[Episcopal News Service – San Salvador, El Salvador] Irene’s 13-year-old daughter disappeared leaving school on Feb. 15, 2012, in a gang-controlled municipality just northwest of San Salvador. The teen’s body was found two days later; Irene learned about it from a local television station.
“I’m very afraid for my other children, that something will happen to them because of the violence,” said Irene, during an interview with ENS at the Institute for Human Rights based at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
She has two sons aged 10 and 13; one disappeared briefly and won’t talk about it.
Although Irene, not her real name, would like to see her daughter’s killers prosecuted, the state’s ongoing investigation, which involves the abduction and similar murder of four other girls, means she and her family live in constant fear of retaliation. Regardless of whether Irene pursues the investigation, explained human rights lawyer Karla Salas, the gang members associated with the killers threaten and harass her and her family. They have no protection.
“When the state is negligent in handling these cases, the people come here,” said Salas.
Two of Central America’s most violent gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, each control and battle for territory in El Salvador, mostly in poor marginalized communities where violence, murder, rape, extortion and threats permeate residents’ everyday life, including children. It’s this reality that has in part led to the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding along the U.S.-Mexico border, where more than 44,000 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the two other Northern Triangle countries with gang problems, have been detained crossing the border.
“The issue of unaccompanied minors is just one element of a broader immigration problem. It’s not new; it’s something that has been building over two or three years, but it’s caught fire in the media now,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Foundation Cristosal, a human rights-based community development organization rooted in the Anglican and Episcopal churches operating in El Salvador.
“When we look at immigration in the United States we tend to look at one big block, and we understand it as people looking for jobs and a better life. But we don’t look at the people who are fleeing very serious conflicts and threats of violence, and those cases bring up protection issues,” he said.
In Colombia, decades of civil war and associated organized crime have internally displaced five million people and close to 400,000 have met refugee criteria. Gang violence and organized crime has led to the internal and external displacement of Central Americans, though in the absence of declared war and the criminal nature of the fighting, the phenomenon hasn’t formally been addressed from the perspective of human rights violations and international protection; typical asylum procedures are difficult to apply.
Unlike Colombia, where internal and external displacement have been well-documented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other nongovernment agencies, displacement is less studied in Central America.
“It’s a less visible, less documented phenomenon in El Salvador and there isn’t really a national strategy to deal with it,” said Bullock.
Foundation Cristosal first became aware of the stories of people displaced by violence when it, along with the Anglican-Episcopal Church of El Salvador, supervised the local UNHCR refugee resettlement program.
“Last year we got more than 150 people who were Salvadorans seeking asylum outside the country, so what we see in the kids is should be seen as part of a historic pattern of displacement that has been happening for a long time,” said Bullock, in an interview with ENS in his San Salvador office.
Both internal and external displacement, Bullock added, have common causes: lack of well-being in Salvadoran communities, generalized violence and the state’s inability to safeguard people’s lives and impose rule of law by prosecuting criminal organizations.
“All those things, the inability to protect witnesses, the inability to keep safe schools and areas where children do recreation … those are areas that have been recruitment grounds for gangs and where threats are primarily made,” said Bullock. “They’re a common cause for internal and external displacement.”
UNHCR, in its 2014 report of projected global resettlement needs, estimated there would be 691,000 refugees, not factoring for the outflow of Syrian refugees. In 2012, there were 86,000 spaces available.
2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration, which amended the 1951 and 1967 definition of what it means to be a refugee to include “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”
The countries of Central America and Mexico adopted the protocol, which was not recognized by the United States, at a time when both Guatemala and El Salvador were fighting civil wars and when Contra rebels were fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
“In Central America there were from the end of the 1960s into the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, three pretty solid decades of war. And then the wars ended and there was not a very good resolution to some of those structural causes; then you get two decades of a social conflict that doesn’t have a name like a traditional armed conflict but produces death on the same scale,” said Bullock. “So essentially you have 50 years of low-intensity warfare going on in Central America and we really shouldn’t be surprised that we have a refugee crisis in the United States.”
“Never did we dare to use the word ‘refugee’; before they were immigrants, they were illegals … and now because they are kids we are more open to seeing the Central Americans who arrive at our borders as something else,” said Bullock. “Three weeks of a humanitarian and refugee crisis, five decades of conflict.”
In a July 10 statement addressing the crisis on the border, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori urged Episcopalians to contact their legislators and ask them to support an “appropriate humanitarian response to the crisis.”
Meanwhile, Foundation Cristosal is working with human rights and civil society organizations, including the University of Central America’s Institute for Human Rights, to develop a more comprehensive analysis of internal and external displacement and a proposal to address both phenomena, said Bullock.
“What we are trying to do now with our program is respond to those needs, but there are no perfect answers because the causes are so structural and deep,” he said. “You have to be able to try and help someone in an immediate humanitarian crisis, but also try to work to resolve some of the structural issues that are creating the humanitarian crisis,” he said.
In the July 13 edition of La Prensa, one of El Salvador’s top two daily newspapers, the front-page headlines went from the World Cup to the 375,000 immigration cases backlogged in U.S. courts to the homicide of two teenagers. Inside, there was a story about a teenage girl raped by her uncle on her journey north, a story meant to dissuade similar journeys. Earlier in the week, there were stories focused on trying to dissuade families from sending their children north.
“This is one thing the White House points out,” said Bullock. “The human traffickers and the information they’re giving the families seems to motivate them to send their kids; they think they’re better of taking the risk based on the information the coyote gives them… we want people to have another resource to get information that is a little more objective than what would be given to them by a human trafficker.”
Foundation Cristosal’s lawyers, he said, however, don’t participate in making a life-and-death decisions with people; that’s something that ultimately up to a family member. What the lawyers do is try to give the families good information so that they can make informed decisions.
“The White House is spending a million dollars in publicity to dissuade families from sending their children,” Bullock said. “But that’s just another form of propaganda; the thing people respond to is real objective advising from organizations like Cristosal.”
The University of Central America started the Institute for Human Rights in 1986 in response to the overwhelming number of human rights violations committed during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war during which 75,000 people were killed. At the time the institute adopted immigration as a focus because of the large number of people fleeing the country to escape the armed conflict, said Salas, the human rights lawyer representing Irene, in an interview in her office at the university.
Irene wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning and heads to her food stall in an informal market. By 2 p.m., she is back at home where she stays in doors. Her sons go to and from school, and nothing more. The family, including Irene’s mother, lives on $6 a day, she said.
UNHCR doesn’t operate an in-country office for asylum-seekers; Irene and her family must petition for asylum outside El Salvador. Salas said she and others are working with a Roman Catholic agency in Europe – the University of Central America is a Roman Catholic university – that has agreed to help the family with its petition, but they need to cover the transportation costs themselves.
In the meantime, the family lives in fear and continues to receive threats from gang members mockingly wanting to know how the investigation is going. Even if the state offered witness- or whistle-blower protection, it couldn’t keep her safe, said Salas.
“She’d be placed with the people who killed her daughter,” she said.
– Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.