National Geographic News
A photo of Honduran mothers and children talking to border control after crossing into Texas.

Mothers and children from Honduras prepare to get into a U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck after crossing the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas. Gang violence in Honduras is a major driver of the surge in immigration along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Photograph by Rodolfo Gonzalez, Austin American-Statesman via AP

Scott Johnson

for National Geographic

Published July 23, 2014

Kelvin Arita has made the long, overland journey from Honduras to the United States twice in recent years, and twice has been sent home by U.S. authorities.

On both trips he saw more horrors than he cares to remember: Young kids maimed by trains they had hoped would take them through Mexico. Resentful Mexican laborers pelting Honduran girls with stones. Lonely nights walking through the desert, knowing that robbers could pop up at any time.

Even so, the 25-year-old farmer says he would risk the journey again without much hesitation.

"The gangs here threaten us," Arita says by phone from the pueblo where he lives, near the town of San Pedro Sula in northwest Honduras. "They come and tell us that they're going to kill us. If I go to the U.S. I may get killed on the way, but if I stay here I'll also get killed."

That type of violence—driven in Honduras and El Salvador by drug gangs that force children to work for them or risk being killed—has helped to fuel the dramatic surge in Central American migrants to the U.S. border, where many remain in detention centers.

Murder rates in northern Central America graph

More than 57,000 have come since January, many of them minors traveling alone. This year has seen a 117 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied children under age 12 caught at the U.S.-Mexico border, compared with last year, according to data released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

Beyond violence, growing Central American problems such as poverty, unemployment, and drought are playing a role in the surging immigration numbers. Also a factor is the perception among many migrants that U.S. immigration laws will allow them to remain in the United States if the migrants can just get to the border.

But one aspect of the Central American violence that's feeding the border crisis has been largely overlooked: its roots in the gang culture of Los Angeles. Many of the gangs that are destabilizing much of Central America are American-born.

The history of Central American gang violence dates to the 1980s, when civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua sent thousands of people north, in search of refuge. Some of those immigrants found their way into gangs in Los Angeles that wound up seeding drug-related violence back home, often after their members were deported by the United States, analysts say.

"These gangs are part of the cultural fabric of the U.S., not Central America," says John Sullivan, a gang specialist with the Los Angeles County sheriff's department. "We deport them, and they're bigger and badder than any gangs there, and they dominate. And now we have areas [in Central America] that are widely destabilized, with a high degree of violence."

That violence has helped to create waves of refugees, many of them children, who have arrived at the U.S. border. The crisis has provoked urgent calls for the White House and Congress to respond to the swelling ranks of children filling detention centers along the southwestern border. The situation has led to finger-pointing among U.S. politicians as well as debates in many American communities over the potential impact of young immigrants on schools and a range of social service programs.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican and possible candidate for president in 2016 who has been particularly critical of Democratic President Barack Obama on the immigration problem, announced this week that he will send up to a thousand National Guard soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border.

A photo of members of the MS-13 gang members in a 'gang cage' at a police station in El Salvador.
MS13 gang members gesture inside a so-called gang cage in a police station in San Salvador, El Salvador. The MS13 gang has roots in Los Angeles.
Photograph by Giles Clarke, Getty

South to North and Back Again

The border crisis is partly a legacy of the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Thousands of the Salvadorans and Nicaraguans who fled their countries at the time landed in Los Angeles, where they found relatives and a Latino culture that felt like home. But their arrival also fueled new tensions in Los Angeles's youth culture, historians and gang experts say. Some Mexican-American and African-American gangs that were established in Los Angeles targeted newly arrived Central Americans.

The immigrants from Central America responded by forming their own gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, to protect themselves. The Maras grew to be a presence in prisons and on the streets of Los Angeles, parts of Maryland, North Carolina, and elsewhere.

By the 1990s, federal prosecutors were pushing to deport tens of thousands of immigrants with criminal records, an effort that hit the Maras hard. Gang members were targeted by new laws and sent back to their home countries, including Honduras. Back in Central America, the young men trained in gang warfare began to reconstruct the world they knew in Los Angeles and other American cities.

"They were like kids in a candy shop," says Juan Sheehan, of Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. "They came back to Central America, and suddenly [they had] control of the whole country. The police don't know anything about these gangs." Suddenly, it wasn't just a gang problem anymore—it was organized crime.

In the meantime, the Maras had split into factions, with one group, the MS13—the 13 stands for the letter M, the 13th letter of the alphabet—fighting brutally against MS18, or the 18th Street gang, as it was known in Los Angeles. That rivalry, too, was exported and sharpened back home in Central America.

The government of El Salvador tried for a time to broker a ceasefire between the two factions, but the effort collapsed in 2012. As fighting intensified, several cities in Honduras and El Salvador became—and remain—among the deadliest places in the world.

According to the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, a Mexican think tank that tracks international homicide rates, San Pedro Sula in Honduras had the world's highest per capita murder rate in 2012, with 169 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, roughly 35 times the American average. Other cities in the area have similar homicide rates.

Murder rates in northern Central America graph
NG STAFF, EMILY M. ENG. SOURCE: WORLD BANK

Cartel Connections

The explosion of Mexico's drug war in the mid-2000s exacerbated Central America's gang violence dramatically, setting the stage for the current crisis.

According to figures compiled by the Joint Interagency Task Force South, a U.S. military command focused on drug trafficking, the bulk of suspected drug flights bound for Mexico from Venezuela and Colombia shifted from the Caribbean to Central America—mostly Honduras—from 2005 to 2007. Honduras, with its weak drug laws, rampant corruption, and convenient location, proved an ideal transit point for traffickers.

Of 178 suspected drug flights to and from South America in 2007, for example, 132 were coming and going from the Caribbean. By 2011, only about 20 suspected drug flights were using the Caribbean as a waypoint. The rest of the traffic was arriving from or departing to Honduras.

Two big Mexican drug organizations, the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas—comprising former paramilitary soldiers who went rogue and became traffickers—began using Honduras as a waypoint.

A photo of Central American migrants riding on top of a freight train.
Central American migrants use trash bags and cardboard to shield themselves from rain as they wait atop a stuck freight train in Chiapas state, Mexico.
Photograph by Rebecca Blackwell, AP

"It's the drug trafficking that has sort of spawned this wave of violence," says Kurt van Beek, a longtime observer of Honduras who runs a program in Tegucigalpa that works to help kids escape the cycle of violence. "The gangs are foot soldiers of drug traffickers here."

The presence of the Maras on the ground in Honduras means that the Mexican cartels have a ready supply of knowledgeable locals to do their dirty work. "A lot of the violence, the big nasty stuff, when eight people are killed, or ten people are slaughtered in a car at an airport—these are bands of traffickers fighting amongst themselves about who is going to be the Zetas franchisee or the Sinaloa franchisee," says van Beek.

"Short and Brutal" Lives

The reasons behind the massive influx north are many, but one constant in Honduras is that young people are forced to choose sides once they reach adolescence. The cartels need local support from the gangs, and the gangs need foot soldiers.

Pressure on families is enormous. "These kids know that once they're in, their life span is short and brutal," says Sheehan. "So they're resisting, and the gangs are looking at this as a threat and wiping them out."

A photo of a grandmother and her grandson walking past Barrio18's insignia in El Salvador.
A grandmother and grandson walk by MS18 insignia in San Salvador. The group is archrivals with MS13, though they grew out of the same L.A.-based gang.
Photograph by Giles Clarke, Getty

Van Beek described one young man who recently joined the Honduran military to escape the pull of the gangs. A younger sibling, now 15, has come of age and the parents don't know what to do to save him. A trip north might be the best way out.

Kelvin Arita feels the call of the north virtually every day: "You walk around with total fear."

There were always problems here, but things have gotten worse in the last year and a half, he says. The police aren't any help, Arita says: "They don't do anything. Not here. In the U.S. they respect the law, but not here in Honduras."

Arita would like nothing more than to stay and make a living farming in the town where he grew up. But, he says, if the brutal violence around him continues, he may start looking north once more.

62 comments
Will Jones
Will Jones

Illegal immigration by pliant (and juvenile/adolescent) Hispanic Roman Catholics is orchestrated and logistically maintained in Latin America by the Roman Catholic Church and its Capitol Hill-controlling false-Jew Talmud/papist false-elite faction all know is responsible for the coverup of 9/11, Sandy Hook, the JFK- and MLK-assassinations, de-industrialization and off-shoring of our jobs, and the impending Fed Scam collapse of our economy.

Their signed confession of treason, an explicit satanic stratagem to organize, promote, and protect their army of pawns for invasion and conquest of liberal, whig, Jeffersonian America's divine right of Individual Sovereignty - American Exceptionalism's foundational credal civil religion's three tenets enshrined on Our Great Seal of the Covenant of the sovereign People with the Creator of the universe, our named Sovereign - is openly published for every patriot eye to read.

http://www.amazon.com/National-Publication-Publishing-Promotion-Conference/dp/1555861997/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397039399&sr=8-1&keywords=National+Pastoral+Plan+for+Hispanic+Ministry

Jack Carson
Jack Carson

Aww, lets put 60,000 US troops on the ground as a police force. ...

All it would take is getting invited in by the existing government.

That's what we've done so many times before, right?

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

Both Democrats and Republicans are equally complicit in this illegal alien invasion that has, and is continuing, to fundamentally change the cultural fabric of these United States without the consent of the people writ large.

The media are also complicit. They try to manipulate the public's thinking on the issue by using their Orwell-1984-style doublespeak, calling illegal aliens, "undocumented workers" or "migrants". As if they know that they're all, "workers".

We cannot save the world. We cannot let all the, "huddled and starving, unwashed, wretched masses" into our country. We could take in 10 million "poor, unwashed" people a year, and it wouldn't make one iota of difference in all the countries these people would be coming from, and in fact would swamp and impoverish our own country.

Politicians are reluctant to say the above ('reluctant' is the understatement of the century), and of course the Media will never say it, even though tens of millions of Americans agree.

I am not anti-immigration. I am anti-ILLEGAL immigration! Our immigration system isn't, "broken", as politicians and the Media love to say, we are being invaded.

And no one would be happier than I if everybody in the U.S. spoke seven languages, but they don't, and everyone here needs to learn, and be proficient in, English! We're a vast, and already complexly diverse, continental nation. We must have a lingua franca (common language), in order to maintain unity and cohesiveness.

Think about it. It's hard enough for we contentious Americans to come to a consensus and agree on anything, so we shouldn't encourage people to speak separate languages all over the place.

And for all you far-left liberals out there who think it's just fine if immigrants (legal or illegal), don't have to learn English and should be able to speak their native tongues indefinitely, you are not only helping to fuel the balkanization and fragmentation of the United States, you are in fact disenfranchising these people.

The vast majority of the world's business and commerce, as well as its science, is conducted in English. Why would you deprive these "poor, unwashed" people of learning it?


Incidentally, the concept of lingua franca derives from the field of geography, specifically cultural geography. I can't think of a better site than National Geographic in which to speak of it!

Carolyn Mincer
Carolyn Mincer

I feel great compassion for the plight of these innocent children. I would take one of these little children and care for them. I was never able to have a child of my own. It would be a blessing to me to be able to take care of a child who is lost, alone, frightened and suffering. I can't imagine what it would be like to be so little, in unfamiliar surroundings, not knowing what was going to happen, trying to comprehend the anger of people who just want me gone.


I don't know how to go about it. But if anyone know what the process is, I am all ears.

Ali B.
Ali B.

"detention centers" are the new way of settlement for the last humanity, the last before ending

Ryan Bragg
Ryan Bragg

The only "government" these people have are their gangs. The citizens are run by who makes the money and employs the people. These countries cannot compete with other countries in the world market, so they turn to a profitable alternative; drugs. To escape the violence of their gang run metropolis, they come here, illegally, and somehow manage to get our government assistance. I don't even know how it is possible. We should build a concrete wall at the border, rather than chain link fences that can't keep any illegals out.

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

Well damn them Spaniards for coming to this hemisphere. See what they brought us. There was no border security then either.

Carter Fox Jr.
Carter Fox Jr.

What kind of world do we live in? Folks get run away from home by gangs, only to get sent back home by gangs!

John Fandl
John Fandl

Sad state of affairs all the way around. No big surprise on the negative feedback loop / boomerang effect--a natural consequence of not maintaining a secure border.

Reagan was wrong on it in the 80s, and the U.S. has still not learned.

Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

"The police aren't any help, Arita says: "They don't do anything. Not here. In the U.S. they respect the law, but not here in Honduras."

Well they should get to fixing that, don't you think? 


Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

what is the UNHCR position on these refugees , surely these people and especially children  have rights and they should be supported

AZ Pete
AZ Pete

Maybe if we deported them soon enough, they would not get into gangs, no time.  I would stop foreign aid to Mexico until the closed their borders to these illegals.  Use the money to care for the illegals already here.

Shawn B.
Shawn B.

Our country and our culture have evolved painstakingly thanks to the hard work and suffering of generations of Americans and legal immigrants.  I feel for the children born into different cultures that don't value human life, or individuality, or the rule of law.  But that doesn't mean we should take in all the world's children.  It means those oppressed in other countries need to stand up and fight for themselves, to create places worth bringing children into.


What if people had left this country instead of working to recover from the civil war, slavery, or the great depression?  Or sent their children away rather than establish child labor laws?  What if Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. decided to leave the US, instead of trying to improve it?  What if unions never fought for fair wages and reasonable hours?  It wasn't easy to get where we are today, and the idea that we should give away for free all that we've accomplished just seems wrong.

Frances R.
Frances R.

Scott, as you well know, you cannot simply say that "the history of Central American gang violence dates to the 1980s, when civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua sent thousands of people north" and pretend that's the end of the story.


That's hardly the beginning of it.


In Nicaragua, the 1980's saw the U.S. President Ronald Reagan deliberately (and covertly) arm anti-government rebels (the Contras) to destabilize the elected government. He did this in direct violation of laws passed by Congress.


The conflict between the Contras and the elected Sandinistas was the cauldron in which the current generation of gang leaders was formed. They escaped the war in Nicaragua to Los Angeles, where they coalesced into a gang and grew in numbers, in knowledge, in viciousness, and in the size and reach of their international criminal connections.


The 1980's, of course, were only the latest decade in which the U.S. was deeply and deliberately involved in destabilizing Nicaragua. 


From the days of its independence in the 1830's, to the present day, the U.S. (whether officially or unofficially) sent in private citizens, or CIA-backed rebels, or soldiers, to keep Nicaragua from forming a long-lasting and stable government that did not pit the rich landowners and the military against the vast majority of Nicaraguan people.


In Honduras during the 1980's, the U.S. record of involvement in destabilizing the country was just as notorious. We inserted ourselves into the process of government so we could support our war in Nicaragua with the Contras, and we allowed our CIA to train terror groups within Honduras to kill citizens outside of the judicial process in order to control them by fear.


There is no doubt, none whatsoever, that what we did for decades in both Nicaragua and Honduras (and nearly every other country in Latin America) contributed to the blowback that created the deadly gangs in Los Angeles that have now metastasized and repatriated themselves in order to control criminal elements in both the U.S. and in Nicaragua and Honduras.


You must incorporate this recent history into your piece if you have any hope of telling a fair story.

K W
K W

US needs to legalize drugs.  That will remove this crime wave.  Citizens from North to South America deserve nothing less.

David Jones
David Jones

Seems that providing support to develop local law enforcement in these nations would be the most prudent thing, enabling the Hondurans and other Central Americans to live securely in their own countries. The US has capabilities and experience in this sort of thing within the military, the FBI, DEA and BATF. Less expensive, dangerous and divisive all the way around. 

Bee Farms
Bee Farms

Some humans are cruel and sadistic and heartless and without much conscience.

i wish we just had nice people coming here to America -- COME TO AMERICA FOR A BETTER LIFE --- TO GET AWAY FROM CRUEL POWERS. 

DON'T BRING THE CRUELTY VIOLENCE SADISTIC GANGS HERE TO AMERICA --this is just so wrong. destroying America with violence and gangs. if you are a good person, you don't join a bad violent gang NO MATTER WHAT (but i know, it's always America's fault -- everything always is). 

Joshua Hathaway
Joshua Hathaway

There is only one logical solution to this problem; one that most people ignore as wishful or fanciful thinking. It is not a political solution nor is it an economical one. The solution is one world government ruled by Jesus Christ. The same government, or kingdom, that many without knowing ask for in prayer daily in the Our Father. 


Any other remedy would only be superficial, temporary, and woefully inadequate.

James Jorquez
James Jorquez

@Zen Galacticore

I am Mexica-American and agree with your clearly stated positions on illegal immigration.


I would like to add that language must be included as one ingredient in the culture baggage that illegal aliens haul into the USA.


There are often vast differences between  different kinds of aliens that create conflicts that can be bloody (ethnic rivalry ) despite language uniformity.  


Illegal aliens come in many different kinds (nationality, culture, subculture, education, economic class, regional differences,  etc.) ... The American public does Not seem to understand this important fact.  A fact that means big troubles for America if ignored.   There is already many  examples whereof I speak in Latino communities... El "stoopido" gringo does not seem to understand the pain, suffering, and headaches it is inviting into the USA with its liberal immigration policies.  The Democrat Party may come to rue their welcoming of poor illegals from nations south of the border.


JJ DC Summer
JJ DC Summer

@Zen Galacticore You must've missed the point of the article, which is that criminal laws in the U.S., and U.S. gang culture, greatly exacerbated this particular driving force behind a mass exodus of Central Americans from their home countries.  We exported our gang problem to Central America and tried to wash our hands of it.  And now it's biting us in the ass.  I'm not saying there aren't other drivers of illegal immigration; there surely are.  But your comment seems especially misplaced in response to *this* particular article, which is all about a problem that the United States created and then exported to these Central American regions, only to complain about it once we felt the boomerang effects of our own ill-advised choices.

Richard ODaniels
Richard ODaniels

Very we'll said. We need to enforce our present laws and let the legal voters decide if the laws should be changed. I feel bad for my children's future. They will not know what it means to have our government look out for their rights.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Ryan Bragg It's all the United States' fault, as we, apparently, are the only country with a demand of illicit drugs. (sarcasm). It's never the legacy and result of the Spanish and Portuguese style of colonialism!

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Jakob Stagg Yes, and they tried to claim the entire Western Hemisphere, with the approval of the Roman Catholic pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.


The Spanish laid claim to what are now the US states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, parts of Oregon and much of present-day Wyoming. But other than California, they hardly occupied these lands.


And we bought California from Mexico for $15 Million, fair and square, back in 1848.

Mary Henderson
Mary Henderson

@Alexander Maunu Do humanity an even bigger favor and "turn" the gun on yourself.

Leila S.
Leila S.

@Shawn B. Did you play a role in any of that to make you so deserving?

Frank Ran
Frank Ran

@Frances R. that is a bunch of revisionist garbage. The Sandanista's committed mass atrocities, and the election, was according to jimmy Carter himself, "a sham."


Central America was an extremely violent place before there was ever a United States and blaming the US is complexity absurd.


Do you  blame Great Britain for US slavery? It was the British (and Spanish) who established it here and Britain which propped up the economy of slavery after US independence by buying all that cotton


Liz Codoni
Liz Codoni

@Frances R. - well put, and thank you.  Don't forget the drug running, gun running days of Iran Contra . . . (or the cover-up that followed).

kelly heltsley
kelly heltsley

@K W USA consumes 25% of their product, the cartels would still exist

James Jorquez
James Jorquez

@Bee Farms I suspect that you are kidding.  If not, then here's a lollypop, now go play in your sandbox.

RJ Ponchione
RJ Ponchione

@Bee Farms Didn't you read the article? The violent and sadistic gangs CAME from the United States (Honduras is part of the Americas). If you think that only people who are already bad join gangs you really have no clue about inner city culture.  

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Joshua Hathaway It's blatantly obvious that you have never read the New Testament! Christ clearly replied to Pontius Pilate, when Pilate asked him if he was a king:


"My kingdom is NOT OF THIS WORLD"!


John 18:36 


You have no clue as to what is the, "kingdom of God". 

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@James Jorquez @Zen Galacticore - I agree, it's not like everybody from Mexico, Central and South America are one, culturally monolithic block. I know from life experience that, for example, Cubans hate Mexicans, and vice-versa.


I live in Atlanta, and it's a cosmopolitan metropolis. I have had many Latino acquaintances over the years, and many of them think our lax "immigration" policy is crazy.


The far-left liberals in the U.S. should take a close look at Mexico's immigration policies. They would be shocked.

Randall O.
Randall O.

@JJ DC Summer @Zen Galacticore No JJ, I think you must have missed the point of the article.   What's wrong with deporting unlawful criminal immigrants?  That is a reasonable policy that is utilized all over the entire planet.  And where did these rightfully deported gang members learn their way? That's right, other Latino gangs.  It wasnt the US gov't, police, etc..  So this is a problem that was created from poor immigration policies.  The same one's that are contributing to the coming cultural storm.  


I care about these children, however, there needs to be a process and there needs to be proper assimilation.  History is bound to repeat itself, yet sadly, it may happen on the streets of the US.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Jakob Stagg By the way, the Latins have dominion over all of Central and South America, as well as a very sizable chunk of North America (Mexico).


Mexico and Central and South America are blessed with natural resources, just as "El Norte" is, and yet, they have remained largely poor and dysfunctional states for centuries. Why do you suppose that is so?


It's because of the legacy of Spanish (and Portuguese) colonialism. Take care of the aristocracy, the military, and the church (all three institutions often intertwined), and the "peasants" be damned and condemned to peonage.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Leila S. @Shawn B. Perhaps he didn't, personally, but it's a fair bet his ancestors did. And rest assured, if we continue to allow the invasion of our country by millions, those millions of illegal aliens will unravel what we, collectively, have achieved.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Frank Ran @Frances R. Don't forget the Portuguese! Of course, it's not like slavery existed only in the United States. It was a worldwide--more or less-- practice for thousands of years.


"Institutionalized" slavery is another matter.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@RJ Ponchione @Bee Farms It seems obvious to me that by "America", Bee was referring to the United States of AMERICA.


And how 'bout they just come legally? Why should millions of Latins, over the last 35+ years, be allowed to just prance across our southern border?


A nation state that cannot--or will not-- control its own borders is no longer a nation state.

Milo Crotoni
Milo Crotoni

@RJ Ponchione @Bee Farms Bee Farm's ultimate point is still valid: it's bad to accept people who want to destroy society rather than contribute to it.


Note: I'm not characterizing all those who illegally enter the U.S. as gang bangers, but there are enough to make it very dangerous to accept these illegals.  I also feel bad for the children who are used by their parents.


I wonder if those who blithely advocate letting them all in would be fine having a mixed bag of gangs and innocents next to their own kids - violence, disease, and all.  It seems pretty hypocritical if not.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Rarian Rakista- Australia ranks 69th among all nations in intake of refugees per capita. The population of Australia is only about 20 Million. They also rank SECOND in RESETTLEMENT of refugees.


"Resettlement" means finding a third country to actually take in the refugees when they cannot return safely to their countries of origin. 


Are you sure you know what YOU'RE talking about? 






http://www.factsfightback.org.au/

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