MEXICO CITY – Gang violence and organized crime has taken over political instability as the main cause for Central Americans’ seeking refuge in other countries.
“[Since 2009], we have noticed a growing trend in the number of people from the Northern Tier of Central America requesting refugee status in Mexico, Canada and the United States,” said Fernando Protti, regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner’s Office for Refugees (UNHCR) for Central America, Cuba and Mexico.
The largest number of refuge applications in the region last year came from Salvadorans (1,620), Guatemalans (1,320) and Hondurans (765), according to UNHCR.
“Many [migrate] because they are persecuted by gangs and they don’t want to do business with gangs or be exploited by these groups,” Protti said. “In the case of young girls or youth, they don’t want to be the girlfriend of a gang leader.”
Of the 3,705 applications from Central America’s Northern Tier in 2012, the majority were sent to the United States (65%), followed by Canada (17%), Costa Rica (6%) and Mexico (5%).
“There is a mathematical relationship between the increase in violence and the homicide rate in these countries with the increase in people requesting refugee status,” Protti added.
Central America’s homicide rate is 41 per 100,000 residents, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Honduras has the highest rate with 85.5 per 100,000 residents. El Salvador registered 69.2 and Guatemala 38.5.
A homicide rate of five per 100,000 residents is considered “normal,” with nine homicides considered “high” and above 10 “epidemic,” according to the World Health Organization.
Between 2010 and 2012, the Ignacio Ellacuría Human Rights Institute (IDHIE) in the Mexican state of Puebla surveyed 1,000 women from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who passed through migrant shelters, determining that 70% fled their countries due to violence.
“[Many] women migrate with their sons ages 10 to 12 – mostly from Honduras and El Salvador – because [they fear] that they will be recruited by gangs,” said Irazú Gómez Vargas, head of the IDHIE’s Migration Affairs program. “We also have identified cases of young women being harassed by gang members, [whose parents] had decided to send them away from the country so that they do not fall into these networks.”
According to El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC), 1,409 cases of extortion – 83% by gangs – were reported during the first half of 2013.
Mexico has an annual migration flow –migrants who are passing through the country on their way to the United States and those who choose to settle in Mexican territory – between 150,000 and 300,000 people, according to UNHCR.
Of the 6,926 refugee claims the Mexican government received between 2002 and 2013, nearly 50% came from Central Americans.
From this number, only 1,616 received asylum, while another 84 received additional protection, meaning applicants won’t be returned to their country while their lives are threatened.
Last year, about 11,000 migrants were kidnapped by organized crime groups in Mexico, according to the CNDH.
Kidnapping, extortion, theft, and forced prostitution are some of the crimes suffered by migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
However, there have been advances in the protection of migrants, according to Fernando Batista, fifth general visitor of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
A breakthrough is the Migration Act of January 2013, which provides for the regularization of humanitarian visas when a migrant’s life is at risk. It also calls for the non-criminalization of undocumented immigrants and secures legal representation for migrants.
Pedro Acosta, a 22 year old originally from Yoro, which is 320 kilometers north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, arrived in Mexico in mid-2012.
Acosta’s family fled to Tegucigalpa after two of his brothers were killed by gang members for refusing to pay extortion fees, but a frightened Acosta soon left the country.
Extortion affects all levels of commerce in Honduras. A candy seller in a park has to pay $100 lempiras (US$4.89) per week to gangs, while store owners pay $5,000 lempiras (US$244) and bus drivers and owners of food stalls shell out $2,000 lempiras (US$97), according to Acosta.
“Gang members armed with guns make them pay, and if they don’t, they are shot. People are left unemployed and roam the streets stealing to feed their families any way they can,” Acosta added. “I saw no other reason to stay in Honduras because wherever you go, there are gangs charging a ‘war tax’ to anyone who works to make a decent living.”
Acosta made his way to the Mexican state of Tabasco, where he tried to hop a train heading north, along with dozens of other migrants. But he couldn’t secure a safe spot atop the train, causing him to fall to the tracks, where the train’s wheels severed his right leg.
Mexico granted Acosta a humanitarian visa last May, which allows him to work and study in the country.
He did not agree to refugee status because it would prevent him from returning to Honduras to visit his family.