U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

U.S. Immigration Policy: New Obstacles to Asylum

By Jayesh Rathod*

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. / Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Customs and Border Patrol / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse established U.S. policy to grant asylum to certain victims of domestic violence increases the importance of – and challenges to – experts called on to demonstrate the credible threat applicants face if denied asylum and deported.  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 11 issued the opinion, which rescinded precedent that had paved the way for survivors of such violence to receive asylum.  More generally, the case – known as Matter of A-B- – creates additional legal roadblocks for asylum applicants who fear harm at the hands of private (non-state) actors, such as gangs and intimate partners.

  • Federal regulations permit the Attorney General to refer immigration cases to himself for decision, in order to revisit a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and issue a new opinion that creates binding nationwide precedent. Sessions has made frequent use of this special procedure, certifying four cases to himself since the beginning of the year.  Each of these cases is poised to limit the rights and protections afforded to asylum seekers and others facing removal proceedings.  For example, Sessions vacated the BIA’s decision in Matter of E-F-H-L-, which had held that asylum applicants are entitled to a full merits hearing, including the opportunity to present oral testimony. The vacatur opens the door to summary denials by Immigration Judges.

In Matter of A-B-, Sessions explicitly overruled the BIA’s 2014 decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, which provided a legal road map for asylum-seekers fleeing domestic and gang violence.  Under applicable case law, an applicant – such as a domestic violence survivor or target of gang violence – who fears persecution by a private actor may qualify for asylum, provided they can prove that their home country government is “unable or unwilling” to control the private actor.

  • Courts had previously expressed distinct views on how to interpret this standard, yet most embraced a plain-language reading of “unable or unwilling.” In Matter of A-B-, however, Sessions – in language that many legal scholars judge to be meandering and slightly inconsistent – suggests applicants must meet a higher standard and show “that the government condoned the private actions,” that those actions “can be attributed to the government,” or that the government “demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victims.”  Sessions opines that “[n]o country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity,” implying that deficiencies in law enforcement efforts will not necessarily translate into a successful asylum claim.

The unclear language in Matter of A-B- has left some wondering about the precise legal standard that is now in place.  What is certain, however, is that Matter of A-B- presents a smorgasbord of reasons for skeptical immigration judges to deny asylum claims from the Northern Triangle of Central America.  While a CLALS-hosted workshop underscored that country conditions evidence has always been critical to these cases, adjudicators will now pay even closer attention to country experts, and will demand more evidence regarding efforts by home country governments to control private violence, and of the relationship between those governments and private actors.

  • The new requirements stack the deck against asylum-seekers. The governments in the Northern Triangle of Central America – with Washington’s strong financial and political support – have long argued they’re making efforts to curb gang violence.  Before Matter of A-B-, the “unable or unwilling” standard allowed asylum claims to succeed while permitting these governments to save face under the theory that they were trying, albeit imperfectly, to control violent private actors.  By demanding even more unfavorable evidence regarding these home country governments, Matter of A-B- sets up a likely conflict between the legal standard for asylum and the preferred messaging of those governments and the Trump administration.  Facing an array of entrenched interests, it will be difficult for country experts to show that governments commit or condone the violence against asylum-seekers or that authorities are “completely helpless” to protect victims.

July 10, 2018

* Jayesh Rathod is a professor at the Washington College of Law and founding director of the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.

MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

Brazil’s Prison Violence Reflects Deeper Social Problem

By Andrew Johnson*

pinheiros_iii_05

An interim detention center in São Paulo, Brazil. / Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

It has been a horrific start to 2017 in the Brazilian prison system, and reversing the trend will take much more than increased public funding.  A wave of violence began on New Year’s Day when 56 inmates were killed during a riot inside of a penitentiary in Manaus.  A series of deadly inmate uprisings followed that massacre, bringing the number of inmates killed this month to 120.  Macabre images of inmates’ decapitated corpses strewn about prison yards captured on cellphone cameras and posted to the internet reminded Brazilians that overcrowding, a weak state presence, and institutionalized gang power have combined to make Brazilian prisons – with over 600,000 inmates – tinderboxes ready to ignite at almost any time.

  • During a year I spent conducting fieldwork inside jails and prisons in Rio de Janeiro for a book and documentary film in 2011, I saw inmates crammed into cells at three and four times their intended capacity. On the worst nights, men unable to find space on the floor or a concrete bunk tied their torsos to the steel gates with t-shirts and attempted to sleep while standing.
  • The Comando Vermelho and other gangs controlled entire cellblocks and used smuggled cell phones and strategic visitors to maintain regular contact with leadership. This communications capability and weapons caches inside the cellblocks enabled them to act as the de facto government. Prison guards knew that they were outgunned and outnumbered, and they knew their off-duty lives could be easily extinguished by an order initiated inside the prison.  January’s riots revealed how thin the veneer of state control really is inside.

Impassioned pleas, prompted by the riots, to reduce overcrowding and provide more resources to Brazil’s prison system are being launched in a time of austerity.  The Brazilian Senate recently approved legislation that could freeze public spending for the next 20 years.  Public investment would certainly reduce the likelihood of future riots, but the crisis in Brazil’s jails and penitentiaries is not caused simply by underfunding.  It is the result of decades of the state treating inmates, and the residents of the neighborhoods where most of them were born, as less than full citizens.  Pastor Antonio Carlos Costa, leader of the human rights organization Rio de Paz, told me the state and public’s reactions to the many thousands killed by the police and hundreds murdered in prisons each year were limited because “they are poor people, people with dark skin, people considered killable.  These are deaths that don’t shock us, they don’t make the Brazilian cry.”

There is no excuse or justifiable defense for the inmates involved in the 120 murders that occurred inside Brazilian prisons this month.  It was an inhumane slaughter propelled by gangs, greed, and a power grab.  But the solution to Brazil’s profoundly troubled prison system lies much deeper than increasing public spending or reducing overcrowding.  Refusing to treat people as killable, gang-affiliated or not, is a goal that may take decades and will require a commitment that is much costlier than any public spending intervention or new legislation.  Laws protecting human rights would have to be enforced for all Brazilians, including prisoners.  Law abiding middle and upper-class citizens would have to push back and no longer tolerate some of the world’s highest murder rates and jails where 80 men squeeze into a cell built for 20.  Transformation this profound would be a difficult message to sell on the campaign trail, but anything less than that sort of social and cultural change from the government and the public will fall short of fixing the deeply rooted problems with Brazil’s prison system.

January 27, 2017

*Andrew Johnson is a Research Associate with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s Religious Competition and Creative Innovation (RCCI) initiative at the University of Southern California.

El Salvador: Dual Crackdowns Raise Questions

By Fulton Armstrong

El Salvador Seguro

Photo Credits: Presidencia El Salvador and Departamento de Seguridad Pública OEA (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén’s months-long crackdown on gangs has broadened into a crackdown on proponents of negotiations with them.  Upon orders of Attorney General Meléndez, 18 former officials involved in the past truce (covering two periods in 2012-2014) have been arrested, among them a principal mediator, former FMLN Congressman Raúl Mijango.  Three others, including the former head of prisons, are on the run.  Meléndez claims that the recent passage of legislation outlawing negotiations with gangs was not a factor, and that the detainees are not being held for their role negotiating the previous truce, but rather for violations of laws in place during the truce.  They are accused of “dereliction of duty,” “illicit association,” smuggling mobile phones into prisons, and possible misuse of US$2 million for truce implementation.  Meléndez said the government-gang pact “was not illegal” and he noted that it did help reduce reported murders, but he has asserted that it gave rise to disappearances and other violence, and allowed the gangs to re-arm and consolidate their control in some sectors.

The campaign against pro-dialogue voices has left several prominent players untouched.  The government has distanced itself from the activities of current Interior Minister Arístides Valencia, whose taped conversations with gangs have been revealed by the media, but he has been neither fired nor arrested.  Former Security Minister (and current Defense Minister) David Munguía is widely seen as the principal architect of the previous truce (securing essential cover from the Church for it), but he too remains in place.  Munguía’s name is prominent in Meléndez’s report, according to press accounts, but the Attorney General said that he lacks evidence of his involvement in wrongdoing.  Paolo Luers of El Diario de Hoy (himself a secret negotiator in 2012) and others are severely criticizing the lack of charges against Munguía while others, whom they call “political prisoners,” are detained.

  • Meanwhile, the government is deploying elite joint Army-Police units to hunt down alleged gang members in the countryside, amid growing unconfirmed reports of human rights violations.  The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman has identified 13 cases of extrajudicial killings in two operations last year.

The recent arrests have caused debate to flare over the costs and benefits of the past truce and any future agreements with the gangs – as well as the efficacy of the mano dura approach. The crackdown on advocates of negotiations and the simultaneous emerging signs of death squad operations could threaten the credibility of the Sánchez Cerén government’s El Salvador Seguro strategy, which entails an array of efforts requiring political agreement on how to address the violence crisis.  Amidst mounting concern about the implications of the police and army crackdown on gangs, Washington has kept a low profile on these developments.  If current trends continue, however, the dual crackdowns could potentially raise doubts about the Administration’s ability to meet the human rights and other conditions that the U.S. Congress has put on the Alliance for Prosperity under which El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have agreed to form and execute a common strategy against violence and other problems in Central America’s northern triangle.

May 16, 2016

For previous AULABLOG items on the impact of the Salvadoran truce, click here (January 2013), here (November 2014), and here (April 2015).

*This version of the blog was updated May 16, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

Honduras: The Need to Differentiate among the Gangs

By Steven Dudley

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Honduras street gangs – often inaccurately lumped into a single category – are a complex, deep-rooted social and criminal phenomenon that is driving violence and migration in record numbers. InSight Crime, after investigating them for most of 2015, found that the catch-all term “maras” is at once ominous and ill-defined. The two largest gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 – have similar criminal revenue streams, but different approaches to obtaining those proceeds. Recognizing these differences is an important part of undermining their power and influence.

  • Extortion is a critical source of funding for both groups. This includes the public transportation system and taxi cooperatives in the largest urban areas, which account for a huge percentage of the gangs’ earnings. InSight Crime talked to one member of a bus cooperative that was paying four gangs extortion fees and was being pestered by a fifth.
  • The groups’ approach to local extortion targets – small businesses, shops, or local delivery services – is different. The MS13 does not extort where they operate; the Barrio 18 does, with huge implications for the gangs’ relations with the neighborhood’s residents and local police. The Barrio 18 is seen as predatory; the MS13 is often seen as a protector.
  • The MS13 is more focused on local drug sales, which allows it to forgo the easy extortion proceeds. Because it meddles less with residents, the MS13 has better relations with the local police, who, in turn, target the Barrio 18 with more resources and vigor. This also positions MS13 for better relations with community leaders and politicians, and it reportedly can, in some cases, act as the unofficial social services operator in cases of child or spousal abuse. In one area InSight Crime visited, the MS13 gives accused abusers a warning after the first report, a beating after the second, and banishment (or worse) after the third.
  • While they may operate under a single umbrella, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 also vary widely in sophistication and reach, wherewithal, and infrastructure. They are semi-autonomous and prone to violent spasms that have wide-reaching implications for the communities in which they operate. The Barrio 18 appears to be less disciplined and less focused on bigger goals than the elements of the MS13 InSight Crime studied. Barrio 18 members give the impression that their struggle is more about human survival than expansion in the underworld. They live by “codes,” such as “respect the barrio,” that are evoked as a pretext for nearly any action, violent or otherwise, against outsiders and fellow gang members alike.
  • The violent ethos that guides the Barrio 18 and the MS13 is shared by their rivals, who include offshoots of the two main gangs, vigilantes, and soccer hooligans. Almost all live from the same income sources – extortion and local drug peddling. Some days they are allies; other days they are enemies.

The repercussions of oversimplifying the situation – treating all gangs as the same – are not trivial. Honduras continues to struggle with record levels of violence, and the United States is grappling with record levels of asylum applicants from gang-riddled countries like Honduras. There are times for a hammer, with criminal groups that only seem to understand force. But there are also moments when negotiation, accommodation, and social programs are more persuasive, and long-lasting, than simply sending in more troops and arresting more youths with tattoos. The trick is to know the difference, but we can only do that if we start to see these groups as complex and dynamic organizations with different criminal economies, social relations, and political ambitions.

December 14, 2015

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS. The full report “Gangs in Honduras” is available in English here and in Spanish here.

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015