Organized crime in Central America: a fast-growing issue

NEWS RELEASES – Internal violence and organized crimes have been a major issue in Central America for several decades. However, very few sources or media have covered the subject, rendering the international community partly unaware of the aggravating situation. The International Centre for Peace and Human Rights (CIPADH) thus suggests an article to explain and enlighten people about this issue. The document will first give a general view of the problems before explaining them in further details and giving recommendations for the situation to improve. 


General situation

Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, otherwise known as the Northern Triangle, or Deadly Triangle, have experienced grave international violence since many decades. Mexico is also widely part of the countries hosting numerous organized crimes.

According to an article written by The Guardian a few months ago, this “silent emergency” is mainly due to organized crimes and deportation and is increasingly affecting and displacing several hundreds of thousands people, many of which disappear during their fleeing. The journal gives the following overview: “Several countries in the region have registered more killings and disappearances than some of the world’s most fearsome armed conflicts. Governments are alternately unable and unwilling to protect some of their most vulnerable citizens. Charitable organizations are understandably uneasy, with many of them reluctant to get too closely involved.”

An article written by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) further explains that these countries have the highest murder rate per capita in the whole world. Yet, these problems are rarely mentioned in any media and thus do not raise necessary awareness in the international community.

Organized crimes

This situation is mainly due to the following facts: several violent gangs and drug-traffickers are constantly fighting each other for settling of accounts concerning money and drug problems, rendering many civilians and people considered enemies (such as journalists reporting the situation, uncorrupted policemen and government officials) victims. Governments are trying to reduce the internal violence’s impact, but find themselves rather stuck, since either some of their personnel is corrupt, or are getting killed because they are not.

According to a detailed study conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), many of these civilian victims are children in need of international protection. Indeed, the majority of them are under the obligation of flee their city or country, qualifying them as internally or externally displaced, with their parents or without (some of them having disappeared or being killed by gang members). The study was written after interviewing more than 400 children, coming from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, explaining that the causes of their fleeing are the following:

- Violence and threats of violence by organized armed criminal actors: children witness murders and are threatened, with their families, to suffer the same harm if they do not join gangs or give them money. These criminal actors, as mentioned, as either involved in drug and illegal money trafficking but also in violent human smuggling. Children are chosen because of their vulnerability, rendering them more influenced.  The problem is that if they accept joining a gang, they also have a high risk of becoming the rival gang or the police’s victims. Girls express their deep concern to become victims of sexual violence, mostly due to the fact that the criminal actors explicitly say so.

- Abuse in their homes: some of the children also mentioned domestic violence as a main reason to leave their country. They experienced beating from older members of their families and deprivation of school and food in order to impose child labor. 

Most of the interviews combined several of these reasons. All of these facts demonstrate that, often, the only solution left to these people is fleeing. The study insists on the fact that there is a serious gap in the protection needed by them, and that something needs to be done now: “Through the children’s own words, the critical need for enhanced mechanisms to ensure that these displaced children are identified, screened and provided access to international protection is abundantly clear”.

Recommendations: how can we improve the situation?

A first important step would be to ensure that the international community as a whole (civil society, NGOs, international organizations) is well aware of the violence happening every day in Central America.

Once the awareness is raised, and as the UNHCR study suggests, competent and powerful institutions should enforce the necessary changes to help these governments and citizens. Such changes should encompass the following: offer international protection to displaced people, enhance capacity (through personnel and mechanisms) to ensure identification and follow-up care to people in need, develop and implement necessary legislation (national and international) and, importantly, strengthen collaboration and exchange of information about all displaced people.

Between 40 and 50 people die or disappear every day in this part of the world. It has been the case for several decades, and the situation is not improving. The number of victims can be compared to an international armed conflict. The international community needs to react.


By Taline Bodart