Nick Lancaster examines the gang-culture that has pushed Hondurans to travel to the Mexican border, and suggests that the US has questions to answer for the past.
The latest migrant caravan left Honduras in mid-October in search of US asylum. Their journey proliferated discourses surrounding border control, refugee status, and internal security. In the United States, Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric has victimised the migrants as “invaders” and “gang-members”. Meanwhile, disturbing images of migrant children caught up in tear gas attacks have swung the international spotlight to the border city of Tijuana.
Much less attention has been spared for what pushed roughly 5,000 Hondurans to knowingly take on this uncertain journey. In fact, the entire issue has been localised to the US-Mexican border. This is hardly surprising, given its role in the longest ever partial shutdown of the US government. However, this focus has inadvertently drifted attention away from trying to understand the political and socio-economic landscape that has compelled so many Hondurans to leave their country in the first place.
For many migrants, rife gang-violence in Honduras is now at tipping point. Although in the past economic factors have pushed migrants, with the “American Dream” capturing the region’s imagination, this is now tied to a fear of violence at home. The two dominant Honduran gangs – Mario Salvatrucha and Barrio 19 – exercise considerable control within local communities, relying on violence and threat to enforce their power. Failure to pay “war taxes” to the gangs can be punishable by death.
A network of loyalty is deeply embedded within the two gangs. They recruit as young as possible, becoming a surrogate family for disenfranchised youths. Once in, a gang-member cannot leave. For many youths the gangs do not offer the freedom to turn them down. This violent gang culture and the fear that it creates is intimately linked to migration. For example, in 2016 60% of unaccompanied minors fleeing Honduras cited physical violence, including threats and extortion, as their reason for leaving. Although alarming, this only scratches the surface of a complex dynamic. Despite often being perceived in the media and academia as a regional problem, the gang culture of each country has developed along unique and complex contours.
In the case of Honduras, there is a historical relationship between patterns of movement and gang violence, and, despite its pervasive role, the United States is often discounted as a key actor in this relationship. During the early 1980s Honduras was perceived by the US as an integral cog within a series of proxies that made up the bulk of the Cold War. Unlike its neighbours, Honduras escaped bloody civil conflict and established democratic elections during this period. It also suffered comparatively little gang violence. For the US, these were the key precedents required for a push of imperialist economic policies. After all, the history of US economic interest and influence within the politics of the original “banana republic” dates back to the turn of the 20th century. This is when gang culture in Honduras began to change.
As the 1990s rolled around, it became clear that the impact of US influence had only succeeded in exacerbating structural inequalities and poverty in Honduras. These abject living conditions and poor employment prospects are what caused mass migration to the US around this time: the Honduran population of Los Angeles, New York, and the suburbs of Washington experienced a particularly sharp increase. However, for many Honduran migrants, their economic reality experienced little upturn in these new spaces and poor English-language skills hampered employment prospects. As a consequence, immigrants and their children became susceptible to joining US gangs. The sociologist Joanna Matteo argues this makes more sense when we understand the process as a social phenomenon – a means of securing acceptance and belonging.
These US gangs were large, aggressive, and tightly organised. They understood the benefits of corruption and the importance of violence in achieving their goals. The significance of this cultural exposure became clear when the US began to adopt a more heavy-handed approach to immigration policy in the mid-1990s. Some 40,000 Central Americans were deported back to the region. When the US passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, another 100,000 Hondurans were deported back to Honduras. This legislation spared little thought for how one of the poorest countries in the world, scarcely able to provide for its population, would cope with this influx. To make matters worse, many of the returning migrants had acquired criminal backgrounds and an insight into the mechanisms of the expansive and ruthless US gangs they were leaving.
However, the victims of deportation were hardly all convicted criminals. Some were only expelled from the US for having the wrong documentation; in cultural and linguistic terms they still passed as American. When this group returned to Honduras they faced the same challenges the previous generation had faced when assimilating into the US: a lack of Spanish skills often meant the now flourishing gang culture in Honduras was their only means of reintegrating into society.
On the US-Mexican border, along with borders around the world, issues of migration tend to be treated in isolated terms. Often, individuals inside a country immediately perceive individuals from outside as the “other” and an immediate threat to their own economic and social security. In fact, the cultural and economic fabrics of countries and their people are more deeply and historically intertwined than we might be led to believe by short-termism on behalf of media outlets and politicians.
In the case of Honduras, the dire situation in which its citizens find themselves can be partly understood as a consequence of 20th century US imperialism and self-interest. When approaching any debate surrounding migration, this long-term perspective is essential: it promotes empathy, exposes hypocrisy, and stops us from repeating the mistakes of the past.