Did you know that Central America is the deadliest region in the world? Together, in the last 20 years, the seven countries have had more homicides than the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen combined.
Given the fact, today we’re having a lengthy conversation about gang violence. But first, take a minute to think: what comes to mind when you think about gang violence? Hold onto that thought–don’t forget the image you just conjured.
In the past few years, the United States has been receiving a high influx of Central American immigrants. The media’s reaction towards this is always, why? What is causing people from so far away to risk their lives coming to the US? The small number of immigrants who decide to apply for asylum usually claim gang violence is what made them flee. However, I also notice how lightly the term gang violence is used. It’s usually just a term in a long list of reasons, but I rarely see explanations, or portrayals of all the different things that gang violence encompasses. Because of this, US citizens don’t understand what it really means, and when thousands of refugees are seeking asylum because of gang violence, it sounds like an old excuse. These people are denied asylum because we fail to see what life in their countries is really like.
As a Honduran, I want to let you know what gang violence is like–the “authentic” Central American experience for the poor. This is purely my experience living in my country; I am not speaking for anybody or telling anyone else’s story, but rather what happened in my surroundings.
Gangs are social hierarchies within communities in a city or state, and sometimes even have control at national levels. In a way, they have more power over the people than the government does. They work by taking over neighborhoods. They move into uncharted territory and set their rules. If you don’t follow them, you die. And if you are suspected of working with other gangs, you also die.
Now let’s assume you have a business in a neighborhood and a gang takes over. A gang will charge you taxes for keeping your business open, often times demanding more than 50% of the total earnings. If the owners can’t pay up, they will be killed. Sometimes they just take something from them, like a teenage daughter or a young wife, but if you have none then you will most definitely be killed. That is extortion, their way oppressing people economically. This takes away the ability for many to sustain and support themselves and their family.
If you’re a boy from ages 8 to 16 living in one of these claimed neighborhoods, you will be obligated to join, or they will kill you or a family member. Those who do join are not allowed to go to school, go to certain parts of the city, and they have to follow whatever order they are given, like killing that friend who refuses to join, or anyone else who’s acted against the gang, for that matter.
However, to put this in another light, think about those who join willingly. Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. You were born and raised into poverty; your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc, were extremely poor. You don’t go to school because it’s not really something you’ve ever been told you should do, but say you wanted to–where would you go? Public schools are not great. Most that are accessible don’t have books, notebooks, pencils, desks, or chairs. Teachers of every level are constantly on strike because the government won’t pay them, so even if you go, what’s the point? You also have to pay for uniforms which you can’t afford (public education in Honduras requires students to wear uniforms). So you have no education, you and your family have a very hard time, you have had to work since childhood selling gum to passersby on the street, and a gang shows up at your door. Not ideal, but if you follow the rules, you will get food, a place to stay, security for your family (as long as they follow the rules, too), and you get to join a group of people fiercely loyal to each other. That gang gave you security and the most basic resources, plus a new family. You’ve never known any better, this is as good as it gets, why shouldn’t you join and be faithful?
The problem begins when you don’t want to kill. You’ve joined and have gotten more than you ever did before, but your loyalty has to be tested, yet you can’t get yourself to do these things, so you decide to leave, and they kill you. Some men or boys escape gangs by migrating to the US, so gangs take the lives of family members instead.
On another instance, as absurd as it sounds, women in certain neighborhoods were obligated to dye their hair. Because the girlfriend of a major gang leader had blonde hair, he declared no other woman could be blonde or they would be killed. Despite the fact that only women in certain neighborhoods had to do this, women all over the city of Tegucigalpa that had blonde, or light brown hair dyed it to another color to avoid a violent death.
Is this what came to your head when reading the term “gang violence”? Just touching the surface of what it’s like, gang violence is not occasional shootings and a few dead bodies. Gang violence means living under the control of a hostile group set out to hurt you. By these accounts, gang violence indicates there’s little chance for business to thrive, badly hurting the economy and therefore the quality of life. Additionally, once they take over a place, they control what that community is supposed to look and act like. They control people’s lives through extortion and fear. More often than not, people migrate because risking their lives on their way to the US is still better than dying a horrible death at the hands of a gang.
So next time you hear about immigrants from Central America, or read an article discussing what exactly is happening down there, remember, please remember these people have gone through hell. And when you hear politicians talking about bad how immigration is, please remember that the major and most powerful gangs in Central America originated in the United States.
Quite genuinely, we come here simply to escape certain death in search of life.