Femicide. Killing women. That’s what is happening in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In Women on the Run, the UN refugee agency reports:
“El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, for rates of female homicides globally. In large parts of the territory, the violence has surpassed governments’ abilities to protect victims and provide redress. Certain parts of Mexico face similar challenges.”
The 58-page report details threats to women by criminal gangs, police failure to protect and also police threats to women, gang threats to police and their family members, abuses of children, severe domestic violence with no recourse for protection, and threats and persecution aimed at transgender women. Norma’s story (all women quoted in the report are identified by pseudonyms for their protection) is just one:
“Before she fled to the United States, Norma lived in a neighborhood she describes as controlled by M18, a powerful transnational armed group with a significant presence in El Salvador. She saw routine gunfights and murders between gang members and had to pay an increasing cuota every two weeks. About 15 days before she fled, a boy was murdered and left in the street near her house. In late 2014, four gang members abducted her and took her to a nearby cemetery. Three of the four proceeded to rape her; she believes they targeted her because she was married to a police officer. ‘They took their turns…they tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream.’ When it was over, she said, ‘They threw me in the trash.’ She contracted a sexually transmitted disease as a result of the rape.” (p. 5)
The UN report describes the legal basis for refugee status for women fleeing violence in Central America. When women are targeted because they are women, they are part of a protected group.
“UNHCR’s long-standing interpretation of refugee law recognizes that gender violence (including intimate partner violence); family association; political opinion; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) status; and racial or indigenous status, among others, meet the criteria for protection. Women who are subject to gender-based violence in a specific country may qualify for both refugee protection and ‘complementary protection’ under US law.” (p. 22)
The U.S. government refuses asylum requests from these victims of violence and their children. Instead, they are deported back to the countries where their lives are in danger. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ordered a 30-day “surge” of arrests of immigrant mothers and children.
The American Immigration Council this month released Detain, Deceived, Deported: Experiences of recently deported Central American families. Interviews of eight women deported back to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador or, in two cases, their partners, “reveal the dangerous and bleak circumstances of life these women and their children faced upon return to their home countries, as well as serious problems in the deportation process.”
The women describe increased vulnerability, continuing threats, gang control of neighborhoods, police collusion or inability to protect. They tell of going into hiding, but being found anyway, and of the severe economic hardship they endure when they have to abandon their jobs and homes.
“You never get accustomed to living in fear. You never get used to having your daughter followed and threatened.” (Ana, p. 22)
“You can’t say one word about anything that goes on here because if you do, what happens is they kill your children or they kill you. … And we can’t look to legal avenues here because the authorities don’t even listen.” (Maria, p. 25)
“Yes, [I have received threats since returning to Guatemala]. I don’t know how they get everyone’s phone numbers. It really scares me. I filed a police report, but here if anyone finds out they will hurt you. I did try to go [to the authorities], but they don’t do anything.” (Andrea, p. 27)
What can we do? Here’s a list of all the Minnesota members of Congress, with phone numbers and email links. Send an email. If you can’t figure out what to say, feel free to copy anything from this post. I don’t know what will turn around our government’s punitive policies toward Central American women and children. But we can at least speak up.