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A Look At The Violence Driving Central American Families To Seek Asylum In The U.S.


We've been asking whether the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy at the U.S. border is actually a deterrent. Our next guest says if you understand what's happening right now in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, you'll understand why, for many, it isn't. She also says the U.S. could help bring down the number of people crossing the border if it had different policies within those countries.

Earlier, I spoke with Sofia Martinez Fernandez. She is Central America Policy Analyst for the International Crisis Group. She spoke to us from Guatemala City.

SOFIA MARTINEZ FERNANDEZ: What we see here on the ground is that families are escaping, really, life-or-death situations. They don't want their kids to be recruited by gangs or other criminal groups. So we see a much more urgent situation and people that really qualify for refugee status.

CORNISH: Your report on this issue is called "Mafia Of The Poor," and I'm wondering if you can give us a better sense of why we are seeing, specifically, women and children and families. Is there something about the violence that - where they feel targeted?

MARTINEZ: For sure. Let me give you an example about a woman that I talked to in a recent trip that I made to Honduras in what is popularly called a red zone, which is usually a community controlled by gangs. They have established roadblocks, checkpoints. They make the people that live in their neighborhoods pay extortion rackets. And they try to recruit kids from 10 or 12 years old on.

Now that her boy has turned 12 years old, she's scared that he hangs out with the wrong people. Another woman had the gang leader knock on her door, said, I want your - in this case, it was an 11-year-old girl. The gang wanted her to become a sex slave.

So these are the kind of stories that Central American families are fleeing when they come to the U.S. border. They would not do it if it would be only for economic reasons. They really do it because their lives and the lives of their beloved ones are in danger.

CORNISH: I understand in recent times, there was funding for the U.S. programs in Central America to, one, help reduce poverty, but, two, also help with these security challenges related to gangs. What has happened to all that?

MARTINEZ: Well, the budget for Central America has increased over the last years, especially in the Obama administration and the 2014 crisis of all these unaccompanied minors coming to the border. Really, the U.S. understood that stability in Central America meant stability for the United States.

If you compare that with the massive deportations that we're expecting as the TPS was canceled for Honduras and El Salvador, these countries are not prepared for receiving deportees at this moment. So it's important to balance the economy funding with policies that really take into account the enormous pressure, both economical and security, that these countries have.

CORNISH: You know, you're telling us that U.S. funding to Central America has increased over the last three years - right? - that there was some money spent towards this effort. And at the same time, it didn't help. So where does that leave the U.S.?

MARTINEZ: Well, the problem is that a lot of the U.S. funding is going towards, you know, funding programs for young people. This more generic violence prevention approach does not work. And one thing that we always advocate is rehabilitation. It is important to offer an alternative for these people because when you are born in a gang-controlled community, sometimes you don't have much choice than just joining the gang. It's as cruel as that sometimes.

CORNISH: Help us understand why these countries are having such a difficult time containing the violence - why the problem is only getting worse.

MARTINEZ: Well, it's interesting that you ask that because the whole problem has a lot to do with previous U.S. migration policies. In 1996, the U.S. administration decided that most convicted criminals had to be deported. The gang phenomenon, which was originally born in the United States, was exported to Central America. And what happened was that gangs were able to expand in that context.

And the government did exactly what you're not supposed to do in situations, which was that to allow what we call mano dura, or iron-fist policies. So they sent most gang members to jail. And from the jails, they started to become more sophisticated criminal organizations. Since then, everything has been worse, and this country's homicides have gone up. The monster has grown so much.

The government is really paralyzed. It really does not know how to handle the situation. But the problem is going to get worse if you deport more people, as you did 20 years ago, and you keep putting more pressure to these countries.

CORNISH: That was Sofia Martinez Fernandez, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. She spoke to us from Guatemala City, Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.