrived, leading to the surge in Central American migration to the U.S.

In an attempt to address the conditions at their source that drive this immigration, the new U.S. administration has made the Northern Triangle a foreign policy priority.

"The Biden Administration has identified Central America as one of its primary areas of focus when it comes to foreign policy," a spokesperson with the U.S. State Department told Newsweek. "The United States is committed to working with civil society, the private sector, and governments to build a safer and more prosperous Honduras, including through foreign assistance that promotes good governance and human rights, inclusive economic growth, and citizen security."

The official said the president's proposed $4 billion regional strategy will play a central role in these efforts. Funding from this plan will primarily go toward private sector development and services provided by nongovernmental organizations, services that are often key in protecting individuals from gang activity by offering individuals safe spaces away from gang oversight.

These services range from women's shelters to employment aid services and childcare centers. In 2019, the Trump administration put a freeze on $450 million in aid to the Northern Triangle, aid used to fund these services. This, together with economic turmoil tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, led many service providers to shutter their services.

"Ninety percent of social services in El Salvador had to shut down in the midst of the pandemic," López told Newsweek. "These services are the little escape valves that are migration preventive, frankly."