Criminal violence

Read our thematic reports from El Salvador and Guatemala

Context and main issues

Organized criminal violence associated with drug trafficking and gang activity has reached epidemic proportions in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) in recent years. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, IDMC estimates there were at least 432,000 IDPs as of the end of 2017, many of them driven from and within cities suffering the highest homicide rates in the world and levels of violence comparable with a war zone.

With this increased attention to the violence and associated factors such as poverty and weak governance has come a growing awareness of the many ways in which it forces people to abandon their homes in search of safety. Because of the relatively invisible nature of the phenomenon, however, along with the reticence for some governments to recognize the phenomenon, most of the existing evidence on the phenomenon of the respective internal displacement in the NTCA remains anecdotal, and data on IDPs – in terms of figures, locations, vulnerabilities and needs – are not collected through a harmonized approach to provide for data that allows for comparison at regional level. There is as such a growing urgency to understand the phenomenon – the drivers, triggers, impacts and patterns – of internal displacement so as to provide the evidence base for operational and policy responses.

Key research areas/work streams

Building upon its expertise, and with the overall aim of contributing to an improved evidence base for informed policy and programming choices, IDMC is developing a shared and thorough understanding of what constitutes internal displacement in the NTCA. This will include country- and context-specific characteristics, as well as a more comprehensive picture of the numbers, location and needs of people internally displaced. Building upon the evidence, research and knowledge available, IDMC will clarify and synthesize information, providing a meta-analysis with a displacement lens for stakeholders to act upon.

This research has two overarching and complementary objectives. First, We will develop a conceptual framework and common understanding of what constitutes internal displacement in the context of generalized criminal violence in the NTCA, using a system dynamics approach to untangle and illustrate the complex and highly fragmented nature of displacement in the region. Research will seek to address the following question:

  • What are the main drivers, root causes or underlying structural factors, including economic, social, political, environmental or developmental, that combine to result in generalized criminal violence and displacement in the region?

  • What are the main triggers or shocks, such as direct or perceived violence, that compel people to leave their homes?

  • What are the key individual and structural impacts of displacement and who are the most at risk of displacement or of violation, abuse and harm once displaced?

  • What are the resulting patterns of displacement, including tipping points for onward movement across borders and the situation of asylum seekers of migrants deported or returning back to their countries of origin?

Secondly, We will contribute to a more comprehensive picture of the scope and scale of internal displacement in the NTCA, prioritizing the generation of more robust estimations of the numbers, profile, location and needs of the most vulnerable IDPs, by consolidating existing data and research, helping shape upcoming data collection plans and identifying persisting data gaps. Specifically, our research will seek to address the following questions:

  • What is the best estimation of the total number of people that have been forced to leave their homes as a direct and indirect result of generalized criminal violence at the national and sub-national level?

  • What is the demographic, socio-economic, and educational profile, of these populations and how does it vary across contexts?

  • Where do IDPs come from and where do they go, including the situation of those who have fled abroad and asylum seekers or migrants deported or returning back to their countries of origin.

  • What are the particular protection concerns and vulnerabilities of these populations - including IDPs who have been displaced multiple times?

The goal of these two objectives is to identify regional commonalities, to generate a more comprehensive, common understanding of the phenomenon and to estimate the scope and scale of internal displacement in these three countries. In coordination and complementarity with efforts already taking place, our research seeks to consolidate and provide the much-needed baseline information for the unfolding action in the region: expertise and evidence to inform policy and programming choices that will improve the response to the plight of IDPs and help those at risk of displacement.

Research partners:

IDMC is working with the key organizations and experts working on the issue of internal displacement in the sub-region, including IOM, ICRC, UNHCR, JIPS, the University of London, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of IDPs, Cristosal and other local NGOs in Central America. As part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, IDMC also works closely with NRC offices in the region (Colombia, Panama and Honduras) throughout the duration of the research.

Current research in this area is supported through a generous contribution from the Bureau for Policy on Refugee and Migration (BPRM) of the Government of the United States of America.

We are always looking to strengthen and expand partnerships. If you are interested in working with us, please contact us at