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Worse than war: El Salvador’s youth caught in web of violence

One year ago this summer, the Central American child migration crisis peaked with intense media coverage, a series of Congressional hearings, and protests over the fate of tens of thousands of children arriving at the U.S. border fleeing poverty and violence. 

Congress continues to debate a package of economic and security assistance that includes addressing the root causes of the crisis that is still pushing thousands of children out of Central America. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently overwhelmingly approved a $675 million package of assistance while the House has developed its own $300 million proposal. As the Congressional debate proceeds, violence in parts of Central America has risen to a level surpassing wartime killing levels.

A New Civil War

When a country reflects on a civil war as a time of relative peace, you know it’s passing through a period of extreme violence and chaos. 

That’s what I heard while conducting research in El Salvador in June where Salvadorans told me their country is more violent now than it was during its 1980-1992 armed conflict that claimed 75,000 victims. 

Statistics reinforce Salvadorans’ perceptions. In May, the country of just more than 6 million reported an average of almost 20 murders per day. During the height of the civil war there were about 17 people killed daily. 

And it’s getting worse. This year it is on pace for a homicide rate of about 97 per 100,000. 

To provide context, even Afghanistan, which continues to fight an insurgency, has a rate of violent deaths of 10 per 100,000. Other countries that have been less violent than El Salvador in recent years include South Sudan and Iraq. 

For children the situation is also grim:  A 2014 UNICEF report stated that El Salvador also has the highest child and adolescent murder rate in the world – about 27 per 100,000. Iraq has a rate of 4 per 100,000. 

Addressing Root Causes 

The violence is multi-causal and pervasive: gangs, drug trafficking, domestic violence, and hate crime. Salvadoran children encounter violence in their homes, schools, and streets.  

For tens of thousands of Salvador children the only solution is to flee and the only safe haven is often outside the country – usually with friends or relatives living in the United States in the millions-strong Central American diaspora.   

The roots of violence in El Salvador are deep and decades in the making. Violence is only part of the problem. Central America also suffers from widespread poverty and a lack of opportunity for youth. 

There are no easy solutions. 

But there are some clear priorities that should be included in a U.S. government strategy addressing violence in the region. Based on its on-the-ground experience working with children and youth, Save the Children and others have identified key principles to address violence driving child migration, including: 

  • Strengthen national child protection systems. The Northern Triangle needs systems that protect threatened youth. Currently, national protection systems for children are often underfunded and uncoordinated, if they exist at all. Last year the Honduran government closed its child protection agency. Without a place to feel safe, children will continue to flee.  
  • Focus on communities. While national systems are needed, violence is often driven at the community-level, specifically by youth gangs. Violence prevention programs should be tailored to communities to restore the social fabric at home, in schools, and in the streets.  
  • Psychosocial support and protection for child deportees. Children deported from the United States and Mexico often end up back in the communities they were fleeing in the first place. This leads to repeated migrations to the United States or succumbing to violence. To interrupt this vicious cycle, the Northern Triangle nations need better tracking, protection, and psychosocial support for repatriated children to help them recover from journeys and re-integrate into their communities.

Although it has largely disappeared from the U.S. media, the child migration crisis continues. Child migrants are no longer reaching the U.S. border in part because they are being intercepted in Mexico, but the rates of departure remain high. During the first five months of 2015, almost 12,000 Central American child migrants were detained in Mexico, an increase of almost 50 percent from 2014. 

As Congress debates how to address the root causes of this continuing crisis, it should keep the safety of Central American’s children and youth and the forefront of its deliberations, even if they are no longer in the headlines. 

Wainer is director of Policy Research for Save the Children. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewWainer. To learn more about Save the Children’s work on Central American child migration, please visit our website.


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