The refugees of central america's north triangle

An essay

Camila Camborda
Boston University '16

The Female Refugees of Central America’s North Triangle
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala


For most Americans, the mass influx of unaccompanied minors across the Mexico-U.S. border in 2014 was their first glimpse into the epidemic of drug and gang violence occurring to their south. Along with the children fleeing violence and terror in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were scores of women, escaping alone or with their families into neighboring Central American countries, Mexico, and the United States. These “North Triangle” countries (referred to as NTCA), are currently experiencing epidemic levels of violence, stemming from gangs and the drug trade. In addition to these daily dangers, women in particular are also subject to a high amount of gender-based violence, at the hands of gangs or even within their homes, in the form of domestic abuse. The NTCA countries rank among the top seven in rates of female homicide globally. Facing these threats, and the lack of a police response against them, women oftentimes choose to leave the countries where they have spent their whole lives, not because they want to, but as one interviewee noted “it was a matter of life and death.”

The UN Refugee Agency released a report detailing this problem called “Women on the Run”. The report is a result of a four-month investigation and interviews with 160 women who have been recognized as refugees by the U.S. Broadly speaking, challenges to safety for women span three phases: leaving home, transit, and detention. 

Within the NTCA countries, “maras,” or organized gangs, have taken hold of neighborhoods and entire communities, out of the 160 women interviewed, 136 stated that gangs controlled their neighborhoods. These gangs commit killings, extortions, and robberies that affect women’s daily lives. If they are not forced to join, usually as a gang “girlfriend,” their children and family members are pressured to join, and usually murdered if they refuse. Domestic violence is also a factor leading women to flee, and it is pervasive among the NTCA countries. Since there is significant overlap, such as cases where the abusive husband is also affiliated with a gang, there is nowhere for a woman to turn for protection.

Once the women decide to leave, they must do so under the threat of being followed by the same gangs they are escaping. They can appeal for asylum from their home countries, but in many cases women describe a “breaking point” in which they feel like their only option is to leave that very day, often leaving behind possessions and even children, because they fear one extra day will mean death.

Once on their way, the women do not just face the risk of assault from strangers along the way, but also from the “coyotes,” or smugglers they pay to transport them, the police they may encounter along the way, and immigration officials, all who have been accused of physically and sexually assaulting women migrants. In other cases, coyotes and kidnappers hold women hostage and demand ransoms from their families, putting the women into significant debt once they are released, harmed or unharmed. Mexico is at once a country of origin, a transport, and a destination for women seeking asylum. However, as described in an October 2015 article from the New York Times, the “blocking” of refugees from entering the U.S. has largely been outsourced to Mexico, where tens of millions of US dollars have gone to Mexico’s “halting” of the entry of Central Americans. Since July 2014 Mexico has moved 300-600 immigration agents south, and conducted thousands of raids on trains, busses, hotels, and highways frequented by migrants. In the first seven months of 2015 Mexico had caught around 20,000 more migrants from Central America, than the 70,000 caught in the United States. Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a social scientist documenting this issue, reports that in the 21 months preceding the article, at least 90 of the migrants deported to their home countries were murdered. 

Although President Pena Nieto has described the increased crackdown as a way to protect their safety, many claim that the measures just make migrants resort to more dangerous means of travel. The measures are not only concrete barriers, such as walls and fences near train tracks so that people cannot run alongside a train and jump aboard; it has also become increasingly tedious and difficult to obtain asylum, which can take months as a process with only a 20% chance of being accepted, compared to the roughly 50% acceptance rate in the U.S.

Although the women could seek asylum in Mexico, and many attempt to do so, many do not, because they lack sufficient knowledge about the laws and processes, or because they perceive the country to be just as dangerous as the one they are fleeing. The problems of gangs, drugs, and violence that plague NTCA nations are also present in Mexico. Many women reported that the authorities deemed “lack of proof” a reason to deny their claims, even though many women had no possessions, much less photographs or documentation of their abuse.  

The women interviewed for the UNHCR report have all been accepted under asylum in the U.S. The first point of contact for migrants crossing the Mexico-U.S. border is the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). According to the report, asylum-seekers must “express fear of return”, if rejected by CBP she will face deportation to her home country and until then is held in either CBP or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention. 

After passing the “credible fear” interview, women (and children) can either pay a bond, or remain in a detention center awaiting trial. Once in detention, women face financial and geographical constraints to find an attorney, which has been found to be the single most important determining factor in court proceedings. Since the process is bureaucratic, and most documents are in English only, women find the process daunting and inaccessible without legal aid. 

There is also the issue of the detention centers themselves. Recently dozens of women in a detention center in Texas began a hunger strike to call on the government to release them. The women in the Hutto detention center cite a list of grievances, including high prices at the commissary, their lack of ability to pay bail, and neglect. Many of these women have been in detention for two years or more and the majority have passed the “credible fear” interviews required to proceed in their asylum process. Although the facility no longer holds children, due to a ACLU settlement with ICE, it is still an all women's detention center.

As the debate about immigration rages across the U.S. we must also have a serious discussion about refugees, including those escaping conflict in the Middle East, but also those even closer to home. The women and children fleeing epidemic levels of violence are not numbers to be ignored, or to be put into detention facilities for months as they “wait in line.” While we talk about the refugee crisis in Europe, we must also acknowledge the other refugees who are also seeking a new, safe life.




Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.