The recent decision made by the Trump Administration to end the Temporary Protection Status enjoyed by approximately 200,000 Salvadorans residing in the United States in 2019, thus leaving them at imminent risk of being deported, has once again brought the plight of Central America to the attention of U.S. citizens. Over the past two decades, over three million Central American migrants have reached U.S. shores, often after a harrowing journey that could belong in the pages of Dante’s Inferno. It is not hard to fathom why. Outside of Costa Rica, the region remains mired in a toxic cocktail of poor governance, reduced economic prospects, and criminal violence. The last challenge, in particular, deserves urgent attention.
Murder and violence are a plague in Central America. The region’s homicide rate (33 murders per 100,000 people in 2016) is over five times the global rate, with recent figures in Honduras and El Salvador reaching unprecedented levels in Latin America, if not the world. More than 130,000 Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans have perished in the past ten years as a result of crime, half of them young men between the ages of 15 and 29. Last year, Honduras alone had more murders than the 28 member states of the European Union combined.
At the root of Central America’s violence levels is a complex array of factors. Most prominent among them is the pervasive presence of organized crime. Close to 90% of the cocaine destined for the U.S. goes through the Central America-Mexico corridor. Still, it is crucial to understand that the scourge of organized crime is not simply an accident of geography. Organized crime preys on weak states, large contingents of alienated young people, and rotten law enforcement institutions.