AUSTIN, Texas — Patricia de Jesús Flores waited at a homeless shelter on the Mexican side of the U.S. border this week with her 7-year-old son, who she says witnessed a murder on a rooftop — one reason they left their home in Honduras.
Flores, 27, was trying to decide whether to seek entry into the U.S., even though she heard parents who crossed the border illegally were being separated from their children.
She and other families at the Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, just across from McAllen, Texas, said their communities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are so racked with violence, so terrorized by gangs and so infiltrated by drug cartels, they had no choice but to leave.
“If my country would be OK, I would be there happily with my child,” Flores told NBC News. “I would not try to cross.”
While forced family separations — which President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he would end —was a new way by the administration of dealing with illegal immigration on the southern border, the violence, drug cartels, gangs and poverty ravaging Central America have been driving people to the United States for years. It remains to be seen how far immigration legislation that Congress is negotiating will go to address those root problems.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly noted the violence in a May 2017 speech at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.
“There’s corruption there. There’s terrible intimidation,” Kelly said, adding that the cartels “are horrifically violent and they hold neighborhoods, cities in a grip of fear that includes police in many cases.”
The conditions in what is known as the Northern Triangle of Latin America — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — came to Americans’ attention in full force in 2014, when tens of thousands of children arrived on their own at the U.S. border.
For years, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world, peaking at over 91 homicides per 100,000 in 2011, according to a United Nations report. The rate has since declined but remains comparatively high; last year, the rate was 42.8 homicides per 100,000.
Such violence hasn’t stopped residents of the Northern Triangle from making the dangerous rek north to an uncertain welcome on the U.S.-Mexican border. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, some 3.4 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were living in the United States as of 2015, the latest year for which data is available.
The Northern Triangle is home to transnational gangs, such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, both founded in Los Angeles, as well as drug cartels and criminal organizations with origins in the area’s civil wars.
Corruption, weak and unstable government institutions and political turmoil make it difficult for Central American countries to combat the gangs and violence. Early this year in Honduras, protests following the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernandez turned violent when police and troops used excessive force to quell protests, leaving 32 dead. No police or troops were charged, Amnesty International said in a report, The Associated Press reported.