The genesis of the most recent wave of Central American illegal immigrants to the United States begins in a different era- the Cold War. Fearing that El Salvador and neighboring countries would fall prey to Communism like Cuba and Nicaragua, the Carter and Reagan administrations supported the government of El Salvador in their civil war against an umbrella group- the FMLN- of Leftist, Communist-infiltrated fighters. The result was a brutal civil war that lasted until 1991 and left over 75,000 dead.
Besides those killed, the civil war drove over 3 million people out of the country escaping the violence and resulting poverty. A large majority of those 3 million headed for the United States seeking a better and safer life. Many of these immigrants- most who entered the country illegally, but some seeking asylum- settled in southern California in the Los Angeles area.
The problem was that the newly arrived people from El Salvador (and to a lesser extent, neighboring Honduras and Guatemala) became easy prey for existing black and Mexican street gangs in southern California. Originally formed to protect the burgeoning Central American immigrant community, two street gangs were formed- Calle 18 and MS-13, with the latter being the more notorious.
In 1991, the UN negotiated a truce in the El Salvador civil war. With the political situation improved, if not an economy in ruins, the United States began to deport El Salvadorian illegal immigrants back to their home country during the mid-1990’s, especially known gang members and criminals. The country was ill-prepared for this influx of people and the gang members carried their gang culture back to El Salvador and recruited new members. By the end of the decade, it was estimated that 10% of the population of El Salvador was a member of or in some way associated with a gang.
To make the problem even worse, to stem the flow of cocaine into the United States given the crack and powder cocaine epidemic that was afflicting the country, the US pumped billions of dollars into Colombia to combat the drug cartels. This caused the cartels to shift their operations into Mexico. By 2006, the US placed pressure on Mexico to stem the flow of cocaine into the US forcing a crackdown in Mexico and the drug cartels again shifted their operations to Central America, particularly El Salvador. The cartels found more than willing participants in gangs like MS-13 and Calle 18. Hence, they increased their reach and power and gained even more recruits.
With increased manpower, influence and wealth came increased violence in El Salvador. This is a country of only about 6.4 million people, but it is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world outside a war zone. At the end of 2015, they had a homicide rate of 108 per 100,000- the worst in the world. In neighboring Guatemala, the situation is bad at 65 homicides per 100,000. For comparative purposes, the homicide rate per 100,000 is 4.9 in the United States. In 2015, the homicide rate in El Salvador increased 70% over 2014 levels as rival gangs saw a fragile truce unravel and amid a crackdown by security forces.
In short, the continued violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and, to a lesser extent Honduras (homicide rate: 31 per 100,000 which is quite high) has driven many people from these countries. Although the United States is the preferred and primary destination, neighboring countries have seen an influx of asylum seeking refugees. From 2008 to 2014, the countries of Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico have collectively seen a 1,200% increase in asylum seekers. Costa Rica alone has seen a 1,500% increase. Requests for asylum in Mexico from these three countries has increased 100% in just one year- 2015.
A study by the UN found that 82% of women arriving legally and illegally at the US border from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras meet international criteria for establishing asylum legitimacy. Thus, it is fear and insecurity furthered by the rampant gang violence that is driving the current Central American illegal immigration problem. Unfortunately, mixed among the legitimate asylum-seekers are gang members all-too-willing to take advantage of a bad situation.
This history is not a critique of US policies with regards to the drug trade or immigration policies. However, it should be used as a warning for the future. Most of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world are in countries in Central and South America. A good majority of the homicide rates are attributable to gang violence. However, countries like Brazil, Colombia and especially Venezuela have high homicide rates for differing reasons. Given the porous nature of the southern border and past lenient (almost welcoming) immigration policies by the Obama administration, the United States seems like a preferable destination for people from these countries. If history is any indication and predictor, the next wave of illegal immigrants to the United States may come from these countries.