So far this year, more than 52,000 children traveling alone - mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – have been caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, nearly double the number apprehended in 2012.
Many are fleeing poverty and drug-fuelled gang violence, but the exodus of child migrants leaving Central America can be traced back to the United States' drug policy in recent decades and its insatiable demand for cocaine.
In Central America, when people talk about violence they often use one word to sum it up – maras or street gangs.
The maras, such as El Salvador’s M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs, are directly linked to the U.S. The Mara Salvatrucha gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and was made up of Central American immigrants fleeing the region’s civil wars. When U.S. immigration policy was tightened in 1996, tens of thousands of gang members convicted of crimes were deported back to their native countries, spreading the gang culture to Central America.
In recent years, the maras have expanded their reach and power, bolstered by alliances made with Mexican drug cartels, such as the Zetas, coming into Central America, the United Nations says.
The incursion of Mexican drug cartels into Central America is in turn linked to U.S. drug policy that goes back to the war on drugs in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. When the U.S. government pumped billions of dollars into Colombia to crack down on the country’s drug cartels to stem the supply of Colombian cocaine to the U.S., the problem shifted to Mexico, experts say.
It’s known as the balloon effect - new drug trafficking routes will keep popping up where the pressure is lightest.
That lightest pressure today is found in Central America, a region with a weak rule of law being used as a transit route by Mexican cartels for drugs being transported to the United States.
“The drug trade is what has expanded the reach of gangs in Central America,” a U.S State Department counselor, ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month. “The gangs aren’t going away. The gangs are now embedded in Central America,” he added.
The gangs are kept in business by the demand for cocaine in the U.S. Most of the drugs being transported through Central America end up on the streets of the United States, the committee heard.
It’s this drug-fuelled gang violence that’s driving more and more families to send their children alone on a dangerous overland journey north, to prevent gangs from forcibly recruiting or harming them.
FAILED U.S. DRUG POLICY?
For Honduran President Juan Hernandez, the exodus of children and adults is the result of a failed U.S. drug policy.
"Honduras has been living in an emergency for a decade," Hernandez told the Mexican daily Excelsior earlier this month. "The root cause is that the United States and Colombia carried out big operations in the fight against drugs. Then Mexico did it."
“Those operations pushed drug traffickers into Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador … This is creating a serious problem for us that sparked this migration.”
For U.S. senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the violence facing Central America stems partly from the lack of U.S. engagement in the region.
“At the end of civil wars that ravaged Central America in the 1980s and 1990s, we did not pay enough attention to the region. We did not remain sufficiently engaged with our Central American neighbors. We did not work closely enough with them to address the structural problems of social and economic development or the societal violence that is fueling today’s crisis,” Menendez told the committee.
While the United States is the primary destination for Central American child migrants, largely because they have a family member there, children are also heading to countries in Latin America.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, in the last few years asylum requests made by unaccompanied children from Central America have increased more than 400 percent in neighboring countries, including Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize.
(Editing by Tim Pearce; firstname.lastname@example.org)