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Refugees risk all to escape Central American gangs

A raft crosses the Suchiate River, which divides Guatemala from Mexico, in Chiapas, Mexico. It is a key transit point for Central Americans fleeing gang violence. © UNHCR/Markel Redondo

A raft crosses the Suchiate River, which divides Guatemala from Mexico, in Chiapas, Mexico. It is a key transit point for Central Americans fleeing gangs and violence. © UNHCR/Markel Redondo

MEXICO CITY, Mexico (UNHCR) – As a police officer in El Salvador, Carolina* worked in a unit protecting kidnap victims and murder witnesses, so they could help bring the perpetrators to justice. Then the gangs turned on her.

Members of a powerful street gang tracked her down at work and at home and threatened to kill her. Driven to move house several times, she was left with the constant fear that she would be murdered when she ventured out into the street.

“I liked my job because I liked protecting other people,” she says. “But I was also afraid that every time I went to work, I would leave my children and didn’t know if I was coming back.”

Working for the police, she had seen first-hand how the gangs abduct, threaten, extort and kill family members, and frequently reach out to recruit their children – often when they are still in school.

When gang members began harassing her 13-year-old son, Juan,* Carolina now felt they had no option but to leave. Without travel documents, Carolina stumped up US$2,000 to pay smugglers to take them to Mexico, where they were held in migration detention centres while their asylum claim was processed.

“Every time I went to work, I would leave my children and didn’t know if I was coming back.”

Now in a family shelter, she is among tens of thousands of men, women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras fleeing surging violence at the hands of murderous street gangs, in what has become Central America’s biggest refugee crisis since more than a million people fled civil wars there in the 1980s.

With a sweep of criminal activities that also include drug dealing, human trafficking, prostitution and robbery, the gangs’ reach now extends throughout the three so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America and beyond.

Those running for their lives range from professionals like Carolina, in El Salvador, to single mother-of-five Rosario, from neighbouring Honduras, who fled to Mexico with her terrified children after gang members burned their house down

“We took several buses to reach the border and then crossed the river – swimming, walking and carrying the small children – between Guatemala and Mexico at night,” she recalls. “I was terrified that the children would be swept away or be drowned.”

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, believes that more needs to be done regionally to protect vulnerable people like Carolina, Rosario and their families as they flee persecution and worsening violence in the Northern Triangle nations.

“Refugees find themselves victims of smugglers and traffickers, exposed to abuses along the road.”

“As avenues for safe passage to seek asylum diminish in this region, they find themselves victims of smugglers and traffickers, exposed to abuses along the road, and their needs are often left without adequate response,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Grandi is meeting this week with regional partners at a roundtable in Costa Rica to hammer out a concerted response to the crisis.

“This is a protection crisis which requires broader regional coordination to ensure timely and solutions-oriented responses,” he added.

The need for a common response is also brought into focus by the gamut of people driven from their homes by persecution by the gangs, known as “maras” in Central America. While Carolina and Rosario fled El Salvador and Honduras, the same street gangs are also harassing people in neighbouring Guatemala – among them Karla*, a transgender woman in her forties.

Already struggling to pay a weekly extortion payment, or “war tax,” of 200 quetzales (US$26), Karla sought refuge over the border in Mexico after the mara doubled its demand to 400 quetzales (US$52) a week, a sum she could not pay.

“Here in Mexico I feel respected and safe and thankful for the support from UNHCR,” she said.

*Names changed for protection reasons.

By: Kirsty McFadden