As children, teens and families continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, many of these migrants and their advocates have cited gang and drug related violence as one of the main factors driving them north.
But much of that gang violence isn't rooted in Central America. It's rooted in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles. It's part of a long and complicated history between the U.S. and Central America, in which the deportation policies of recent decades figure prominently.
"Gang violence has increased steadily over the last decade or two, and one factor that has contributed to it is that the U.S. has deported a lot of convicted criminals back to Central America," said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration program for the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "All three of the countries in the northern triangle are pretty weak states, and so that’s given criminal organizations an opportunity to sort of establish themselves and flourish."
The transnational gang phenomenon dates back decades, to the initial mass migration refugees fleeing civil war in El Salvador and Guatemala. Central Americans began arriving in the U.S. in large numbers in the 1980s, when both countries were suffering through the height of conflict. Many settled in Los Angeles, especially a large population of Salvadorans, who moved into working-class urban neighborhoods like Pico-Union and Koreatown.
There was already heavy gang presence in Los Angeles, predominantly Mexican-American and African-American gangs. Some Central American youths began drawing together for protection, the kernel of what eventually became Mara Salvatrucha, an L.A. gang that has by now become now a powerful international criminal organization. Others joined the rival 18th Street gang, an offshoot of an established gang that accepted Central American youths.
At the same time, U.S. immigration laws were growing tougher in relation to immigrants who committed crimes, especially those with gang ties. From the late 1980s on, a series of laws made it easier to deport immigrants with criminal records.
But one particular 1996 law sharply stepped up criminal deportations to Central America. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IRAIRA, broadly expanded the list of crimes for which people could be deported, even if these offenses were committed in the past. It also took away protection for legal residents, meaning even people who were in the U.S. legally and had spent most of their lives here could be removed if they committed a deportable offense.
It became, as former Mara Salvatrucha gang member Alex Sanchez recalls, like "a witch hunt."
"What this created was a witch hunt of people that had been convicted of a crime 10 years prior, 20 years prior," said Sanchez, who now directs Homies Unidos, an organization that focuses on gang prevention and helping ex-gang members adjust to society. "That created masses of individuals that were detained, persecuted and picked up at their homes and then processed for deportation."
Between the early 1990s and the late 1990s, IRAIRA essentially doubled the number of criminal deportees being flown back to Central America, Rosenblum said.
And when these young men arrived, there was no infrastructure to help them adjust. Many did not speak Spanish well, if at all; some no longer had immediate relatives still living in the country.
Sanchez, who came to the U.S. with his parents during the war when he was 7, was deported when he was 22 in 1994, a couple of years before IRAIRA took effect.
"I was one of those individuals that ... ended up in El Salvador in an airport with only a piece of paper and an address scribbled," Sanchez recalled. "I didn't know which way to go. Luckily for me, I had a home that belonged to my grandfather, where I went to. Many other individuals didn't have the same luck. Many ended up homeless."
Some tried to seek shelter at churches, he said. Others tried to seek out relatives but were rejected for their gang tattoos or for "the stigma that was created in El Salvador and in Central America in general around tattooed individuals, who were considered the worst of the worst," Sanchez said.
But there was one receptive audience: Disenfranchised local kids. Sanchez says there were a few local gangs in El Salvador before deportees from the U.S. began arriving, but that the mass deportations created a monster.
"Many of these people that were in El Salvador had tattoos that belonged to gang members here in Los Angeles," he said. "That became really attractive to many youngsters that were homeless themselves, that were street children. I witnessed some of these children transition from being a street individual, that nobody gave a damn, to an individual that just by putting a tattoo [on] their face, on their body, where they were seen, now demanded respect and created this sense of fear among the people that used to treat them bad before."
Sanchez returned to the U.S. and eventually won the right to stay, thanks to his work with former gang members. He says Homies Unidos has tried to work with criminal deportees in El Salvador, but anti-gang vigilantes and death squads have made this kind of work dangerous.
The danger that Central American migrants say they're fleeing is tied not just to gang violence, but also to a related rise in drug trafficking through the region, said MPI's Rosenblum. As this has occurred, gang presence has spread more heavily throughout Guatemala and Honduras, where traffickers have been operating. Organized crime has become hard to escape, he said, even for average citizens.
"There are parts of all three of these countries, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras, where there is very little state presence," Rosenblum said. "So that the gangs are present in schools; they are present in communities. A lot of their business model involves extortion and demanding protection, either protection payments from families or demanding that young adults and kids become involved as foot soldiers or to transport drugs, or to be lookouts, or to become part of the gang's criminal activity."
While state presence is heavier in some areas, "there are pockets, there are communities, within all three of these countries where criminal organizations have a stronger presence than the state and have a stronger presence than the police," Rosenblum said.
And as he puts it, people who don't want to live with this find themselves in a difficult situation, so they're leaving — or sending their kids north.