Guest post by Kaelyn DeVries. Kaelyn holds a master’s degree in International Security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She has investigated security issues in Central America over several years and seeks to call out and challenge state-driven violence via punitive security policies which disproportionately target marginalized communities.

In November 2016, the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro posted a photo and short story of a young boy who, at thirteen, was forcibly recruited into a gang and made to collect extortion fees against his will. Yet he failed to collect the money as he spent most of his time in hiding, convinced that if the police found him, they would murder him. Following his arrest on charges of extortion, he faced a prison sentence of up to fifteen years. One of the online responses to the anecdote read: ‘Good, that piece of shit…’

In northern Central America – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – compassion for young people in situations like the one described above is scarce. Their profound criminalization permeates society such that their lives are stripped of intrinsic value and their deaths at the hands of state military and police forces are justified in the name of ‘security’.

The Río Suchiate is a site where both migrants and residents of the border region cross between Mexico and Guatemala (Photo: Kaelyn DeVries)
Drawing on fieldwork conducted with Central American migrants and asylum-seekers near the Mexico-Guatemala border in the summer of 2017, this post explores how young men are violently erased from the polity. This happens both literally through their deaths and disappearances, and figuratively through their perpetual punishment, their expulsion into correctional prison systems and their exclusion from opportunities for economic, social, and civic participation. (see work by Lisa Marie Cacho on social death and Henry Giroux and Brad Evans on disposability). I argue that in the context of increased transnational security cooperation between the U.S., Mexico, and Central America – that is, shared strategies of punitive policing, border security, and migration control – young, marginalized men are systematically criminalized in ways that reinforce militarized tactics of social control and put them in positions of extreme physical harm. In fact, the lived experiences of disenfranchised young people, embodied through their persecution at the hands of violent security forces, is one factor influencing their decision to migrate northward.

Central American migration is not a new phenomenon. Given an intricate web of socioeconomic, political, and structural issues, Central Americans have travelled in caravans seeking protection in foreign territories for decades following sustained U.S. political, economic, and military intervention in the region. Today, U.S. hegemony over the region manifests itself in security programs such as the Alliance for Prosperity, which supports arming and training Central America’s deadly security forces, and Programa Frontera Sur, which militarizes Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala in order to detect, detain and deport migrants. Neither initiative has contributed significantly to decreasing migration, and both have been linked to an increase in violence and human rights violations against Central American citizens at home and as they migrate.

Meanwhile, in response to the recent spikes in migration from northern Central America, Donald Trump spewed anti-immigrant rhetoric and spread false propaganda about Central American asylum-seekers, particularly young men. He described massive crowds full of ‘young, strong men’ making their way to U.S. territory, and called on Congress to secure the southern border against an alleged swell of ‘gang members and other criminals’.

Trump’s rhetoric, though no less troubling, is indicative of a larger pattern in contemporary security policy and migration control: the global diffusion over the last several decades of politicized philosophies around crime, criminality, and control of ostensibly ‘out of control’ populations. The political subjectivities in this context claim that youth of marginalized ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes are innately criminal and deserve punishment rather than protection. Media outlets propagate fears around violent youth imaginaries: the gangbanger, the thug, the criminal alien. Youth who ‘fit this profile’ are excluded from opportunities for positive development or economic productivity. Politicians then call for surveilling and policing their neighborhoods and promote prison as a solution to their deviance. In northern Central America, these prejudices translate into policies that prop up a violent security apparatus which kills young people, especially young men, every single day.

Since the early 2000s, for instance, governments across Central America have implemented mano dura (iron fist) security policies, derived from the zero tolerance crime policies that ravaged marginalized U.S. communities in the late 90s. Data from northern Central America show that mano dura complicated the battle between police and youth street gangs, as instances of profiling, abuse, and youth arrests leading to disappearances by police skyrocketed.

Two Central American migrants check routes on a map of Mexico posted in a migrant shelter (Photo: Kaelyn DeVries)
Concerning policing tactics in El Salvador, Ivan (a pseudonym), a Salvadoran migrant in Mexico, relayed: ‘[The police] kill too, they kill people too. What they do is, they detain [someone], they disappear them. A few days later, they show up dead.’ Ivan cited the constant, violent persecution, both by gangs and police, as the main reason he fled El Salvador.

Beyond stemming from the actions of one or two corrupt officers, the killing of youth is deeply embedded in the social and political fabric of El Salvador, and has evolved since the end of its devastating civil war in which the state indiscriminately killed or disappeared alleged subversives over the course of 12 years (1980-1992). After the war El Salvador saw incomplete processes of democratic reform and institution-building. Ex-military officials were appointed to lead public security institutions such as the National Civil Police (PNC). As violent crime, largely related to drug trafficking and youth street gangs rose, so too did a democratic system in which plural forms of competing state and criminal violence merge and are intertwined to create a parallel social order where quite literally ‘anything goes’. With El Salvador in a perpetual state of exception, security forces are given carte blanche to regularly abuse and murder youth with impunity.  

Gerardo, a Salvadoran migrant in Guatemala, described one way the state deals with alleged criminal youth: ‘The police…when they grab a group of cipotes [Salvadoran slang for adolescents or youth], they drop them on the opposite side [of town]. In the opposite [gang’s] neighborhood. So that [the gangs] will kill them over there’.  

In a revival of the macabre terror tactics used during the war, death squads have resurfaced in the form of elite police forces or vigilante groups tied to current and former military officers. The groups carry out social cleansing in marginalized neighborhoods, murdering young men and boys whom they claim to be involved in criminal activity. And while the Salvadoran Government remains silent on the extrajudicial murders of youth, much of Salvadoran society praises this behavior, adopting a ‘kill them all’ attitude.    

It is well documented that increased border security and community policing makes migrants more ‘suspect’, enhancing their vulnerability as they travel. For Central American youth who flee their homes, state discourses label them with a particular criminality such that, even as they cross borders, their stigma as young people follows them in ways that make them exceedingly susceptible to abuse. In Guatemala, two agents of the National Civil Police stopped Ivan, threatened him, and, given his Salvadoran identity, accused him of being a ‘gangster’. They then robbed him of his belongings and money. Ivan’s experience demonstrates how global security narratives associating Central American youth migrants with criminal gangs play out for young men in local contexts marked by the violent policing of human mobility.    

Security camera at the entrance of a migrant shelter. The shelters themselves are highly securitized, ostensibly for protection (and surveillance) of migrants (Photo: Kaelyn DeVries)
Moreover, the narrative surrounding criminalized youth is indispensable to politicians’ efforts to shore up militarized systems of policing, public security, and border control. Young men and boys are incessantly scapegoated for ongoing violence, allowing political leaders to justify the continued application of failed security and immigration policies such as mano dura or the criminal prosecution of parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. So when the White House likens Central American asylum-seekers to gang members and gang members to ‘animals’, it bolsters widespread popular support for atrocious policies that violently target, and dispose of, young men. Under this same logic, a state police officer finds it amusing to shoot a Salvadoran youth in the chest, and another brazenly lodges a bullet in the back of a kneeling youth’s head – execution style.

Make no mistake, the killing of marginalized youth in northern Central America and beyond is political: it is purposeful, and it is state-driven. As a nation with deep-seated ties to the origins and continued growth of violence in the region, we must stop devaluing their lives and instead seek their protection at all costs. If we don’t, we will continue to be complicit in their erasure. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

DeVries, K. (2019) Transnational Policing, Migration Control, and the Gendered Persecution of Central America’s Youth. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/04/transnational (Accessed [date])