The Many, Varied Violences Behind the Central American Exodus

Members of a US-bound migrant caravan wait after Mexican federal police briefly blocked their way outside the town of Arriaga, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Hundreds of Mexican federal officers carrying plastic shields had blocked the caravan from advancing toward the United States. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Migration was a key bone of contention in the recent United States (US) midterm elections and continues to be at the center of American politics and debates. Republican candidates have seemingly been competing to outdo each other in terms of violent and often openly racist rhetoric, building on the dramatic example of former President Donald J. Trump, who denigrated Mexican migrants as “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists,” and accused caravans of migrants from Central America of “violently overrun[ing] the Mexican border.”

Already by July of this year, hundreds of Republican political ads and other election propaganda materials referencing racist conspiracy theories like “white replacement” and “migrant invasion” had been issued to potential voters in preparation for the midterm elections, while in August an NPR poll found that more than half of Americans say there is an “invasion” at the southern border.

The Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have been net exporters of population for half a century or more, with migrant outflows last peaking in the mid-1980s as a consequence of the revolutions, civil wars, and brutal government repression then wracking the region. Between 1990 and 2020, migration from Central America to the US increased by 137 percent—and has only risen more rapidly since. In 2021 alone, 307,679 migrants, the vast majority of them from Central America, were detained by Mexican authorities at the US-Mexico border. Many of these men, women, and children had traveled together from their home countries in the caravans—an arrangement that allows migrants to better confront the dangers linked to their journey, including extortion, forced recruitment, rape, and other harms at the hands of criminal gangs or actors linked to state security forces—that have attracted so much Republican opprobrium.

While much political effort has been expended in characterizing these migrants, we still have little in-depth knowledge about the on-the-ground social, political, and economic realities that have driven so many citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to leave their homes, communities, and in many cases loved ones to make the perilous trek north towards a chronically uncertain future.

As shown by a series of recent articles published by the Noria Mexico and Central America Program, ultimately, it is violence that drives this Central American exodus, which even COVID-19 has proved incapable of slowing down. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in three different countries in Central America, combined with more explicitly social and political inquiry, Daniel Núñez, José Luis Rocha, and Sonja Wolf reveal the multiple forms that violence in Central America has taken over the past few years, and explore the diverse ways they affect different groups. But what do these “violences” actually look like?

Central America has been a venue for an extremely wide array of violent acts, processes, and events in recent years. The region has been a theater of a terrible, multifaceted war between gangs like MS13 and Barrio 18, state security forces, paramilitary organizations, drug traffickers, death squads, and a range of other powerful interests; a ground zero for a series of political coups, popular uprisings, and harsh government repression; a landing place for a variety of extreme weather disasters driven by anthropogenic climate change; and finally a venue for a multitude of more local and long-running conflicts between peasants and landowners, communities and corporations, and workers and the promoters of economic “restructuring.” All of these have overlaid the open wounds of the revolutions, civil wars, and military dictatorships of the 1980s; and the more than a century of factional upheaval, US interference, and violent state-building that preceded those.

Daniel Núñez’s research shows the extent to which financial extortion has hit all facets of society in Central America, where he estimates that Guatemalans pay an average of 60 million dollars a year to blackmailers, while citizens in El Salvador and Honduras pay even more. Even officials working for government anti-extortion units have ended up as victims of this unsettling crime, which is increasingly key to driving migration from all three countries toward the US.

José Luis Rocha shows that violent political repression is spurring a growing exodus from Nicaragua. Since the government of Daniel Ortega faced down calls for his resignation in April 2018 with police and paramilitary street violence, and ordered the abduction and imprisonment of opposition leaders, more than a hundred thousand Nicaraguans have fled the country, of whom an increasing number are now arriving in the US.

And in El Salvador, Sonja Wolf argues that a generalized sense of insecurity is forcing thousands of Salvadorans to migrate. Gang violence is certainly an important part of this story; but so too is the government’s own violent, “tough-on-crime” approach to policing. While such policies have been promoted by politicians on both the left and right, and still enjoy high levels of support across the country, the murder rate has gone through the roof, while mass imprisonment in gang-segregated jails has made gangs more cohesive and extortion more systematic, forcing many citizens to look to migration as their only viable option for survival and security.

These articles raise questions about the effects of this migration on those left behind. In Nicaragua, for example, increasing migration rates have led to an increase in remittances sent back to the country, which, ironically, helps to shore up the stability of Ortega’s oppressive regime. But migration also spurs further migration, as those who make it to the US call upon their families to join them, and word spreads in their home communities of the opportunities available for those who undertake the dangerous journey north.

The three pieces also point to the intersections between different forms of violence, and to the ways in which impunity, government repression, and state neglect increase the vulnerability of entire neighborhoods and add to the pressure on the inhabitants to migrate. In Guatemala, both the threat and the reality of extortion are exacerbated by state authorities’ inability or unwillingness to protect citizens against it. In El Salvador, the political benefits of waging a spectacular “war” against the gangs have deflected attention and resources away from efforts to tackle the root causes of gang-related violence. While in Nicaragua, state-led violence is the driving force behind the other forms of insecurity currently affecting the country, further demonstrating the importance of moving beyond narratives of violence that focus exclusively on so-called criminal gangs.

These continuums of violence and the parallels that exist among these countries are not only relevant for scholarly discussions on these topics but, perhaps more importantly, they shed light on the need to challenge binary analyses centered on rigid categories of “migrant” and “refugee,” which are used by most institutions including the United Nations, but are increasingly being conceptualized more broadly through the use of terms such as “forced migration” and “forced displacement.”

In order to more effectively assess these countries’ insecurity and migration crises, we need a perspective that fully recognizes the multifaceted character of the “violences” impacting these countries and the political, economic, and social precursors that drive them. Analyses need to go beyond sensationalistic headlines or speculative investigations of the so-called “hidden interests” behind the caravans, and bring to the fore the deep challenges facing potential migrants in Central America.

Today, as Mexican migration to the United States seems to be expanding once again, it will become increasingly relevant to understand Mexican and Central American patterns of migration in terms of their drivers, manifestations, and consequences. By revealing the people behind the numbers and the polarizing rhetoric, and capturing the complex structural and institutional dynamics that form the backdrop to the decisions of so many Central Americans to migrate north despite all the dangers and costs this decision carries, we can start offering policymakers, practitioners, concerned citizens, and everyone in between insight into what is really driving today’s Central American migrant crisis—and what needs to be done to fix it.

Nathaniel Morris is a historian of modern Mexico and Central America and Associate Lecturer in History at University College London. Gema Kloppe-Santamaría is a historian and sociologist, a Wilson Center Global Fellow, and an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at George Washington University.