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an epidemic of inequalities and violence in central america

February 23, 2021


by Delphine Prunier, Geographer, Researcher and Professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales de la UNAM (Mexico). She is a specialist in mobilities and rural dynamics in Central America.


This blog has been partially inspired by a collective work done with Sergion Salaza Araya of the Universidad de Costa Rica for an upcoming article currently under review.

Currently hindered and at times scattered, partially in the name of fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic, the phenomena of migrant caravans, though not new, has brought to the forefront the Central American exodus since 2018. It is a way for migrants to organize themselves in order to secure both their safety and their visibility while crossing borders and hostile territories, on the way to the United States. Central America has been dealing with worsening inequalities in the past few years, as well as an increase in violence (economic, political and criminal) which is pushing its citizens to flee their country, blurring the line between categories, considered distinct until then, of economic migrants and refugees. Since the end of 2020, the public health crisis is getting mixed in with other geopolitical factors, and we can see that the externalization of the borders is now playing out within the Central American isthmus itself.

Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex
Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex



In October 2018, thousands of Central Americans, mainly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, surged toward the Mexican border, with the intention of reaching the United States. The power of images and the media coverage then strongly touched on public imagination around these "caravans" that were planning to defy the borders, especially Mexico. The Mexican society in fact was getting ready to change government (with the arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president, then holding a discourse favoring human rights) and had to face reality: Mexico is no longer just a country to emigrate to, it is also a transit and host country.


Other caravans were established in 2019, then the public health crisis, the national border closures and the curfews significantly restricted intra and international mobilities. So, in October 2020 and January 2021, following the social-economic impacts of Covid-19, but also a series of hurricanes that critically hit a large portion of the region, new caravans formed in the San Pedro Sula (Honduras) area, but were detained or scattered by the Guatemalan authorities.


The strategy of regrouping into caravans is meant for gaining strength, physical and symbolical, to become visible and to get safer traveling conditions during the trip, especially through Mexico, a land of extorsions, disappearances and impunity. But the strategy of group mobility can also be understood as a real social movement of resistence that starts with the gathering of isolated individuals, often victims of an oppressive and dominant system (whether on the job market or in agricultural systems and mega development projects). These migrants have shown they are not just that: they are also powerful actors, doted with agency capabilities to make decisions, organize and confront administrative obstacles, political regimes and police forces, in other words, territorial authority structures characterized by discrimination and racism. The caravans therefore show another view of migration: a subversive, autonomous and "incorrigible" movement that challenges the function of a fondamental spatial limit in geopolitics: borders.

Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex
Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex



There are a number of borders in the Central American region. Obviously, social, economic and territorial asymmetries are flagrant when comparing the growth index, standard of living and education of the Isthmus with those of Mexico, the United State or Canada. But they also exist within the region itself, where instability and social-territorial fractures have historically been at the core of temporary, circular and more durable mobilities. To understand the huge exodus we are seeing right now, we must understand the historical depth of the regional migratory cycles, linked to the advance of agricultural borders and the allure of some job markets usually associated with enclave economies and investment policies of foreign capital (from coffee and banana plantations to maquiladoras, textile factories and electronic component assembly, of North American and Asian capital).


The notion of violence is quite often used to describe the reasons for the Central American exodus. But when you look closely, you can better grap the nuances of this multidimensional violence. 


First of all, the gangs' violence, the Maras, very active in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, is actually at the center of a number of asylum seekers' accounts, who were often forced to flee death threats or forced recrutment. These criminal organizations, who have enormous territorial and political control, fundamentally draw on a long history of migrations toward the United States - and deportations from it, on a torn social-economic fabric and on crumbling family structures.

Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex
Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex

Secondly, there is a context of political violence, with authoritarian regimes that para(militarize) and repress any opposition or protests. While president Bukele deployed armed forces right in the center of the Salvadorian legislative Assembly just a few weeks before the start of the pandemic, president Hernández in Honduras is enforcing repressive policies on indigenous and environmental social movements that are against the various extractivist megaprojects (tourism, mines, dams).


The third type of violence, and significant at that, is without a doubt structural violence: economic, productive, capitalist and partriarchal. Recent Central American migrations should indeed be understood within the prism of the region's economic development model in place since the colonization and up to today, based on intensive agriculture, consolidation of lands and industrialization for export (see for example the migratory cycles in Honduras and their relationship with contemporary forced migrations). Populations today pushed to exil are fleeing situations of injustice and marginalization. That is the case of the farmer whose lands are taken for resort and palm oil projects, of the factory worker who is exploited and denied any social rights, of the young girl trapped by male chauvinism and domestic violence.


During the public health crisis, borders closed to human circulation have come with an accrued competition to attract foreign capital and the pursuit of an economic model turned toward -and for- foreign countries. Along with the obstacles to migration, there are speeches on the necessity to boost the country of origin's development, while the social-territorial lines of fracture and asymmetry seem to have increased for the past year.

Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex
Suchiate, Mexico/Guatemala border, October 2018. Photos/Javier Lira Otero/Notimex



On the dawn of October 1st, 2020, a group of Hondurian migrants left San Pedro Sula to form a new caravan going to the United States. They entered Guatemalan territory despite the police and military deployment that attempted to block their entry. Guatemala's governement quickly set the tone, considering the crossing of the country without papers as a public health hazard: it forbade truckers from transporting Hondurian migrants, encouraged denunciating migrants and broadcasted a speech pointing them out as a risk of infection. Immediately, the Mexican government published a press release in which it mentioned fines and imprisonment for anyone who "would endanger the health of others". In both countries, armed forces were deployed and, in some parts of Guatemalan territory, actions were done to break migrant groups apart, control them and throw them out, encouraging a voluntary return. Organizations from civil society, observers and university professors interpreted these measures as intimidation, discrimination and criminalizing migrant populations.


On January 15, 2021, 5 days before the new American president Joe Biden took office, another caravan formed from the same departure point. Over 3 500 people, organizing themselves via social media, were soon joined by others, reaching 9 000 people. On the 16th, despite the presence of security forces, they crossed the border at El Florido, only to be stopped the next day at about 37 miles, in the vicinity of Chiquimula. There they had to deal with the use of brutal force, buses ready for "voluntary returns" and official speeches linking the restriction of movement to the risk of infection.

Euronews video, January 2021
Euronews video, January 2021

The consolidation of the new geopolitical logic consisting in the externalization of the borders became then clear as ever. The fight against illegal immigration in the United States is no longer (and not only) played out at the US border, nor even in the south of Mexico where the Trump administration had pushed it too, but always further into Central America. It is now happening on this Honduras-Guatemala border which was previously a regional place of circulation. The foreign policy of the United States, but also Mexico's, can be seen in this new role taken on by Guatemala as the migration police on the road north, in exchange for cooperation programs and development projects. In this context, the pandemic is a perfect excuse to stop the flow of people (see the article on measures taken in the United States last year) by claiming the need to close the borders to avoid spreading the virus which, up until now, did not need migrants to contaminate the United States.


The Biden government seems to have initiated the process of changing this policy. With an order signed on February 6, it ended the "safe third country" agreement with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, while still claiming to want to have a policy with these countries of "orderly" managed migration. Signed on July 2019 with Guatemala (it never really got put in place with the other two countries), the Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA) allowed the deportation of Hondurian and Salvadoran migrants toward that country where they could theoretically find acceptable conditions in which to ask for asylum.


In this situation, pushing the border line within Central American itself and the militarization of the transit areas justified by the fight against the pandemic constituted two new worrisome elements. Borders represent limits whose transgression via migration is a reflection of the integration of societies in global dynamics. When we see a worsening of poverty and working conditions in the countries of origin, one thing becomes instantly obvious: the violent and urgent nature of the need to move, which in the end is more an escape than an opportunity.


From criminalizing migrants to applying inhuman quarantine measures for people expelled from the United States, as well as rejecting citizens stuck in a foreign country and repressing all social protests, there were several events that exposed the danger weighing on fundamental rights during Covid-19 in Central American countries. This unfortunately foretells of a deepening of exclusionary factors and social injustice in these countries with migratory expulsions.

Delphine Prunier is a geographer, researcher and professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales de la UNAM (Mexico). She is a member of the project (In)movilidades en las Américas and of the laboratory Meso.