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The Many Violence(s) Behind the Central American Exodus

Mexico & Central America

“At this very moment, large, well-organized caravans of migrants are marching towards our southern border. Some people call it an ‘invasion’… They have violently overrun the Mexican border… A lot of young men, strong men. And a lot of men that maybe we don’t want in our country.”

US President Donald Trump, 1 November 2018.

Over 1 the past five years, the issue of Central American migration to the US has made headline news around the world. Despite the recent attention it has received, this phenomenon is far from new. The Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have been net exporters of population for half a century or more, with migrant outflows last peaking in the mid-1980s as a consequence of the revolutions, civil wars and brutal government repression then wracking the region.2 But in 2018, a new uptick in attempted migration from the region gave rise to the spectacle of huge ‘caravans’ of desperate migrants massed at international border crossings, and inspired an outpouring of heated and racist rhetoric from President Trump, making Central American migration an international talking point once more, as well as a key battleground in that year’s US midterm elections. 

Much effort has been expended already on arguing about who these migrants actually are. More sympathetic media accounts claim they are refugees from violence, poverty and climate-change induced societal and economic breakdown in Central America.3.

Several journalists have also explained the reasons behind the specific “format” of this recent wave of migration (e.g. via caravans). Namely, that it allows migrants to better confront – as a collective – the dangers linked to their journey, including extortion, forced recruitment, rape, or other forms of bodily harm at the hands of criminal gangs or actors linked to state security forces.4Trump and his Fox News cheerleaders have, of course, been less generous: “They got a lot of rough people in those caravans. They are not angels. They are not.”5

A Border Patrol vehicle guards a segment of the wall separating Mexico from the United States. Nogales, United States, September 2021. Credit: Documentary “The Vertical Border” by Sonja Wolf

Far less scholarly attention, however, has been paid to the makeup and motivations of the caravans which, though fragmented and depleted compared to those of 2018-19, are still wending their way through Central America and Mexico towards the US today 6and still fewer academics have sought to investigate the on-the-ground social, political, and economic realities in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua driving local people to migrate in the first place. What are the factors, then, that have left so many individuals, families, men, women, children and old people feeling that they have no choice but to leave their homes, communities, and in many cases their loved ones behind in order to make the perilous trek north towards a chronically uncertain future?

In this series of articles – written exclusively for the Noria Mexico and Central America Programme – a group of leading scholars attempt to answer exactly this question. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in three different countries in Central America, combined with more explicitly social and/or political inquiry, Daniel Núñez, José Luis Rocha and Sonja Wolf show that, ultimately, violence is central to the story of this modern day Central American exodus, which even the COVID-19 pandemic has proved unable to slow down.

But what does this violence actually look like? Or indeed violences, as research carried out on the ground suggests violence is not monolithic, but rather a phenomenon that takes multiple forms affecting different groups in distinct ways, and for various reasons. And Central America has certainly been a venue to an extremely wide array of violent acts, processes and events in recent years: as the theatre of a terrible, multifaceted war between gangs like MS13 and Barrio 18, state security forces, paramilitary organisations, drug traffickers, death squads and a range of other powerful interests; as ground zero for a series of political coups, popular uprisings, harsh government repression of the same, plus a variety of extreme weather disasters driven by anthropogenic climate change; and finally as the venue for a multitude of more local and long-running conflicts between peasants and landowners; communities and corporations; and workers and the promoters of economic ‘restructuring’. All of which have overlaid the open wounds of the revolutions, civil wars and military dictatorships of the 1980s; and the more than a century of factional upheaval, US interference, and violent state-building that preceded those. 

Una policía municipal acompañó a nuestro equipo al cementerio de Panchimalco, que se encuentra en un territorio controlado principalmente por Los Revolucionarios, una fracción de la pandilla Barrio 18. Panchimalco, El Salvador, septiembre de 2021. / A municipal police officer accompanied our team to the Panchimalco cemetery, which is located in territory controlled mainly by Los Revolucionarios, a faction of the Barrio 18 gang. Panchimalco, El Salvador, September 2021. Credit: Documentary “The Vertical Border” by Sonja Wolf

In order to deepen and add more nuance to our understanding of how these processes, events and histories are helping to drive increasing out-migration from towns, cities, ranches, and villages across Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Daniel Núñez’s ‘El poder desplazador de la extorsión,’ shows the extent to which financial extortion has become a problem effecting all facets of society:

“According to some estimates, in Guatemala the population impacted [by this crime] pays, on average, 60 million dollars per year due to extortions, a figure below that paid by citizens in El Salvador and Honduras.”

Even officials working for the government’s own anti-extortion unit can end up as victims of this unsettling crime, which is increasingly key to driving migration and insecurity:

“In the northern Central American countries, this crime, in general, is related to gangs and other criminal groups, which based on telephone calls, intimidating notes, or intermediaries demand sums of money available periodically from small households and businesses, often located in urban areas.”

Meanwhile, in ‘El exilio de los nicaragüenses: cifras y tragedias personales,’ José Luis Rocha analyses the ways in which an ongoing wave of violent political repression in Nicaragua has “produced a growing and unstoppable exodus.” Since the government of Daniel Ortega faced down calls for his resignation in April 2018 with police and paramilitary street violence, and ordered the abduction and imprisonment of opposition leaders, “The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2020) speaks of more than 87,000 Nicaraguans seeking protection in Costa Rica and a year ago spoke of a total of more than 103,600 Nicaraguans displaced since 2018 across the world.” In turn: 

“The increase in authorized and unauthorized migration usually translates into a greater presence of Nicaraguan cases – usually presenting asylum applications – in US immigration courts. That happened in previous years and it is likely to set a trend. There were 4,145 cases in September 2018. This number rose to 12,006 cases in December 2019, an increase of almost 190 percent…”

Finally, in “Forced Migration and the Politics of Violence in El Salvador,” Sonja Wolf argues that a generalized sense of insecurity has forced thousands of Salvadorans to migrate. Although gang violence plays a key role in the production of criminal violence in the country and in the perceived threats to life and livelihood experienced by citizens, the author also highlights the detrimental impact of mano dura (“iron fist” or “tough-on-crime”) policies. Supported since 2003 by political leaders and public officials from both the left and the right, these policies have most recently been promoted by El Salvador’s Bitcoin -populist president, Nayib Bukele. These policies have enjoyed high levels of support in the country:

“The idea of fighting violence with violence resonated in El Salvador’s authoritarian political culture (deepened during the civil war), yet the policy proved to be highly counterproductive. The number of murders escalated, and detention in gang-segregated prisons had the effect of making the gangs more cohesive and extortion more systematic.”

Gang violence and highly repressive policies against gangs have together generated a context where displacement and migration appear as the only viable alternatives for survival and security: 

 “Those who have been targeted by a gang need to change their routines and residence. Some, hamstrung by limited resources or attached to family and country, relocate domestically and try to keep a low profile. The victims soon discover, however, that they will never be safe in El Salvador. At this point they head to Mexico or, more often, the United States, a country they associate with safety, economic opportunities, and pre-existing family ties.”

All three articles raise questions on the effects, implicit in all these cases, of migration on those left behind. In Nicaragua, for example, “Discontent, via a paradoxical effect, transforms this exodus into economic aid. The increase in migrants results – although not always immediately – in an increase in remittances that makes it possible to keep shipwrecked family economies afloat and, at the same time, ensures the survival of the expelling system.” However, migration also spurs further migration, as the original migrants, once settled in the US, call upon their families to join them, or spread word in their home communities more generally of the potential benefits to be gained by undertaking the dangerous journey north. 

The three pieces also point at the intersections between different forms of violence, and to the ways in which impunity, repression, and state neglect increase the vulnerability of entire neighbourhoods and localities, as well as the likelihood of individual family members to migrate. Even though the authors put emphasis on different expressions of violence – namely extortions in Guatemala, gang-related violence in El Salvador, and state repression in Nicaragua – they demonstrate the centrality of understanding how criminal and political violence intersect. As Daniel Núñez’s article discusses, the power of extortion, both as a threat and as a reality, increases due to state authorities’ inability or unwillingness to protect citizens against this crime. And, as Sonja Wolf argues, the spectacle of war against gangs and the political benefits associated with it have deflected attention and resources away from the root causes of gang-related violence, to the detriment of citizens’ wellbeing. While the milieu described by José Luis Rocha for the Nicaraguan case would seem “unique” in regards to the central role state-led violence plays in this country’s context of insecurity, the picture that emerges from these articles is one that shows important continuums and intersections between state and non-state forms of harm and violence. 

These continuums of violence and the parallels that exist among these countries are not only relevant for scholarly discussions on these topics but, perhaps more importantly, shed light on the need to challenge binary analyses centred on rigid categories of “migrant” and “refugee.” In order to more effectively assess these countries’ insecurity and migration crises, we need a perspective that fully recognizes the multifaceted character of the violences impacting these countries and the political, economic, and social precursors that drive them.     

Going beyond sensationalistic headlines or speculative accounts on the so-called “hidden interests” behind the caravans, this Noria Central America Migration Series brings together scholars that are able to capture the complexities as well as the structural and institutional dynamics that inform people’s decision to migrate north, despite all the dangers and costs this decision carries. Today, as Mexican migration to the United States seems to be expanding once again7, it will become increasingly relevant to understand Mexican and Central American patterns of migration comparatively, in terms of their drivers, their manifestations, and consequences. The articles in this series provide important analytical grounds to begin comparing and contrasting the realities in these countries, while revealing the importance of researching this phenomenon from a perspective that goes beyond the numbers and tries to understand the difficult challenges experienced by women, children, and entire families on the ground. 

Ana Gonzalez Barrera, “Before COVID-19, more Mexicans came to the U.S. than left for Mexico for the first time in years,” Pew Research Analysis, July 9, 2021, [https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/07/09/before-covid-19-more-mexicans-came-to-the-u-s-than-left-for-mexico-for-the-first-time-in-years/, last accessed April 28, 2022]


  1. Quoted in Dara Lind, ‘“Immigrants are coming over the border to kill you” is the only speech Trump knowshow to give,’ Vox.com [https://www.vox.com/2019/1/8/18174782/trump-speech-immigration-border, last accessed 14 January 2022] ↩︎
  2. World Bank, ‘Net migration Figures: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, 1962-2017,’ World Bank, [https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.NETM?end=2017&locations=SV-HN-NI-GT&name_desc=false&start=1962&view=chart, last accessed 3 February 2022] ↩︎
  3. eg. Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, David Agren, ‘The unseen driver behind the migrant caravan: climate change,’ The Guardian, 30 October 2018 [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america, last accessed 17 February 2022] ↩︎
  4. Dara Lind,  “The migrant caravan, explained,” Vox, 25 October 2018[https://www.vox.com/2018/10/24/18010340/caravan-trump-border-honduras-mexico, last accessed 20 April 2022] ↩︎
  5. Donald Trump, ‘Speech to Campaign Rally in Missouri,’ 2 November 2018 [http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1811/02/cnr.19.html, last accessed 14 January 2022] ↩︎
  6. EFE, “México disuelve caravana de migrantes en el sur; ofrece regularizarlos, Forbes Mexico, 23 abril 2022, [https://www.forbes.com.mx/mexico-disuelve-caravana-de-migrantes-en-el-sur-ofrece-regularizarlos/ last accessed 28 April 2022] ↩︎
  7.  Ana Gonzalez Barrera, “Before COVID-19, more Mexicans came to the U.S. than left for Mexico for the first time in years,” Pew Research Analysis, July 9, 2021, [https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/07/09/before-covid-19-more-mexicans-came-to-the-u-s-than-left-for-mexico-for-the-first-time-in-years/, last accessed April 28, 2022] ↩︎