Investigating Mexico and El Salvador’s Internally Displaced

Mexicans and Salvadorans continue to suffer from daily attacks on individuals, families, and communities through extortion, kidnappings, rapes, and homicides. These attacks are frequently at the hands of organized criminal groups and gangs, but too often, the police and military are involved or specifically orchestrating violent events. The insecurity and targeting of the citizens of both countries has led to mass internal displacement. While the actual number of people internally displaced by organized criminal groups is not known, at least 280,000 people were displaced in each country just last year. 

Leading up to its June 7 national and local election, Mexico experienced targeted political killings of candidates for office, and dozens of voting sites were compromised. In May, El Salvador recorded more murders in a single month than any month since the end of the civil war in 1992. Organized criminal groups and gangs continue to ravage the nation of 6 million. According to national statistics, more than 600 people were killed in May, or 20 per day – and more than 100 of them were killed by the police. The figure represents a 52 percent increase from the same period last year. Thousands of soldiers are now patrolling the streets in some towns. 

According to national statistics, more than 600 [Salvadorans] were killed in May, or 20 per day – and more than 100 of them were killed by the police.

El Salvador is about the size of Massachusetts and is densely population. While it claims one of the highest homicide rates in the world, to a great extent, homicide rates are localized: some municipalities of El Salvador have rates well above 100, but substantial portions of the country are homicide-free. For context, globally the average rate is 6.7 homicides per year for every 100,000 residents. In South Africa, which has the ninth highest homicide rate in the world, the rate was 31/100,000 in 2013. The highest homicide rates in El Salvador appear to be in the central departments, and communities bordering the Pacific coast experience high levels of violence. Moving from home to home, motel to safe house, is the only coping mechanism some families have to avoid the recruitment of children into gangs or the victim of violence. Forced displacement is a coping mechanism for many families in El Salvador. Unfortunately, the involvement of public officials, police officers, and the military in many of these events has caused victims and survivors to distrust the government and refuse to seek out formal avenues of justice. 

Very little is known about El Salvador’s displaced populations, where they live now, whether they are secure in their places of displacement, and what challenges they face. Many have suffered terrible trauma through rape, kidnappings, forced recruitment, or the loss of one or more family members. The few national and international organizations that monitor internal displacement agree that documentation of the displaced in El Salvador and their humanitarian and protection concerns is urgently needed. 

In June 2014, Refugees International went to five locations in Mexico and documented the situation for internally displaced Mexicans. We issued a report and continue to work with Mexican organizations to strengthen the state’s response to their humanitarian needs. We will return there in mid-June to meet with families one year later, learn about the struggles of families displaced since June 2014, and continue to discuss the situation with Mexican government and civil society actors. But first, RI will be in El Salvador meeting with people internally displaced by organized criminal groups, and local and national government and civil society actors.