Aiding Central America’s “Women on the Run”

February 23, 2016

By issuing tourist and humanitarian visas to migrants, the Mexican government could begin to move past the failures of U.S.-backed border militarization.

[Jan. 7, 2016] Published on NACLA ( This is the fourth and final article in NACLA’s multi-part series on migration in the Americas. (Read the other parts here [3], here [4], and here [5]).

By Gabriela Díaz Prieto and Sarah Gammage

Norma remains in a detention center in the United States where she awaits the resolution of her asylum petition. She left a neighborhood in El Salvador, controlled by the M-18 Gang, at the end of 2014. Four members of the gang kidnapped her, took her to a cemetery where they raped her and then threw her in a trashcan – all an attempt to send a message to her husband, a Salvadoran police officer. Reporting the violence only made things worse; shortly after the incident Norma and other members of her family began to receive death threats.

Without any realistic possibility of protection in El Salvador, Norma’s husband hired a coyote to help her travel through Mexico. The ultimate goal was that she might make it safely to the United States. Sadly, that journey resulted in more challenges than Norma and her family could have imagined.

The northern triangle of Central America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world [6], particularly for women like Norma. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, in the global index of femicides. In recent years even the political and legal space to defend the rights of women has been closing down. The Mesoamerican Initiative of Human Rights Defenders reported a doubling in attacks [7] against female human rights defenders in these countries between 2012 and 2014. These frightening figures included more than 1,600 attacks and 32 assassinations.

The escalating violence in Central America is reflected in the rising number of women crossing the border between Mexico and the United States. Not only did the number of women detained by the U.S. Border Patrol triple between 2013 and 2014 [8], but more than 68,000 families arrived [9] during fiscal year 2014 and 40,000 during 2015. Thousands of these individuals have sought asylum [10] in the U.S., though only a tiny fraction [11] have had their requests granted.

As Norma’s testimony reveals [12], family relationships are frequently central in the histories of women migrants seeking asylum [13]. With alarming repetition, these women are the wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of persecuted family members. Others are the direct targets of violence, often because they have stood up to violent actors and criminal gangs in their communities. Still others flee with their children hoping to prevent their offspring’s forced recruitment into armed gangs [14].

The UNHCR, in its recent, stark report “Women on the Run [12],” provides first-hand accounts of the gravity of the crisis for women in Central America and their lack of access to humanitarian protection in Mexico. The report underscores that responding to the crisis requires coordinated, regional action to guarantee the human rights of migrants, while also contending that this action can be pursued while border security is maintained. The current situation, however, reveals that both Mexico and the United States [15] have engaged in border security investments and practices at the expense of human rights [16] – in particular, the human rights of migrants.

“Hunting Migrants”

In 2014, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rolled-out the Alliance for Prosperity [17] with the stated goal of tackling poverty, preventing violence, and providing decent work – all factors that have motivated out-migration from Central America. This Alliance is buttressed by the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America [18], which has a budget of about US$1 billion for fiscal year 2016. Although the United States, through the Central American Regional Security Initiative [19], has made more than US$640 million in security assistance available to the region since 2008, the causes of displacement and an emerging humanitarian crisis have not been well-attended, which is largely why such problems persist.

In parallel, since 2008, the United Stated has developed and implemented the Mérida Initiative [20] with Mexico. Among its four pillars, this program has sought to create a “twenty-first century border structure.” According to the Congressional Research Service [21], since 2013 the Mexican government has implemented a security plan along its southern border with the active support of the United States. This assistance includes the establishment of 12 naval bases along Mexico’s border rivers and three security cordons that stretch 161 kilometers north of Mexico’s border with Guatemala and Belize. At the same time, the United States has provided support with non-intrusive communication and inspection technologies, has trained the troops that patrol the border, and has provided greater mobility and surveillance assistance.

For fiscal year 2015, the U.S. Congress provided an additional US$79 million above the initial amount of US$115 million solicited by the Obama administration for the Mérida Initiative, with the explicit purpose of securing Mexico’s southern border. With this investment, the U.S. believes it can dissuade potential migrants and reduce irregular transit across its borders. As Michael McCaul (R-TX), Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee, emphasized [22] before Congress at the beginning of July 2014, “They [Migrants] are all coming from Central America. If we can close the southern border of Mexico, that stops 99 percent of our problems here.”

From the U.S. government’s perspective the results of this collaboration [23] have been notable: in 2015, the number of Central Americans detained by U.S. Border Patrol fell by half – from 239,000 to 110,000.

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