In the event that there was any doubt, women and children from Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—are fleeing the same horrific conditions that were driving them out of their countries in large numbers two years ago. That is why apprehensions of Northern Triangle refugees have gone up this year, once again drawing attention to the fact that Central Americans are not going to stop risking their lives to get here when their lives are so risky back home.

Just how risky is driven home by two reports about the dire situation in El Salvador that were released in September 2016 by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The first report focused on the gang violence in the country; specifically, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (M-18).

Ironically, these gangs were imported from Los Angeles when the United States began deporting large numbers of unauthorized Salvadorans during the 1990s. The deportees went back to a country with a high poverty rate and weak state institutions after 12 years of civil war that ended in 1992—conditions which amount to a political and economic vacuum readily filled by gangs.

Gang violence is now wreaking havoc on Salvadoran society, fueling an epidemic of crime in general and homicide in particular. With police seemingly unable to control the situation, many civilians are now arming themselves against the gangs.

In some communities (and schools), gangs are the undisputed rulers. Add to this a government that is paralyzed by political conflicts and rife with corruption, and journalists who are afraid of reporting on crime because the criminals might kill them.

The second IRB report dealt with women as victims of violence in El Salvador. Within the neighborhoods that gangs control, women are considered gang property. They are forced to be the “girlfriends” of gang members—and saying “no” to this arrangement is punishable by death.

Some girls are taken away from their families for a few days, raped by gang members, then returned home. Some mothers pay a weekly fee in exchange for a gang not raping their daughter. Women are often forced to cook, clean, and baby sit for gang members. Given these conditions, it’s not surprising that “El Salvador has the highest female murder rate in the world.”

It’s worth noting that the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) paints a similarly bleak picture of El Salvador. The country is on track to not only having the highest female homicide rate in the world, but to having the highest homicide rate overall. As the LAWG writes:

“The homicide rate has already increased by an alarming 78% in the first three months of 2016; that amounts to 2,003 total lives lost, with averages of 24 per day in January, 23 per day in February, and 19 per day in March.”

To put this in perspective: “Over three times as many civilians were killed in El Salvador than in the war in Afghanistan during the first three months of 2016.”

Judging from these statistics, to call El Salvador a “war zone” is no exaggeration. And, as with any war zone, El Salvador—and Honduras, and Guatemala—produces a stream of refugees searching for safe haven. One can only hope that the U.S. government will stop acting as if they are unauthorized immigrants and start treating them like the asylum-seekers they truly are.

Photo by Flood G.