In recent decades, the history of Central America has been shaped by violence to the point where it now has one of the highest rates of homicide and crime in the world. According to the latest report on homicides published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), America, with only 13% of the world’s population, recorded 42% of all victims in the world.
The World Health Organisation (OMS) says that when a country has a homicide rate of more than 10 per 10,000 inhabitants, it should be classed as a homicide epidemic. With the exception of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, all the Central American nations exceed this figure, particularly the three in the so-called Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. El Salvador has the worst rate at 62.1 per 100,000 in 2017 (although it has decreased to 30 in recent months), followed by Honduras with 41.7 per 100,000.
These countries have gone from political violence during the civil wars of the 1980s to post-war violence, which is now social and marked by the emergence of new, dangerous actors, such as gangs and organised crime groups. The criminals responsible are not motivated by ideology or politics but by individual or group catalysts, which are above all economic in the case of organised crime, and revolve around identity and social incentives for gangs. This new crime wave has spread like a disease throughout the region, making it one of the world’s most insecure areas. It is the root of multiple external and internal displacements – 71,500 in El Salvador between 2006 and 2016 and 174,000 in Honduras between 2004 and 2014 – that have occurred in the last decade as a result of inhabitants often being left with no choice other than to flee.
The violence indisputably affects all three Northern Triangle countries, although not all suffer from the same problems equally; there are nuances. Guatemala has a growing economy, and the country is less affected by the gang phenomenon. However, it has more organised crime, its state is weaker, there is more corruption among the political class, and the military and police are more infiltrated by crime. Honduras is severely affected by both gangs and organised crime, and there is criminal penetration in the police and the military.
El Salvador has fewer political problems, and there is little criminal penetration in security institutions. Still, it has the worst gang problem out of the three countries and faces more challenges in developing its economy.
Gangs existed in Central America before the civil wars, but the phenomenon as we know it today was born in Los Angeles (USA) in the 80s. The city was known as a gang mecca in those days, but became the preferred destination for many Northern Triangle families fleeing war and threats from paramilitary groups.
Given the situation in the Northern Triangle countries, it is not uncommon for their inhabitants to feel they must abandon them and seek refuge in other latitudes. According to a 2019 survey by the Central American University of El Salvador, 63.8% of Salvadorans would like to leave the country, and a 2019 study by the Jesuit Network in Honduras found the same applies to 42% of Hondurans.
Lastly, given that so many gang members would like to leave the gangs but can’t envisage any other possible future, support for reintegration projects could prove very useful.