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Structural violence and displacement in Central America and Colombia

While world attention is focused on the US-Mexico border, similar problems affect the entire region


This article was prepared for Christian Aid by Nathalie Mercier (Guatemala), Maria Useche (Colombia), Tania Grande (El Salvador) and Javier SanVicente (Honduras)

Main image: migrant child detained at the US border. Source: Guardian podcast: ‘What is happening to migrant children at the US border

The devastating image of Salvadoran immigrant, Óscar Martínez, with his two-year-old daughter, Valeria, their lifeless bodies found drowned in the Río Bravo; the photographs of children and adolescents held in cages in detention centres, described by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortéz as “concentration camps”, and where five Guatemalan children have died; thousands of people walking in caravans, the first of which started its journey in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula last October, their scanty personal possessions in their hands, and facing police repression in their path. Confronted by these shocking images , it no longer seems appropriate to talk about the search for the ‘American Dream’, but rather an escape from a Central American nightmare, and from a situation that US foreign policy in recent decades has played a critical role in creating.

The tightening of US migration policy under the Trump administration has not halted the phenomenon; on the contrary, in 2017, the first year of the current US government, 294,000 people from the north of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) applied for asylum or refuge an increase of 58 per cent in comparison with 2016.

Motives for migration

For many immigrants, the main motivation for embarking on this perilous journey continues to be poverty and the lack of economic opportunities in their home-country. To use the term coined by Johan Galtung in the 1960s, this they are the victims of “structural violence”, a system in which power dynamics leads to unequal life opportunities.

A moving short photo-video from Francisco Elías Prada and Ángela Rodríguez Torres of LAB partner Ojos Ilegales, Venezuela. The photos convey haunting images of migrants from Central America as they cross Mexico in a desperate attempt to reach the USA.

Such was the case of the 19-year-old Guatemalan indigenous woman, Claudia Patricia Gómez, who was shot last year by a US Border Patrol agent. According to her mother, interviewed by the BBC, ‘(she said) “mum, we’ll be better off. I’m going to earn a living, I need to do this”… we’re poor, there’s no work here, that’s why my daughter left, but then she was killed.’

Claudia Patricia Gómez González, immigrant murdered by an agent of the Border Patrol. Source:

At the same time, however, a growing number of people are fleeing the violence generated by drug trafficking and criminal gangs. According to an article in El Faro, victims face a terrifying rate of homicides, as well as extortions, sexual violence, threats and attacks from gangs, abuse of authority by State security forces, dismissive attitudes from government and a context of widespread impunity.

The four countries considered here all have homicide rates that are more than double what the World Health Organisation considers to be the threshold for ‘endemic violence’. According to World Bank statistics from 2016 (the last year for which statistics are available), the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Colombia was 26, Guatemala 27, Honduras 57 and El Salvador 83, the last two being the highest of all of the countries monitored.

Violence disproportionally affects young people; according to UNDP statistics for El Salvador, ‘the homicide rate for young people was more than 53.4 per cent greater than that for adults in the period 2007-2017’. The risks for young people in Central America are closely linked to the problem of gang violence in the region, which exploded following the mass deportations of gang members from the United States in the 1990s. According to data from the Salvadoran National Civil Police and the General Penitentiary Director, in 2017 it was estimated that there were 64,587 gang members in the small Central American country (about 1 per cent of the country’s total population), of whom 43,151 were on the streets, and 21,436 in prison.

Nonetheless, while the violence of gangs and other criminal groups is undoubtedly a serious problem which has a great influence on public security in the Northern Triangle of Central America and Colombia, directing all blame at these groups merely serves to obscure other important factors. According to Yolanda González, a researcher with the organisation ERIC-SJ in Honduras, ‘There is the idea that the gangs are the main force behind the displacements, given their involvement in extortions. However, from ERIC-SJ’s point of view, the gangs would not be able to generate this situation without the active participation of other groups’.

Political violence

Apart from criminal activity, political violence also has an important role to play. The 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, supported by the US State Department, unleased a new economic crisis and several waves of military repression. In many cases, it is almost impossible to separate political violence from criminal violence, especially in so-called “narcoestados” (narco-States; a term first used in the 1980s to describe Colombia). Yolanda González considers ‘The crisis generated by the 2009 coup d’état marked the beginning of a new cycle: the political crisis was followed by an economic crisis, an increase in drug trafficking, the levels of violence and military reactions, which at the same time increased levels of corruption and reinforced the neoliberal-extractivist model, which is suffocating the population’.

A study carried out in Guatemala found that drug-trafficking in that country had weakened the Rule of Law in several ways:

  1. the expansion of the illegal economy, which distorts the country’s economy due to money-laundering;
  2. the emergence of ever-more complex criminal structures, which seek to influence decision-makers at local level, and in turn distort legitimate power structures;
  3. the development of spin-off criminal activities such as arms dealing and human trafficking;
  4. the increase in corruption.

According to a group of US security experts, organised crime has managed to gain so much control of Guatemalan institutions that the country is on the verge of becoming a narco-State.

The neoliberal and extractivist economic model, as well as accentuating the effects of poverty for a large part of the population, has increased risks for people who defend their rights and their land, by opening the way to international megaprojects.

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Although for the most part international news media have focused on the US immigration crisis, political crises in other countries, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, have also generated mass migration within the region. According to Colombian Foreign Ministry statistics, since September 2018, 1,235,593[i] people have arrived in the country, mostly Colombians who have returned from abroad and Venezuelans. As the World Bank has documented in its 2018 report on the Venezuela-to-Colombia migration, the post-conflict problems that Colombia faces are further complicated by the mass immigration of Venezuelans.

Internal displacement

The factors identified above contribute not only to fuelling cross-border migration, but also provoke internal displacement. According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement, in 2018 El Salvador joined the list of the ten countries most affected by displacement caused by criminal violence, with a total of 246,000 people having suffered this violation of their basic rights since 2016. In Colombia, more than 12 per cent of the population are victims of forced displacement as a result of the armed conflict, about seven million people according the official Victims Register.

Displacement disproportionally affects women, given that they often are forced to move their entire families, which means a greater cost. Female migrants also face specific risks on their journey, as sexual violence and human trafficking is rife, at the hands of criminal gangs who have identified a highly profitable business in the control of illegal migration networks and the economic and sexual exploitation of migrants. Furthermore, there is an ever-greater presence of unaccompanied minors, especially since 2014.

In El Salvador, according to local organisation Cristosal, women comprise 54 per cent of the displaced population in 2018, and typically have to take on additional responsibilities, having under their charge children and elderly relatives. Men, in contrast, tend to move on their own, and before the rest of the family is forced to leave.

In the case of Colombia, the National Centre for Historical Memory’s National Report on Forced Displacement published in 2015 indicates that ‘slightly over 50 per cent of the displaced population are women (3,301,848); 2,279,576 are minors (of whom 1,480,983 are less than 12 years old); according to demographic data from 2005, around 15 per cent of the total of the Afro-Colombian population and 10 per cent of the total indigenous population have been displaced. 87 per cent of the population that has been forced to leave their land lived in rural areas, some of them Afro- and indigenous populations who lived on collectively-owned land that was officially recognised by the State.[ii] The report also highlights the phenomenon of the descampesinización (de-ruralisation) of the land, which is due ‘not only to the large number of campesinos (rural subsistence farmers)  that have been displaced in rural areas, but also to the lack of value that the State places on the campaigns and demands of campesino populations.’

Little support for the displaced

There is a great stigmatisation, not only of those who emigrate to other countries, but also for those who are internally displaced, and Central American states in particular are not responding appropriately, with special services that could facilitate relocation.

In Guatemala, for example, State services provided to the internally displaced population are almost non-existent, with State forces often causing displacement through forced evictions, usually in the interests of wealthy landowners or large companies to clear the way for their megaprojects.. Where drug-trafficking has taken over large swathes of the country’s land, this has on occasion been used to justify State-incursion in communities. One such case is that of the community of Nueva Esperanza in the department of El Petén, which was forcibly evicted by the national army in 2011. Approximately 300 rural subsistence farmers (among them women and children) were forcibly expelled from their land, under the pretext that they were supporting or collaborating with drug-trafficking. They found themselves with no option but to flee to Mexico.

Cover story, Prensa Libre. ‘Displaced people suffering hardship in Mexico’.
People displaced from Nueva Esperanza, Petén, Guatemala. Photo: Prensa Libre

The State’s actions are also key to understanding displacement and violence in Honduras. There is neither the political will nor the capacity to protect displaced people, and on occasions the State is complicit with criminal groups or even, in the worst cases, is the perpetrator (such as when authorities are collaborating with criminal gangs, those involved in extortion, or drug-trafficking). What’s more, several cases of forced displacement occurred as a result of threats to environmental activists or those who protect natural resources. In such cases the State plays a key role, as it facilitates economic activities that generate forced displacement in the name of ‘development’.

After years of refusing to acknowledge the issue, in 2019 the Salvadorean government officially recognised the existence of groups that have been internally displaced due to criminal violence. Consequently, there is now a protocol for coordination between government institutions to support victims. As part of the Safe El Salvador Plan, twenty Victim Support Offices were established in 2017. These offices were not created only to help victims of displacement, but they have a mandate to support them from the Justice and Security Ministry’s Victims’ Support Unit. Nonetheless, their capacity is in practice limited to helping families to transport their personal possessions.

In contrast, in Colombia (given the long history of its conflict) the problem has been officially recognised, and there are elements of the constitution which aim to help this sector of the population. Even with these resources, however, impunity levels remain high for those who generate forced displacement – guerrillas, paramilitaries, dissidents, organised armed groups, extractive industries and, to a lesser extent, State security forces. These groups are able to conduct business as usual, given de facto protection by different political and economic interests or by omission of any measures to regulate their practice.

It is essential that public agencies take into account the different issues outlined here, and create policies that consider the intrinsic relationship between displacement and different types of violence, and that seek to find real solutions for this highly complicated problem that is having a profound effect on multiple lives.

Christian Aid is supporting projects, led by its local partners, that address the struggle against impunity in cases of grave human rights violations (including gender-based violence); the prevention of youth violence and promotion of peace culture; the struggle for the restitution of land rights; as well as projects which aim to transform war economies into peacetime ones, and which seek to challenge the structural causes of violence which, in turn, are both the cause and the consequence of forced displacement.

[i] Migración desde Venezuela a Colombia: impactos y estrategia de respuesta en el corto y mediano plazo. – Colombia: Banco Mundial, 2018. Pág. 15.

[ii] Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. Una nación desplazada: informe nacional del desplazamiento forzado en Colombia, Bogotá, CNMH – UARIV, 2015. Pág. 16.

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