As I arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, from San Ysidro, California, late last year, neither of these policies were in place. From the US side of the border, the wall looked like a mere architectural curiosity, its checkpoints easily crossed by many on their way to Tijuana’s unbridled nightlife. But seen from the Mexico side, the rusty structure appeared as an omnipresent reminder of the lottery of life: some are born lucky, others aren’t. Just how much the border, with its walls, guards, and policies, will bring you suffering depends on the papers you have or don’t have.
Many people from the Northern Triangle that comprises El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are part of this unlucky lot. People like Lucia, José, and Ruben, whom I met in Tijuana by the US border wall, had trekked north as part of the so-called “migrant caravan” that captured the imaginations of American media and policymakers for weeks. While their home region is rich in natural and agricultural resources, much of its population suffers from acute poverty and chronic violence, perpetuated by corrupt governance and acute gang-related problems born of neglect, trauma, and a rule-by-violence system. It’s no wonder that many of those facing such circumstances would seek a better life for themselves and their loved ones in countries that are safer and more prosperous.
Lucia, 50 years old, is one of those who decided to take the gamble when she fled her home to save her life. When I met her, however, that journey was on standby. She had just reached the US border wall, alongside hundreds of other people marching from the Northern Triangle. Lucia and a slew of others became pawns in the immigration debates that engulfed US politics for weeks, fueled by a president keen on stoking fears that the caravan harbored criminals. For Lucia and those who had come in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States, these debates meant a long, desperate wait.
When I first visited Tijuana’s Benito Juarez Sports Center in November 2018, I witnessed over 6,000 Central Americans massed in the open-air baseball field and its adjacent street. They had been living in the compound, sleeping in tents or under makeshift shelters made of garbage bags stretched over bushes and fences, but still unprotected from the rain and various illnesses.
As heavy winter clouds gathered and caused downpours in the border area, torrents of water would run down the hills south of the stadium to flood the baseball field and mix with red soil, wool blankets, and the unavoidable detritus that accumulates whenever large groups of people congregate in a small, restricted space. It was a miserable sight, mere meters away from an H&M clothing store on the other side of the corrugated fence.
As we sat on the tarpaulin-covered stadium grounds, just near the structure that snakes its way up the hills and across the rivers scattering the two countries’ borderlands, Lucia told me how she had joined the caravan to escape the gangs that plagued her native El Salvador since the early ’90s. The problem, she told me, emerged after years of civil strife and abuse, just as the United States started to ramp up its deportation of young Salvadoran migrants who had learned gang life in the US.
Lucia’s neighborhood in the capital, San Salvador, had been teeming with gangs ever since the end of the civil war, she said. “They identify themselves by the way they dress, with their white shoes and shorts they wore on top of leggings,” Lucia told me. “If you dressed like them without being part of the gang, they could kill you.” The police, she said, are useless: “By the time they come, things have already happened.” But the gangs had never quite harassed her directly, she said. At least until last summer.
A single mother of adult children, Lucia operated a small eatery in her house on the neighborhood’s main street, where she sold eggs, plantains, and fried beans for seven years. Every month, she said, she earned about 400 US dollars, which was just enough to pay for electricity and rent for her house. Then, on two consecutive mornings, she woke up to find a note on her porch, demanding a $500 “war tax.” “If you don’t comply, wait for the consequences,” it read. She told me this almost gave her a heart attack.
Left with no other choice, Lucia closed her shop and fled the country. “The problem was with me, so I preferred to emigrate,” she said. “I can’t go back home now.” And that’s how she ended up in the Benito Juarez Sports Center, stuck at the US-Mexico border.
The Gang Problem’s US Roots
According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service study, many of the gangs that plague the Northern Triangle region were not born in El Salvador or Honduras, but in early 1980s Los Angeles. At the time, hundreds of thousands of migrants lived and worked in the United States without legal status. Many Salvadorans who had fled the horrors of their homeland’s civil war ended up living on the fringes of society in Los Angeles.
The first members of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 gang, were among those hundreds of thousands of young Salvadorans. Facing hostility from other immigrants and race-based gangs in a town whose dangerous underworld was by and largely controlled by the Mexican mafia, they joined gangs to try to build a place for themselves. My colleague John Raphling, a public defender in California at the time, put it this way:
I remember when MS-13 was a local gang, centered just outside downtown Los Angeles in the Pico-Union neighborhood. It was made up primarily of Salvadoran teens whose families had left that country to escape poverty, an oppressive right-wing regime, and a brutal civil war. […] The gang members I represented while working juvenile court were mostly lost kids struggling with poverty, poor schools, broken families, and little hope, who found a home and structure in the gang.
As the MS-13 tried to extend its influence in the crime-ridden downtown areas of 1980s Los Angeles, it quickly clashed with existing groups, most notoriously with the Barrio 18 (M-18), a Mexican gang born in Los Angeles in the 1960s that became the city’s first multi-ethnic gang, incorporating members from throughout Central America. These clashes were violent. To gain respect in a world of ruthless operators, the MS-13 relied on its members’ experience of the horrific civil war at home and resorted to brutal means, slowly forging a reputation for itself as one of the most dangerous gangs in the United States.
In 1996, in an era when politicians were eager to outdo each other on being tough on crime and illegal immigration, President Bill Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act as well as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act into law. These laws dramatically increased detention and automatic deportation of immigrants, including legal residents, who had been convicted of a wide range of crimes, from shoplifting to homicide.
By some estimates, up to 20,000 convicted criminals were deported to Central America between 2000 and 2004. Many had spent much of their lives living in poverty in the United States. They had few educational or economic opportunities and little access to rehabilitation in US jails and prisons. They were returned to countries they barely knew that had just concluded over a decade of war.
In the wake of these wars, these Central American countries had insufficient resources to deal with the problem. By one estimate, 40 out of every 100,000 people were murdered in Honduras in 2018. While the number decreased substantially from the 86.5 per 100,000 people murder rate in 2011, it today remains approximately eight times higher than in the United States, where about five out of 100,000 people were murdered in 2017. El Salvador, for its part, has an estimated murder rate 10 times as high as the 2018 US rate, at 51 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Although official murder rates in El Salvador and Honduras have reduced substantially over the past five years, homicide mortality rates remain at war-zone levels. In El Salvador, with a population of about six million people, 3,345 were murdered in 2018, while Honduras logged 3,669 such deaths for a population of about nine million. Comparatively, 3,804 conflict-related civilian deaths were recorded last year by the UN in Afghanistan, a country of over 35 million. In both countries, the crimes that disproportionately affect children and women — disappearance and rape — often go unreported and are otherwise poorly documented.
I met “José” in Tijuana, where he lived with other migrants in a smaller shelter, removed from the Benito Juarez Sports Center. An earnest man, he had been working on construction crews in town, eking together some money to send back home to his family while he waited for US immigration officers to allow him to claim asylum at the San Ysidro border crossing. Before coming to Mexico, he worked as a driver in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Like many others I met on the caravan, he had his fair share of encounters with the gangs.
“On the road where I worked, I had to pay ‘war taxes’ to three different gangs, only for them to let me work there,” José told me. Each week, it cost him and his colleagues about 900 lempiras (roughly $40), only to be allowed to work.
Last October, colleagues called on him to join them for a beer in a small bar near the highway leading to San Pedro Sula. He was five minutes away from the drinking hole when he heard a series of loud detonations: “It was like if there had been a war between two countries,” he told me.
José told me he continued toward the bar when the gunshots ended. “When I got there, I saw my friends dead. Roni, Carlos, Manuel, Oscar … They killed them because of the war tax. If you don’t pay it, they kill you. When someone doesn’t pay, they can go after anyone working with that person,” he added. That evening, the gangs killed eight men in the bar. The following day, José left Honduras to join the caravan headed to the United States.
There are few safe areas in El Salvador. Local media reports suggest that neighborhoods are often either under one gang’s control, or their opponents’ and have estimated that over 90 percent of the country has a gang presence. If you have a problem with local gang members, you can hardly simply flee to another neighborhood or town, Salvadorans I met in Tijuana told me. Your new living quarters may be in an area controlled by the same gang, or just as bad, by their opponents. Moving to a neighboring country can expose you to the same problem. And gangs aren’t the only problem facing those living in crime-ridden areas, as you also risk getting caught in the crossfire when security forces engage in operations against criminal entities. Your only option may be to leave the region altogether. This is what happened to 24-year-old “Ruben.”
I met Ruben at the Benito Juarez Sports Center. The young man, a father of two, had joined the caravan after years spent hiding in southern Mexico from the gangs that ravaged El Salvador, his home country.
In 2011, he told me, the MS-13 began to ramp up its presence in his rural home region of Sonsonate. “I used to plant corn but then came the Mara Salvatrucha and they started to recruit people,” he said. “Friends that I grew up with joined the MS. Because of the poverty, they had become delinquents. They wanted me to participate as well, so once I went with them to try and rob a lady.”
The robbery didn’t work out, he said. “I didn’t want to do it. They gave me days to leave. Otherwise, they threatened to kill me,” Ruben told me. So, he left his neighborhood and moved in with his mother in another part of town.
Moving didn’t protect him, however. A few days later, two members of the rival gang controlling the area — the 18 — came to ask his relatives whether he was a marero — a gang member. “With time, they investigated to know who I was. After three days, one of them came back to our house saying he knew from which area I was,” Ruben said. The man had been given a mission: to kill Ruben, suspected of being a member of the MS-13.
“My mother began to cry, saying that I wasn’t a gang member, but he said that if he didn’t complete his mission, they were going to kill him instead,” Ruben recalled. “But when he saw my mother crying, he just shot four times in random directions, making sure not to hit us, and left running. The same night I left for Mexico.” Ruben eventually joined the caravan and made his way up to Tijuana.
From a Cruel System to a Protective One
Lucia, José, and Ruben are only three of the dozens of people whose similar stories I heard in Tijuana. Together, they highlight the failure of Central American governments to protect their citizens from the scourge of criminal gangs that originated in the United States and spread throughout the region as an indirect result of 1990s deportation programs. But today’s sad reality is that all of this barely matters in determining Lucia’s, José’s, and Ruben’s chances. In the United States, the Trump administration has pursued a series of policy initiatives aimed at making it harder for people fleeing their homes to seek asylum in the United States, separating families, limiting the number of people processed daily at ports of entry, prolonging detention, and narrowing the grounds of eligibility for asylum. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s 2018 Matter of A-B guidance rules, for example, states that migrants who flee gang or domestic violence generally do not qualify for asylum on that basis alone.
Should they choose to claim asylum instead of attempting to smuggle themselves into the United States, Lucia, José, and Ruben are hence more likely to be incarcerated and returned to Mexico or their home countries than to receive the protection and due process a reformed asylum regime could warrant.
The recent US-Mexico deal indeed allows the expansion of a program under which the United States is expelling asylum seekers to several border towns in Mexico, where they are expected to wait until their US asylum court proceedings conclude, for months and perhaps even for years.
But under the US Constitution, the Trump administration is not the only player when it comes to US border and asylum rules — Congress too has a role to play. It should roll back the “Remain in Mexico” program, ensure access to asylum, and consider a “complementary protection” framework to provide for wider protection from forced repatriations than under existing US laws. Trump’s anti-asylum measures should first be undone. But that’s not enough. The 1980 US Refugee Act, for example, based on the 1951 International Refugee Convention, fails to account for modern conditions that drive people away from home. This complementary framework would kick in when a person’s return would put their rights to life or physical integrity at serious risk, either because of generalized violence or exceptional situations, such as natural or human-made disasters, including from the effects of climate change, for which there is no adequate domestic remedy. By and large, such a framework would cover people like Lucia, José, and Ruben and ensure that regardless of the outcome of their asylum claim, they would not be forcibly returned to the harmful conditions of their native countries.
Jonathan Pedneault is a Human Rights Watch researcher. He was assisted in this article by Elizabeth Kennedy, another Human Rights Watch researcher.
Banner image: "Border Wall at Tijuana and San Diego Border" by Tomascastelazo is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.