Why the Children Fleeing Central America Will Not Stop Coming
Editor's note: This article was translated from Spanish by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington.
On Friday, June 11, David de la O disappeared. He was walking home from school in rural Santa Cruz Michapa, a small city in El Salvador about an hour’s drive from San Salvador, the nation’s capital. David’s family searched for him all night, without success. The next morning, his remains were found buried in an abandoned field outside town. He had been stabbed four times in the torso; his head, arms and legs had been severed. David was only 11 years old. In fourth grade, he had been learning long division and multiplication and practicing verb tenses. With no leads to go on, the police speculated that David was killed and dismembered by gang members because he refused to join their ranks. (He went to school in an area controlled by one gang and lived in a neighborhood dominated by another.)
David’s murder wasn’t widely reported in the country. It was yet another incident of violence—a terrible one, but one of many. The day before David was killed, two other teenagers, 15 and 16, had their throats slit and were dumped in another abandoned field on the outskirts of the capital.
To avoid becoming the victims of gang violence, tens of thousands of children like David have fled El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for the United States. As their numbers skyrocket, lawmakers in Washington have sought to “repatriate” these refugees as quickly as possible. The Obama administration initially sought to change the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to allow the 52,000 or so child migrants who have arrived on US soil in the last nine months to be deported without going before an immigration judge. (Under the TVPRA, unaccompanied minors from countries that do not share a border with the United States are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, then go before an immigration court that will determine their fate; those hailing from Mexico, on the other hand, can accept “voluntary deportation” and return immediately.) The White House has since backed off this proposal and has instead asked Congress for $3.7 billion to ramp up enforcement and hire more judges to expedite the removal process. Republicans in the House of Representatives—including the GOP’s standard-bearer on immigration issues, Ted Cruz—continue to press for the TVPRA to be changed.
Little consideration has been given to the violence that children from these countries face upon returning home. But those who doubt that their lives are at risk are either deeply misinformed or, more likely, turning a blind eye to the epidemic of violence for the sake of political expedience. In the northern triangle of Central America, children are not only being killed, but brutally so—stabbed to death, cut into pieces, tortured.
But the violence in El Salvador, as in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, has been going on for years. When President George W. Bush signed the TVPRA into law in 2008, there were fifty-two murders per 100,000 people in El Salvador. The number shot up to seventy-one in 2009 before plateauing at sixty-five. Then, thanks in part to a truce between the government and the gangs, it dropped sharply in 2012. That year, the Salvadoran government transferred thirty leaders of the two biggest gangs in the country, the 18th Street Gang and the Mara Salvatrucha, from maximum-security prisons to gang-segregated minimum-security prisons where inmates are allowed conjugal visits and visits from their children. As a result, in 2012 and 2013, the murder rate fell to around forty per 100,000. But the truce has been slowly falling apart as police have employed more aggressive tactics to deal with the still-rampant violence. This year, El Salvador has typically seen at least eight people murdered every day.
Violence is no less prevalent to the north or west. In 2013, the United Nations identified neighboring Honduras, which had ninety murders per 100,000 people in 2012, as the most violent country in the world. El Salvador was the fourth most violent; Guatemala, with forty murders per 100,000 people in 2012, the fifth.
Let’s put those numbers in perspective. The United Nations considers a rate of ten murders per 100,000 people an epidemic. If we were to apply the Honduran murder rate to New York City, where the yearly homicide rate is five per 100,000, more than 7,000 New Yorkers would be murdered per year. The rate of violence in Honduras is nearly twice that of America’s most violent city, Detroit, which has a homicide rate of fifty-five per 100,000.
Just as striking as these statistics is the consistently young age of the victims. According to El Salvador’s Institute of Legal Medicine, 38 percent of those murdered in the country every year are between the ages of 15 and 24. In the first three months of 2014 alone, 790 Salvadorans were killed, 306 of them between 15 and 24.
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