Organized Crime and Migration in the Northern Triangle and Mexico

Photo by Ben Raderstorf / Inter-American Dialogue

On July 20th, 2016 the Dialogue hosted a discussion on “Organized Crime and Migration in the Northern Triangle and Mexico” with experts from the International Crisis Group, who shared findings from their new report, Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration. The panel consisted of Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President of the Crisis Group, and Ivan Briscoe, Director of Latin America and the Caribbean and primary author of the report, with commentary by Adriana Beltrán, Senior Associate for Citizen Security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, moderated the event.

Shifter opened highlighting the importance of reassessing the evolving migration crisis two years after President Obama declared an “urgent humanitarian situation” at the border. He tasked the panel with explaining the current situation, what is being done, and what should be done in response. 

Schneider explained that in order to understand the current situation, the humanitarian and migration crisis in Central America must be considered in light of linkages to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s. He argued that the crisis stems from Central America’s failure to prioritize judicial reforms, anti-corruption measures, and policies to combat inequality in a post-conflict setting. He added that the United States has also failed to assist Central America in adequately addressing these challenges.

For Schneider, the magnitude of the crisis is reflected in the hundreds of thousands of migrants and tens of thousands of children from both Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America who flee their countries to seek a better life in the United States. The US Customs and Border Protection reported that 198,000 migrants have been apprehended, including 56,000 unaccompanied children, in the first semester of 2016. Schneider added that while the US deported 75,000 Central Americans last year, Mexico sent back 166,000 migrants, including some 33,000 unaccompanied children and adolescents. Schneider argued that the United States has essentially passed on the crisis for Mexico to handle.

According to Schneider, sending migrants back without the assurance of a safe return and without the opportunity to claim asylum is unacceptable and conflicts with the obligations of both the United States and Mexico when faced with a situation where individuals are forced to leave their countries because of violence. In the past three years, 50,000 people have been murdered in the Northern Triangle, more than in the United States which has a population ten times larger.

Schneider emphasized that the most vulnerable to violence are the region’s youth, referring to a UNICEF report that found that the world’s highest homicide rate among children and adolescents is in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Briscoe opened his remarks by pointing out that although today’s migration patterns have changed dramatically since 20 years ago, policies remain unchanged—adding that the Crisis Group report is an alert to policymakers. He noted that the high point for apprehension of migrants was actually in 2000, when 1.64 million were arrested and apprehend, a rate fare higher than the 330,000 in 2014.

The most significant change, however, has been in the composition and character of those making the journey to the United States. The number of Mexicans migrating has fallen massively over the last 15 years, with far more migrants traveling from Central America and many more women and children. These findings go hand in hand with the fact that Mexico has become a buffer state, as Briscoe noted, “Mexico now controls the migratory flow as the chief deporter and apprehender of migrants, and is the frontline in the ‘supposed’ fight against illegal migration.”

Photo by Ben Raderstorf / Inter-American Dialogue
Photo by Ben Raderstorf / Inter-American Dialogue

Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration explains how this happened, what this means for migration, and what should be done as a policy response to the issue.

According to Briscoe, changes in the nature of migratory flow from economic to forced displacement can be explained by high levels of criminal violence. While economic reasons still drive migrants to make the long and difficult journey, the experience of violence is fundamental and in many cases serves as a trigger. For this reason, Briscoe argues that an increasing number of migrants should be considered refugees.

Briscoe then spoke about the rising rates of human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and exploitation of migrants due to their lack of human resources, defenselessness, and the threat of violence. There has been a lack of response from relevant prosecution authorities, as Briscoe recalled an interview with an official who told him “everyone wins from human trafficking.” He said that according to estimates, 41% of the crimes now being carried out against migrants in Mexico are the responsibility of state and local governments, but migration flows have led to the discretionary corruption of officials who are supposed to be responsible.

Briscoe emphasized that the deterrence effect of hardline migration policies is no longer as effective as it once was and there are diminishing marginal returns to increased enforcement. More aggressive policies only increase the profit margins for criminal groups on the other side of the border. He argued that the problem is no longer responsive to simple enforcement and deterrence, highlighting the historical fact that deportation policy fuels the rise of criminal gangs in Central America. Migration has increasing links to organized crime and criminal violence at its origin, in transit, and in crossing.

Photo by Ben Raderstorf / Inter-American Dialogue
Photo by Ben Raderstorf / Inter-American Dialogue

Briscoe ended his remarks by again stressing the change in the causes of migration and calling for the genuine shared responsibility of all countries in solving this problem.  He said that Northern Triangle countries need to recognize that the problem is one of forced displacement. Mexico, on the other hand, is bearing the brunt of migration enforcement with institutions that are under-resourced and not always up to the task.

Schneider added that with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s upcoming meeting with President Obama, there are several recommendations that could be adopted during the visit that could ease and help Mexico cope with the crisis. He argued that the US should provide for direct support to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados). While Mexico has the capacity to offer humanitarian visas, migrants should be supported with shelter and security during that period, particularly adolescents and minors. For the US, the easiest and fastest action toward children and adolescents is to provide Temporary and Protective Status (TPS) until the US can ensure safe return. He also suggested that the US substantially expand its Central American Minors (CAM) parole program with the help of the UNHCR.

Finally, Schneider argued that this is not a two year issue, and consequently support for the Alliance for Prosperity  should be extended for a further five years, specifically targeting structural problems that remain the forces that drive migration. 

Beltrán commended the Crisis Group for its thorough and timely report, noting that the steady tide of migration “underscores that the current strategy is not going to make this problem go away.” She stressed the importance of focusing on structural causes and added that producing sustainable and effective results is not just a question of resources, but rather smart investments. Beltrán called for comprehensive and creative solutions that included expanding the cooperation between countries and consulting local communities and civil societies in the design and implementation of programs.  Lastly, she called for greater transparency in US funding and emphasized that US assistance will only be effective if Central American governments do their part to strengthen institutions, tackle corruption, and protect human rights.

Before opening the floor for questions from the audience, Shifter began by asking about the political constraints in the United States, Mexico, and countries of the Northern Triangle in adopting the Crisis Group’s recommendations. Schneider addressed the question in reference to the United States by noting that there is substantial support toward providing TPS to Central American migrant children and adolescents. Just last week, 77 Members of Congress led by members of the Central America Caucus wrote a letter to President Obama calling on him to grant TPS for citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Briscoe addressed political constraints existing in Mexico and Central America by explaining that the dire situation in these countries, as a result of the migration crisis, has led both international and domestic organizations to pressure and call for the reform and the strengthening of institutions that are necessary in targeting the root of the problem.  



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