“There is a broad underestimation [by US immigration court judges] of how dangerous the situation on the ground is in Central America. Most people… live in a constant culture of violence. For example, most of my teenage clients have witnessed someone being murdered on the streets, and this is the norm.”
PART I: VIOLENCE IN COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Violence against women and girls has long been epidemic in the Northern Triangle, but is recently gaining more attention due to both sustained advocacy from local groups on the ground and the coverage of female migrants that flee to the United States. Quantifying the extent of violence faced by women and girls, especially in a region where it is culturally normalized, is difficult: instances of violence often go unreported, or are ignored or contested. One measure of victimization is gender-based homicides, or femicides—that is, the killing of women and girls because of their sex. High rates of femicide are evidence of societies that are incredibly hostile to them. Three of the four countries with the highest rate of femicide in Latin America are the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador (6.8 femicides per 100,000 people), Honduras (5.1), and Guatemala (2) (Bolivia is the fourth).
The main reason that countries record femicide data—albeit often incompletely—is because of sustained advocacy and pressure from local and international women’s groups, who in light of the unrelenting violence pushed for femicide laws in the mid-2000’s. Before that, violence against women as girls was recognized as a pressing regional problem by the 1995 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, known as the “Belém do Pará Convention” which specifically enumerated the rights of women to live with dignity and free of violence, and was ratified by Northern Triangle countries soon after entering into force. However, neither the Convention, nor subsequent national anti-discrimination laws, or femicide legislation are sufficient to mitigate violence against women—as attested to both anecdotally and statistically. Such violence manifests as including emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse and/or harassment throughout the region.
In these countries, which already struggle with generalized insecurity and widespread impunity for violent crime, comparatively little attention is paid to violence against women and girls, who are often treated as property. As a starting point, it is important to parse how institutional decisions and conditions in the Northern Triangle affect women’s security.
First of all, the pervasive presence and influence of criminal gangs–particularly in Honduras and El Salvador–negatively affects women, since there is an increasing weaponization of rape and violence against women, usually as a means of revenge, in order to assert control, or as part of a dispute between two men. Even female gang members are subjugated and abused by their male counterparts, and face death or the death of a family member if they decide to leave.
In order to respond to increased criminal activity and insecurity, the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have tended to rely heavily on their militaries, dedicating more funding and resources to military operations, that is, disseminating more arms with greater lethal capacity to soldiers with more freedom to use them. Increased militarization leads to more human rights violations across the board, with particular dangers for marginalized groups such as women. Migrant women are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of their uncertain status, lack of local knowledge, and lack of resources, among other disadvantages.
Furthermore, the greater distribution and availability of munitions aggravates domestic violence, which is very common in the Northern Triangle. Even in the United States, where rule of law is arguably far stronger than in the Northern Triangle, dangerously lax gun legislation contributes to violence against women in the home, where “women with access to firearms become homicide victims at significantly higher rates than men.” Many of the firearms seized from criminals in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador come from the United States, and a surprising percentage were bought legally at retail outlets in the U.S. and then transported south, pointing to the ease of purchase and lack of oversight of gun purchases.
The major accelerant for violence against women is near-total impunity for its perpetrators. Generally, most sexual violence against women is perpetrated by someone they know, and, globally, most women are murdered by either a family member or intimate partner. This makes it much more difficult to denounce, especially in cultures that condone abuse of women. Unfortunately, even when denunciations are made, in countries in the Northern Triangle, there is almost total impunity for crimes against women. Of the cases presented to Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor for Women, 97.5 percent are not resolved or do not result in prosecution. The Honduran National Human Rights Commission reported that 90 percent of the femicides committed between 2002 and 2018 brought no one to account; according to local human rights groups, the number is closer to 98 percent. In El Salvador, 95% percent of the denunciations of crimes against women never go to trial. Effectively, this means that, if a woman takes the often extremely dangerous step of denouncing her attacker, the likelihood of his being called to account is far smaller than the likelihood that she will be punished for speaking out.
It is also important to acknowledge how national policy decisions, in the form of a denial of reproductive rights, exacerbates violence against women and girls in the Northern Triangle. It is no coincidence that the societies in these countries are plagued by entrenched machismo: the culture of subjugation of women and girls is perpetuated and exacerbated by the total abortion bans in Honduras and El Salvador, where many women are incarcerated for miscarriages or die from unsafe attempted abortions (In 2016, Evelyn Cruz, an El Salvadoran woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder after being raped by a gang member and giving birth to a stillborn child. After 33 months in prison and sustained advocacy from local and international groups, she was released from prison, but is still facing murder charges from state prosecutors. She is one of at least 25 women who have been incarcerated in El Salvador for some form of miscarriage.) In Guatemala, abortion is legal only to save a woman’s life, and the new President-elect, Alejandro Giammattei, openly opposes decriminalizing abortion.
Abortion restrictions are only one part of holistic national campaigns to deny women and girls rights over their own bodies. Lack of sexual education, stigmas around premarital sex, and lack of knowledge about or access to contraceptives effectively condemn women and girls in the Northern Triangle to early motherhood, which often involves health complications and an increased risk of mortality. Adolescent birth rates in the Northern Triangle range from 66 to 81 births per 1000 teenage girls aged 15-19. To put this in perspective, the adolescent birth rate in the United States is about 19.
In denying women and girls rights over their own bodies, countries in the Northern Triangle are stunting their physical and economic independence, circumscribing their freedom to go to school or work, which thereby makes them more dependent on men in their communities and less able to escape violent conditions. The denial of these rights is supported and even exported by the Trump administration through networks of politicized Evangelical fundamentalism and mirrored in increasing abortion restrictions in the United States.
PART II: FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES, THEN RECEIVING SHORT SHRIFT IN THE US IMMIGRATION SYSTEM
In this suffocating environment, violence against women becomes a factor affecting outward migration from countries in the Northern Triangle: in recent years, more and more women, both alone or with their children, are fleeing Central America for survival. It has never been easy to gain asylum in the United States as a woman facing gender-based violence. In August of 2014, a landmark decision by the US Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) found that women facing severe domestic violence in Guatemala are eligible for asylum in the United States, setting a precedent for favorable asylum decisions for persecuted women from the region.
However, this did not change the essentially arbitrary nature of asylum decisions in the United States, which depend almost completely on the judge and often the location of the immigration court. For example, in New York City, the denial rate for asylum cases ranges from 2.2 percent for some judges to 59 percent for others. In Oakdale, Louisiana, the denial rate ranges from 93.1 percent to 100 percent. Even in Los Angeles and San Francisco, some judges deny asylum cases at rates of 77 percent. Immigration judges are given asylum cases at random, meaning that judges will face a variety of different pleas and situations. Consistent or absolute rejection of cases is therefore statistically unlikely to mean that few or none of the petitions were warranted or viable. Rather, it points to the undue weight that a judge’s judicial philosophy can have in deciding the fate of asylum seekers.
Even judges more amenable to granting asylum are feeling pressured by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies. In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision overruling the August 2014 BIA decision, declaring that “persecution based on violent conduct of a private actor” is not grounds for asylum in the United States, though his ruling was eventually struck down by a D.C. District Court. In July 2019, Attorney General William Barr issued a decision overturning a previous ruling that recognized the legitimacy of asylum petitions based on threats to a family member, which the ACLU called the “continuation of an attack on Central American asylum seekers” by the Trump administration.
These attacks have so far included policies—such as “metering”, or limiting the number of asylum seekers that enter the United States per day, or “Migrant Protection Protocols,” colloquially known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—which force asylum seekers to remain, or send them back to, Mexico or, potentially, Guatemala while they await asylum decisions in the United States. While in migration limbo, migrants, and especially women and children, are at an increased risk of abuse and exploitation, on both sides of the border. As US immigration policies become more draconian, more migrants are waiting, condemning them in many cases to, at best, destitute invisibility, and, at worst, targeting by cartels or corrupt Mexican government officials. “Safe third country” agreements are a sham: neither Mexico nor Guatemala—both of which are facing epidemics of lynchings because citizens have little faith in police forces and local governments to enforce the rule of law—are safe even for their own citizens, much less for migrants who lack local protection networks and are unlikely to appeal to authorities because of their status. What’s more, detention in Mexico often means that migrants have difficulty attending their asylum hearings, and cannot find legal representation, negatively affecting their case. Already, more migrants from the Northern Triangle are applying for asylum in Mexico, which is unprepared to process their requests or accommodate them.
It is important to emphasize that the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the practice of detaining migrants, and other means used to deter or reject refugees or migrants seeking asylum are likely illegal under both domestic and international law, fundamentally violating the US Immigration and Nationality Act and the United Nations Refugee Convention 1967 Protocol, among others. The horrifying conditions at detention centers arguably violate the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which state that those in detention by governments must be treated humanely.
In short, women and girls in the Northern Triangle face violence seemingly in perpetuity, both at home and when they become migrants. The factors contributing to epidemic rates of violence against women and girls in the Northern Triangle, and beyond, are, in no particular order: organized crime; government militarization; availability of weapons; impunity for perpetrators; denial of reproductive rights; and cruel and arbitrary US immigration policies, all fed by a deep machismo and aided and abetted by networks of politicized Evangelical fundamentalism, many based in the United States.