Why do people flee from Central America?
Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 has made El Salvador the murder capital of the world. Thousands of good men, women and children pay traffickers and make dangerous journeys to escape from the violence. They hope for a peaceful future, education, and prosperity.
With 103 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, compared with five in the United States, this is as deadly as a war zone. MS-13 does not rise to the level of sophistication of he Zetas of Mexico, Russian Brothers’ Circle, the Italian Camorraor or the Yakuza of Japan or any other international syndicate. It is a mafia of the poor, but highly effective. MS-13 makes most of its money through small drug dealing, prostitution, and extortion of businesses.
The 40,000 members of MS-13, each gang member earn $15 a week and about $65 a month. That is half the minimum wage of an agricultural day laborer. Money does not drive the gang, and when assets were confiscated – used cars and currency totaled a little over $30,000.00. Raids on the gang often yield $5.00. The gangs’ credo of fraternity and equality does not allow for any personal gain at the expense of the brotherhood. “He who makes himself rich at the expense of the street is going to die.”
Many young recruits risk their lives to protect territory without earning a penny from his organization. Tens of thousands of poor boys who are not seeking personal profit, only respect, a notion of safety and a sense of belonging. The rank and file are rewarded with eggs and candy.
Among Salvadoran businesses, transportation companies, are especially vulnerable to extortion. Over the last five years, it has been more dangerous to drive a bus than to fight gang crime: The gangs have killed 692 transportation workers — and 93 police officers.
Mara Salvatrucha was born in Los Angeles. Its rise is a direct result of United States immigration policy.
El Diablito — Borromeo Henríquez Solórzano, 38 is its leader. In the late 1970s or early 1980s, his father and family fled the Salvadoran civil war along with thousands who resettled in Los Angeles neighborhoods dominated by Mexican gangs. At the end of the 1990s, as part of an anti-gang offensive and a crackdown on “criminal aliens,” the United States shipped planeloads of gang members made in the United States back to El Salvador and other Central American countries. El Diablito returned to his El Salvador in one of those waves of deportation. El Diablito received a 30-year sentence for homicide, but he was able to institutionalize extortion nationwide and expand gang operations from behind bars. During negotiations with the government from 2012 – 2014, with a single order, homicides decreased by 60%.
Iron fist crack downs on the gang in Central America have yielded thin results. There are no rehabilitation centers, no programs to reintegrate them into society and no gang-prevention initiatives aimed at high-risk youths. The cycle of violence continues, and youth continue to join – often times through force.
The root of the problem is poverty and lack of resources to create jobs and safety for Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and other Central and South American immigrants. Deportation programs will not address these issues, and the migration will continue. People want to live. I do not sympathize with the violence, but I do sympathize with all of the innocents who are recruited so young and those who are caught in the cross fire.
I became familiar with MS13 because of child trafficking, another cruel consequence of poverty. In 2011, Alonso “Casper” Bruno Cornejo Ormeno, was sentenced to 292 months in prison for child prostitution. Ormeno recruited juvenile females into a prostitution ring by locating runaway children. In June 2012, Rances Ulices Amaya, was sentenced to 50 years in prison for child prostitution. He was convicted in February 2012 for trafficking girls as young as 14 into a prostitution ring. They were lured from middle schools, high schools, and public shelters. Once acquired by Amaya, they were required to have sex with a minimum of 10 individuals per day. In September 2012, Yimmy Anthony Pineda Penado, became the 11th MS-13 gang member to be convicted of child prostitution since 2011.
People fleeing for their lives has become a refugee crises. In the 2016 fiscal year, which ended in September, nearly 409,000 migrants were caught trying to cross the southwestern border of the United States illegally, a 23 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, according to statistics released by the Obama administration. More than 46,000 people were caught last month on the southwestern border, up from about 39,500 in September. The recent wave of people has been particularly notable for the unusual number of Central American migrants traveling in family groups. 77,700 migrants caught on the southwestern American border were traveling in families, nearly twice as many as were detained in families the previous year. About 91 percent of all those migrants were from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, a region known as the Northern Triangle.
Studies suggest that families are fleeing because they have no alternative. Gangs in pockets of the Northern Triangle have become so powerful and violent there are only three considerations: Comply, flee or die.
Destabilization of the governments in the Northern Triangle and a destruction of all civil society may be a consequence of the “Wall” and mass deportations to communities that are not prepared to receive millions of people. Without adequate water systems, food, housing or basic services, this is a real possibility. American do not seem to recognize that systems of justice and safety do not exist in poor countries. Without the assistance in partnership of our government, there is no way to end the cycles of violence. What is needed is far more than law enforcement; government building, leadership training, and pathways to a real future as a Central American are essential.
It’s time for comprehensive immigration policy, but not one solely based upon a closed door, “extreme” vetting, and one way tickets. It has never worked. Economic investment, education, and paths out of poverty of violence must be considered. If you are the change maker; make real change in the reason why people flee to our border.