What drives migrant caravans? Violence, impunity and social media

What drives migrant caravans? Violence, impunity and social media
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Until the root causes of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle are addressed, caravans of migrants such as the one that left Honduras this week will keep forming with regularity. The power of social media, violence and rampant levels of impunity, and the states’ inability to protect their most vulnerable citizens — women and youths — are three primary reasons for this movement.

Caravans fleeing the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are purposefully conspicuous, both in social media and in real life. They are shared through WhatsApp groups, offering anyone desperate enough to consider the perilous 3,000-mile journey a concrete date to take action, as well as some sense of a plan. Social media platforms are empowering the most vulnerable citizens to leave. Fleeing alone or with your family risks encounters with gang recruiters, drug smugglers and human traffickers, but traveling in a caravan is perceived to afford safety in numbers.

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The caravans hardly represent unprecedented migration from the Northern Triangle; they are an innovative response to a humanitarian crisis.

Citizens in the Northern Triangle, dubbed Latin America’s “most murderous corner,” have few reasons to hope that systemic violence, insecurity and impunity will get better anytime soon. To leave or not to leave is, literally, an existential question. Homicide rates in the Northern Triangle actually are declining (though still more than twice the average in Latin America) but it’s not just the probability of being killed that is scaring citizens away. These weak states are struggling to maintain social order and the rule of law. They are incapable of protecting their most vulnerable citizens.

Hopelessness in the context of ruthless and unpunished violence is the main migration-driving factor, especially for women and youths. Honduras has the highest femicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations. And, teenagers are four times more likely to be murdered than in any other part of the world. More than 90 percent of homicides and other crimes go unpunished, which makes getting away with murder the rule, not the exception. It’s hard to imagine the fear that mothers feel for their children and themselves. Add to that the fact that when a mother decides to pack the family and join a caravan, if they reach the U.S. border, they have about an 80 percent chance of being denied asylum.

While the burden is on Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, outdated U.S. policy must catch up to the situation in Central America and recognize legitimate claims for asylum, especially from women and youth fleeing violence. But most importantly, there are a number of ways in which the United States can help ameliorate our neighbors’ situation back home.

Research shows that greater numbers of women in the police ranks — for which the United States could advocate and allocate money — can have a positive effect on reducing rates of homicides and violence against women. Likewise, to help with judicial institution-building, the United States could ramp up funding for understaffed attorneys general offices in all three countries, to help address corruption and organized crime. In Guatemala specifically, unwavering U.S. support for the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) — the United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission that President Jimmy Morales shut down at the beginning of the month after it started investigating him — is key.  

Addressing the root causes that make the Northern Triangle Latin America’s most murderous corner is the only way to curtail migration in the long run. Until these states are capable of protecting vulnerable citizens, women and teenagers will continue to join the caravans of migrants. To say that the long-term prosperity and security of Central America is inevitably linked to ours is no understatement. Getting this issue right is in the best interest of the United States.  

Maria Fernanda Perez Arguello is an associate director with the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter @mfperezcr.