Neighbors protect themselves from fog as city health workers fumigate the Guadalupe community as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Santa Tecla, El Salvador February 3, 2016.

© European Commission /DG ECHO/José Cabeza
Central America

Fleeing to live: supporting violence survivors

The consequences of gang violence are dire in Central America. Around 600,000 people are internally displaced. In the last 6 years, 72,000 people have been murdered in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. An unknown number of people have disappeared.

“I did not know what to do. I told my wife to get some clothes and food and that we were going to hide in a warehouse of the farm where I work,” says Manuel, a victim of gang violence. With EU humanitarian funding, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) provides aid to those escaping the gangs’ cruel behaviour.

“We are going to cut your baby daughter into pieces, then we are going to kill your boy and rape your wife to death in front of your eyes. Then, after you have seen all this, we are going to kill you too.”

This is what members of one of the powerful criminal gangs active in El Salvador told Manuel* on a rainy afternoon, while he was standing on the doorstep of his little house.

His fault: having informed his boss that members of a gang were stealing from the farm where he was employed as security chief. “I knew they would do it. They do this kind of things all the time. I was petrified,” recalls Manuel.

“I did not know what to do. I told my wife to get some clothes and food and that we were going to hide in a warehouse of the farm where I work,” he says.

They spent eight days hiding. Then a gang member showed up and told Manuel they knew he was hiding and that it was his last day on earth. “This is when we decided to run away,” recalls his wife, Ana*.

“I took my children and begged an acquaintance for a lift to a faraway town. Manuel stayed to ensure we could run away safely, we lost track of him for an entire never-ending day, not knowing if he was alive,” she explains.

© European Commission /DG ECHO/José Cabeza
Read caption Photo: José Cabeza/DG ECHO/European Commission

Manuel and Ana managed to escape, but they knew it wasn’t over. Criminal gangs in Central America have a wide network of affiliates who provide them with information. For this reason, Manuel's family had to relocate seven times.

They are among the more than 24,000 beneficiaries of an EU funded humanitarian project implemented by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, aimed at supporting victims of violence.

It is estimated that the two main criminal gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrio 18 – can count on more than 400,000 affiliates. They feed on extortion, drug trafficking and forced prostitution and are renowned for their extremely cruel behaviour.

Gang members are seen inside their cell at the Quezaltepeque jail , in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador September 4, 2020. 

REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Read caption Gang members are seen inside their cell at the Quezaltepeque jail, in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador 4 September, 2020. Photo: Jose Cabezas/REUTERS

Communities try to offer alternatives for young people, but the lack of economic opportunities, the murder of community leaders and the violent gang control are hard to defeat.

In the last 6 years, in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, there have been 72,000 murders and an unaccounted number of people who have disappeared. The humanitarian consequences of gang violence are no different from those of a conflict.

According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, more than 600,000 internally displaced people in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala fled from violence.

“It has become impossible to live in Honduras. I live in constant fear, I cannot trust anyone,” says Emiliano*, who had to flee twice because a gang member wanted to take his 13-year-old daughter.

“I do not allow my daughters to use social media, WhatsApp, nothing. They never go out alone. What kind of life is this? We live as if we were imprisoned. As soon as I have the money I will leave the country.”

Emiliano is another beneficiary of the EU-funded project. He received cash assistance, legal advice and psychological and educational support to help him send his daughters to school.

Thanks to EU funding, NRC also works together with local institutions to enhance their capacities to identify families and individuals in need of protection.

A woman stands outside a rooming house waiting for help after putting up a white flag indicating that they no longer have any food left during a nationwide quarantine as El Salvador's government undertakes steadily stricter measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in San Salvador, El Salvador May 14, 2020. Picture taken May 14, 2020.

© European Commission /DG ECHO/José Cabeza
Read caption A woman puts up a white flag outside her home indicating that they no longer have any food left during a nationwide quarantine as El Salvador's government undertakes steadily stricter measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, in San Salvador, El Salvador, 14 May 2020. Photo: José Cabeza/DG ECHO/European Commission

“I want to go to the United States. I do not want to go in other countries nearby: they will find you wherever you go.”

A journey north is extremely expensive for a working-class person like him: the coyotes – smugglers who get migrants cross the border illegally – are asking for up to €13,000 per person. In a country like Honduras, the average monthly salary for an agricultural worker is less than €200.

“I am considering leaving my daughters here in an institution that takes care of young girls, and try to go on my own. I know it is dangerous, but I do it for them,” says Emiliano.

The violence perpetrated by criminal groups is one of the main reasons why people keep fleeing.

The European Union has financed humanitarian interventions in Central America since 1994, with a total funding of €280 million.

For 2019-2021, the EU allocated €47.3 million to respond to different needs across the region, from the recurrent droughts and natural disasters to epidemics, protection and education in emergencies.


This article was originally published by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations on 7 October 2021.