Juan Alberto has lost both a son and grandson to the Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most vicious gangs in Latin America. The gang had tried to force the two young men to join; when they refused, they were kidnapped and killed. The rest of the family, afraid they, too, would be killed, fled Honduras in the middle of the night and ended up in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. Today Juan Alberto lives with his wife, two of their sons, and two young grandchildren in a large but mostly empty house in the city of Tapachula.
The house is on a dirt road, not far from the main thoroughfare. To get to it, one crosses a small bridge spanning a stagnant pool of water. Inside the front door is a large empty room. To the right are two small bedrooms with thin mattresses and sleeping bags on the floor. The kitchen is in the back, sparsely furnished with two small tables and a few plastic chairs. Santos Ermilia, Juan Alberto’s wife, cooks on a two-burner electric hotplate.
Like an increasing number of people fleeing the extreme violence of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (often referred to as the Northern Triangle Countries, or NTCs), Juan Alberto’s family have decided to apply for asylum in Mexico. They have little choice. “If we could, we would go to the United States,” Juan Alberto tells me. But he knows that traveling through Mexico is dangerous, and that getting asylum in the United States is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Going home isn’t an option. When I asked what would happen if they returned to Honduras, he smiled sadly and drew a finger across his neck. So they are resigned to staying in Mexico. “I am happy here because we are away from danger.”
On average, about four hundred thousand people from the NTCs enter Mexico each year. According to Francesca Fontanini, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) Communications Director for Latin America, the number was closer to half a million in 2016. The number fell a little during the first four months of 2017—advocates called it the Trump Effect—but Fontanini says the numbers are increasing again. She expects another half million migrants to enter Mexico this year. The reason is simple: “The level of violence in Central America is still high.”
The Northern Triangle Countries, which are among the poorest in the world, are also among the most violent. Most years, one of them holds the top spot for murders per capita. Most of the violence is perpetrated by two gangs, the MS-18 and Mara Salvatrucha, often collectively referred to as maras. They murder, kidnap, and rape with impunity. People in the NTCs report having to pay the gangs as much as half their income in “renta” (extortion) so they can work. Some pay renta just to live in a neighborhood. When I ask why people don’t go to the police, Felix Antonio, a twenty-seven-year-old Honduran, offers the same answer I heard from every Central American I interviewed for this article: “The maras control everything. Police do nothing; they collaborate with maras.” Felix Antonio’s mother was killed by the maras (“God knows why,” he says) and he himself was stabbed in the neck, leaving him unable to use his left hand.