Northern Triangle: terrifying to live in, dangerous to leave

Updated Nov 02, 2020
“The man hired gang members to threaten us, so we would withdraw the report against him. Otherwise, he would rape me again. In that moment, we decided to leave at midnight and go up north.” – Maria (pseudonym) a girl in El Salvador

Each year, an estimated 500,000 people attempt the treacherous journey across Mexico. Many are headed for the United States. And most are from the three Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Women in the Northern Triangle often do not survive to tell their stories. In El Salvador and Honduras, femicide rates (murdering women and girls) are among the highest in the world. Sexual violence is an ever-present threat. Even within their own homes, millions of women face physical, emotional and economic abuse.

Children contend with their own brands of terror in the Northern Triangle. Many must cross gang territory just to get to their schools. Thousands drop out altogether. Futures can feel hopeless, as young people’s dreams and opportunities are silenced by gunfire. Teens and young adults must often choose between joining gangs or being victimized by them.

This article explores why people are leaving the Northern Triangle, including gang violence, poverty, lack of opportunity. And it explains why the journey across Mexico can be just as lethal as remaining at home.
  1. Why is the Northern Triangle so violent?
  2. Who suffers violence in the Northern Triangle?
  3. Who is crossing the Mexican border into the U.S.?
  4. Why are people leaving the Northern Triangle countries?
  5. Why is the trip through Mexico so dangerous?
  6. What is Canada’s involvement in the Northern Triangle?
  7. What is World Vision doing to help Northern Triangle families?
Map of Central America with a triangle indicating the Northern Triangle countries.
The so-called Northern Triangle of South America is comprised of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Photo: iStock

1. Why is the Northern Triangle so violent?
Many of the region’s problems stem from deep-rooted violence. It began with decades of civil war and political instability spanning the second half of the 20th century.

Civil conflict destabilized security structures and flooded the region with guns. Today, 77 per cent of all murders in Central America are committed with a firearm. Many local police fear they are outgunned.

The emergence of gangs in the Northern Triangle
The Northern Triangle has been fertile ground for the emergence of violent gangs. Here, two main gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang have grown in reach and power. The gangs quickly became bitter rivals and have had plenty of weapons to fight with. Firearms imported into the Northern Triangle during the civil wars have remained in circulation since.

“Firearms are durable goods, and those that were imported remained in circulation when the wars ended,” notes the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. “The modern assault rifle has not been significantly improved since the Cold War, so there is no need for updated technology. In addition to leftover caches, the militaries of the region were downsized radically under the peace accords, so surplus abounds.”

A police officer in dark uniform rides in the back of a black pick-up truck. He holds a large gun in one hand.Though local police patrol Northern Triangle countries, many children feel the burden of looking out for themselves. “When we hear the gang shootings, we immediately lie down on the floor,” says eight-year-old Juan. Photo: Jon Warren

Many of the gangs that plague the Northern Triangle did not originate there. They started in Los Angeles, in the early 1980s, when thousands of migrants lived and worked in the U.S. with no legal status. This included many Salvadorans who had fled the civil war at home. In Los Angeles they lived on the fringes of society.

The first members of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 gang, were among those hundreds of thousands of young Salvadorans. At that time, the city’s underground world was mainly controlled by Mexican mafia. There were other race-based gangs comprised of immigrants. Salvadoran youth joined the Maras, attempting to find a sense of belonging.

Elaborate graffiti on a brick wall reads “Mara Salvatrucha”.Gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha often mark the borders of their territory. Gang warfare and high murder rates make Northern Triangle countries some of the most dangerous in the world. Photo: Heidi Isaza

Exporting gangs to the Northern Triangle
Then in 1996, President Bill Clinton approved laws which allowed for the deportation of immigrants – including legal residents – who had been convicted of crimes.

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’d had few educational or economic opportunities and little access to rehabilitation in U.S. jails. They were returned to countries they barely knew, that had just concluded lengthy civil wars.

In the wake of these wars, Northern Triangle countries had insufficient resources to deal with the influx of criminals. By one estimate, 40 out of every 100,000 people were murdered in Honduras in 2018.

Expansion of gangs throughout the Northern Triangle
Today, there is a plethora of gangs across the Northern Triangle. Members extort businesses and individuals, recruit minors and murder those who cross them. Adding to the danger is the fact that the gangs are also involved in local drug sales, says Insight. Their turf battles turn violent rapidly.

A girl and her mother embrace one another, as they stand in front of a tent.
Marypaz (right), now sheltering in Mexico near the Texas border, had a house and a good job. She had little reason to leave Honduras – except for the gangs. They killed her cousin (who lived next door) and threatened Marypaz and her children. Photo: Andrea Peer​

2. Who suffers violence in the Northern Triangle?
Women and children are the most vulnerable people in the Northern Triangle. They can easily become victims of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Women have perhaps the greatest reason to leave the region – and many are seeking safety from their own husbands or partners.

Women as victims of violence in the Northern Triangle
Across the Northern Triangle, women and girls face violence that’s relentless and diabolically varied. Around 65,000 women fled gender-based violence in 2016 alone. In one report, 45.8 per cent of women under thirty reported having been abused within the previous twelve months.

Femicide – the killing of women and girls because of their gender – particularly stands out for its severity. El Salvador and Honduras are in the top five countries worldwide in terms of femicide rates. In El Salvador alone, a man kills a woman every 24 hours the highest femicide rate in the world.

Much of the time, the crime goes uninvestigated and unpunished. In 2016, 98 per cent of cases of femicide and violence against women in Latin America went unresolved.

Two females walk away from the camera, heads down. To their right, a girl bends to pick through garbage at the side of the road. Behind her is a wall with graffiti.Girls and women hurry off the mean streets. Many only face more violence at home. Photo: Jon Warren

Within the home, too many women face severe and prolonged domestic violence. Women describe repeated rapes and sexual assaults, beatings, kicking, and being thrown against walls. Some happened at home and some in public.

Once again, the authorities provide no meaningful help, say the women. According to a UN report, “many of their abusive partners are members of armed groups. The women stated that these groups were the highest powers in their neighbourhoods, they did not believe the government could protect them.”

Children as victims of violence in the Northern Triangle
Children grow up learning the boundaries of gang territory in their communities. When a gang approaches a young person with an invitation to join, the usual offer is 24 hours to select either recruitment or death. If the young person joins, chances are they will be killed by police or a rival gang. If not, the inviting gang comes after them.

It is no wonder that, since 2014, the number of children arriving at the U.S. border has risen dramatically. Unaccompanied children, adolescents, and young families are fleeing gang and other forms of violence in the Northern Triangle countries.

A row of shadows is cast on the dirt ground, cast by a row of girls in school uniforms. The photo does not show the children’s faces.Children at a World Vision-supported school line up to go inside. Many students must cross gang territory on foot, just to reach schools and community centres. Photo: Jon Warren​

“Most of my teenage clients have witnessed someone being murdered on the streets,” says U.S. immigration attorney Corie O’Rourke. “Most people (in the Northern Triangle) live in a constant culture of violence.” Once a crime is witnessed, gangs are highly motivated to force those children into their ranks.

Too often, children are orphaned or abandoned when parents are targeted by a gang for extortion and violence. And households without fathers are considered easy pickings for gangs looking to recruit children.

Interviews with 322 child migrants returned to El Salvador found that about 60 percent of them said they had fled because of gang threats or violence.

Child rights crisis
Research conducted by Physicians for Human Rights pointed to an escalating child rights crisis for children in Northern Triangle countries. It begins when children are persecuted in their countries of origin. It continues as they make the hazardous journey across Mexico.

And it can continue as children enter the United States. Between 2014 and 2018, the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement received 4,556 allegations of sexual abuse or harassment from refugee children during their incarceration upon arrival in the country.

In 2019 alone, nearly 70,000 migrant children were held in U.S. custody after crossing the border. More than 90 per cent came from Northern Triangle countries. The number of children spending time in detention shelters separated from their families rose 42 per cent that year.

Organizations like World Vision have decried the practice of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S. border. Migrant children incarcerated alone are deprived of the love and protection of their families.
Such conditions result in a high production of cortisol, the hormone the brain releases as a result of extreme stress. Together, this combination can stunt development and lead to trauma. The effects can last a lifetime.

3. Who is crossing the Mexican border into the U.S.?
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of people from the Northern Triangle seeking refuge in surrounding countries increased by 2,249 per cent. As the flow of migrants from the Northern Triangle has increased, its composition has changed.

By 2018, most Northern Triangle migrants were unaccompanied children or families rather than individual adults. An increasing number presented themselves at border crossings for asylum, rather than attempting an unauthorized crossing.

Adolescent children sit in orange chairs, facing away from the camera. One of them has a rip in his shirt. They children face a row of World Vision staff, who are talking to them.World Vision staff talk with teen migrants from the Northern Triangle at a hostel in Tijuana, Mexico. They are hoping to enter the United States. Youth migrants say the so-called American dream is not a voluntary goal. It is forced on them by violence and poverty. Photo: Israel Carcamo

4. Why are people leaving the Northern Triangle countries?
Gang crime and violence are some of the main reasons many people migrate from the Northern Triangle. When surveyed, respondents who lived in gang-affected neighbourhoods were 40 per cent more likely to want to leave their country. This gang effect was even stronger in El Salvador.

Many citizens of Northern Triangle countries live on less than $1.90 US per day. This makes them extremely vulnerable to extortion from gangs. That is especially true when threatened with sexual violence and even death. In some cases, poverty leads to desperation for young men. Some join gangs voluntarily, for a sense of purpose and for day-to-day security.

In short: the constant fear, hardship and lack of opportunity can cause adults and teens alike to despair for their futures in the Northern Triangle. Many would rather risk their lives crossing Mexico than lose their lives and futures

Fleeing gangs or seeking jobs?
The threats facing families in the Northern Triangle are often interconnected. If gangs kill the main provider, his or her family struggles to get by. Introduce a variable like a natural disaster and the situation becomes even more desperate. With jobs unavailable, young people may feel no other choice but to join a gang.

Some groups emphasize that Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans migrate mainly for better economic opportunities in the U.S. Indeed, the region is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Roughly 60 per cent of Hondurans and Guatemalans live below their countries’ national poverty lines. That’s compared to 30 per cent of all Latin Americans. But other organizations warn against the idea that Northern Triangle families are motivated solely by economic factors.

The Brookings Institution says: “It is an outdated notion that people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are primarily looking for economic opportunity in the United States, and therefore, should wait in line for a visa. For people fleeing these countries, waiting for a visa can result in death, rape, or forcible recruitment into crime.”

Surveys of migrants applying for asylum in the United States reveal both push and pull factors. Many people fleeing the Northern Triangle have family in the U.S. with whom they hope to reunite. But many are hard-pressed to believe that family, on its own, is enough of a motivator. That is because people risk so much to make the journey – especially women.

To make the dangerous odyssey across Mexico is to risk one’s life and safety. It has been reported that nearly one third of women are sexually assaulted on the journey.

Two males trudge away from the camera, packs on their backs, heading into the distance along a railroad track.Cargo railroad tracks run from the southern border of Guatemala all the way to Mexico and the United States. By the time they cross the northern Mexican border, some migrants have travelled more than 2,000 km. Along the way, many suffer assaults, robbery and abduction by criminal gangs. Photo: David Munoza

5. Why is the trip through Mexico so dangerous?
Migrants from Northern Triangle countries travel more than 2,000 kilometres to reach the U.S. border. Along the way, many suffer assaults, robbery and abduction by criminal gangs. Many die before reaching the United States. When they get there, police and immigration officials are reported to extort from some migrants and treat many of them poorly.

Criminal mobs are also known to terrorize migrants riding the train. “Mexican police recently reported that ‘delinquents’ tossed several migrants from Northern Triangle countries from La Bestia,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “One died and two sustained severed limbs.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new risks for migrants who have made the trip. Some take out huge loans to pay the smugglers who shepherd them through Mexico and into the United States. Now in the U.S. and unable to work because of shutdowns and unemployment, they risk losing everything.

6. What is Canada’s involvement in the Northern Triangle?
Canada’s role in helping refugees from the Northern Triangle has been discussed in parliament, and in the press. The government does provide millions of dollars in grant funds each year to organizations like World Vision to help in the region.

Some groups feel our country should be doing more to help refugees from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Canadian news agencies have repeatedly raised the question of why Canada is not doing more on the Central American front. Some have called the Northern Triangle “a blind spot” in Canada’s otherwise strong refugee policy.

A large roll of razor wire runs along a corrugated iron roof.
Razor wire rolls protecting World Vision offices in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, are evidence of violence in the neighborhood. Aid workers are an important presence in the region, as they help keep children safe. Photo: Jon Warren

The United Nations itself has urged Canada to take in more vulnerable migrants from the Northern Triangle. Otherwise, Mexico bears the burden of resettling thousands of highly vulnerable people in their country.

Some sources feel the migrant surge from the Northern Triangle is an opportunity for Canada. Policy Options declares that such a move would restore Canada’s status as a leader on human rights for migrants.

7. What is World Vision doing to help Northern Triangle families?
World Vision Canada supports children and families in the world’s toughest places – regions like the Northern Triangle. Here is what aid workers and Canadian donors are striving for in that region:
  • To protect more girls and boys from violence of all kinds
  • To improve the overall well-being of children
  • To increase adolescents’ education and life skills
  • To create positive and peaceful relationships within families
Canadians are reaching out to Northern Triangle families through World Vision in these ways:

Child sponsorship (in El Salvador and Honduras): Canadians can choose a child to sponsor in one of these countries. With their help, World Vision partners with families to improve life for all children in a community. Together, they ensure children have things like food, clean water, education, healthcare and protection.

An adolescent girl holds up a phone with a photo displayed. In the photo is herself and her sponsor, who visited. She is also holding a baby boy. Two other boys stand beside her.Yemi, 15 years old (gray T-shirt) shows the photo of her sponsor, which she carries with her everywhere. Three of the children in this rural family are sponsored, improving life for all kids in this community. Photo: Jon Warren

Youth Ready (in El Salvador and Honduras): This program offers teens and young adults an alternative to joining a gang. Many see no future otherwise. Youth Ready empowers youth to build a future for themselves while employing other young people as co-entrepreneurs.

New businesses have included a cake-making business and a home-based food delivery company. Other youth have thrived in internship positions and are often hired afterward. With rewarding jobs in place, and help finding housing and community, youth don’t need to consider migrating for economic reasons. Nor do they need the gangs.

A teen or young adult boy talks to a customer. He has a large tray of wrapped tortillas on one arm.
Irvin, 21 years old, partners with Wendy in a tortilla business in El Salvador, thanks to Youth Ready. Irvin’s specialty is sales and customer service. And when the delicious tortillas are ready, he delivers them to customers, hot and fresh! Photo: Corey Scarrow

Youth Ready has had a positive impact on hundreds of youth in the Northern Triangle. In its 2019 report, the program noted the following achievements:
  • 93 young people who had left school were supported to return to formal studies – some at the university level
  • 212 young people were placed and mentored in jobs
  • 53 youth mentors actively encouraged and supported the youth to believe in themselves and achieve
World Vision Canada will be expanding the initiative into five additional countries: Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. Youth Ready has been supported by the Barrett Family Foundation since 2016.

Raw Hope (in Honduras): Canadians are helping families in some of the world’s most lethal neighbourhoods, where going to school can mean walking through gang territory. These are some of the most vulnerable children on the planet. In the 2019 fiscal year, World Vision helped provide 1,061 child-friendly spaces in Honduras. These are safe places for children to play, learn and follow healthy routines.

Two young children smile while washing their hands with clean water coming from an outdoor tap.
In Honduras, Gladys, (right) started preschool recently. She joins other children washing their hands with clean, running water, thanks to caring donors. Photo: Jon Warren

Emergency response, including COVID-19 protection measures

A woman and two young children sit together on a bench, with a large bag of food aid beside them.
Across the Northern Triangle, World Vision aid workers are caring for families quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, a family in Honduras receives food, cleaning products and information about ways to stay safe. Photo: André Guardiola

Caring and advocating for migrant children and families: In the United States, World Vision is pressing the U.S. government to put the needs of vulnerable children first. This is an excerpt from their 2019 statement:

U.S. foreign assistance should not be used as a tool to penalize the home countries of migrants but should instead remain focused on improving the lives of the most vulnerable so that children and their families may safely remain home. Additionally, the U.S. government must maintain the protections for children and families arriving in the U.S. These protections ensure that child migrants receive appropriate care in the least-restrictive settings possible.

At all times, World Vision’s goal is to empower Northern Triangle families and communities to care for their own children. We build up community leaders, like youth, fathers and the guide mothers in this photo below. When families and communities are strong and close, they are more caring and more prosperous. They are better able to protect children from all kinds of threats.

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