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New research reframes displacement caused by criminal violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America

Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 25 September 2018 – The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) launches two new reports today on criminal violence and displacement in El Salvador and Guatemala.  

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

Preliminary findings from the El Salvador report reveal that criminal violence is highly targeted and individualised. In the absence of coordinated state support, people rely on their own networks and often don’t report their situation for fear of reprisal. This means they have few safe options inside the country, which leads to repeated displacement, severe restrictions on freedom of movement and significant cross-border flight.   

The research also reveals that, in attempting to combat extremely high levels of violence in El Salvador, repressive state security measures have triggered new displacement, as gangs target police and their families, and security forces target young people in gang-affected areas.  

IDMC’s director, Alexandra Bilak, said: “Protecting internally displaced people and preventing future displacement from occurring is the primary responsibility of states. Governments must first recognise there is an issue, then step-up efforts to resolve it.  

“It is our aim that this research will establish a shared understanding of internal displacement caused by criminal violence in the NTCA, in order to support government and civil society responses.”  

Initial findings from the Guatemala report suggest that ‘structural’ violence - a term used to describe social mechanisms, state institutions and cultural norms that prevent people from meeting their basic needs - causes more displacement than direct violence. However, forced evictions, threats from gangs, domestic abuse and the persecution of minority groups also act as displacement triggers.  

This new research debunks a popular misconception that people from Central America who cross the border towards the US are eagerly awaiting their chance to access “the American dream”. Patterns of population movement within Guatemala suggest the opposite. The research found that people make substantial efforts to avoid having to leave their home communities. And violence, crime and displacement combine to trap vulnerable people, particularly the young, in a downward spiral, where committing further violence and crime is their only chance of survival.  

Alongside two country reports, IDMC and research partner Cristosal also publish today a case study on voluntary and forced returns to El Salvador. According to Salvadoran immigration department data, 60 per cent of deportees who originally fled the country because of insecurity reported that it was not safe to return to their communities.  

Cristosal’s director, Noah Bullock, said: “This research is an important first step to better understanding and estimating internal displacement in the context of criminal violence in the NTCA. However, we need more accurate data, across the entire displacement continuum - from internal displacement to cross-border movement and deportations – in order to truly understand and respond to this complex phenomenon.”   

These initial research findings mark the end of the first year of a two-year project, financed by the US Government, and are being presented at a conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, today. An event will be held in Geneva later in the year to launch a report on findings from research in Honduras.  



Notes to editors: 

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) is the world's authoritative source of data and analysis on internal displacement. Since our establishment in 1998, as part of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), we have offered a rigorous, independent and trusted service to the international community. Our work informs policy and operational decisions that improve the lives of the millions of people living in internal displacement, or at risk of becoming displaced in the future.  

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Frankie Parrish, Media Coordinator 


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