Escaping Violence in Central America

Selena spent most days blending fresh juices, checking the oven and mixing sweet cake batter at her parent’s bakery in Honduras. Life was simpler then, safe. It was before the maras — a vicious crime organization — changed everything, before they came to steal her from her family.

She saw them when they entered the bakery. The mara leaders ruthlessly harassed her mother, Priscilla, using intimidation and extortion techniques. But what they wanted was untouchable, something her mother could never let them take.

Despite her young age, Selena knew what they were capable of. She saw what happened to a neighbor who resisted the gang’s extortion — her mother’s friend was killed, along with her two small children, their bodies dumped in a river. No one is safe from the mara, not even children, whom they often recruit as informants and spies and sometimes their play things.

Priscilla promised to provide the gang members with any monetary amount they desired, as long as they didn’t harm her children.

New Life or Certain Death

On the day a gun-wielding stranger entered the family’s home, Selena had just left. Her mother was there alone, trembling as the man asked for her eldest daughter. As she stared down the barrel of a gun, Priscilla stalled by telling him she didn’t know Selena’s whereabouts or when she would return.

But Priscilla’s deal with the gang was crumbling, and they wanted more than just money. According to the man, his boss planned to make Selena his “girlfriend.” Her parents knew this meant that Selena needed to flee Honduras if she was to have any kind of future. As the girlfriend of a mara, she would see and experience terrible things, and potentially be sold into a sex trafficking ring, kill or be killed.

Honduras has the highest female victim murder rate in the world, many under the age of 24. In 2016, the death rate skyrocketed to 60 victims per 100,000 people, with more than 5,000 murders recorded.1

What’s perpetuating this violence against women?

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—known as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA)—have seen an exponential increase in violence perpetrated by local criminal groups or gangs. The gang members often take “girlfriends,” whom they rape, abuse and kill. This rapid growth in violence has driven an increase in the number of children and families fleeing the area.

A couple days after the gun-carrying stranger left their home, Selena’s mother and father jumped into action, making plans to leave. They would have to leave their business and home behind, but securing their children’s safety was their main concern. Priscilla refused to let her children lose their innocence and potentially even their lives at the hands of the mara.

A Terrifying Epidemic

Sadly, Selena’s story is just one of a many. The escalating violence in Central America is forcing children and families to flee in droves. In the last four years, the number of people escaping this area has grown sevenfold, from 20,900 in 2012 to 146,000 in 2016.

But they’re not alone. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is educating the public and encouraging donations to help at every level. Through the donations made to USA for UNHCR, Selena and her family receive the emotional and financial support needed to rebuild their lives in their new surroundings. Donors have a direct impact on these families in need.

The UN Refugee Agency is there on the frontlines, providing assistance. For Selena, staff members visit her family often to share support and have enrolled them in the cash assistance program, which helps cover grocery and rental costs for their tiny apartment. With the help of the UN Refugee Agency, the family has also been approved for refugee status.

Thanks to USA for UNHCR donors and the UN Refugee Agency, Selena and her family have a chance at a new life—a chance at life at all.

To learn more about how you can become a donor and help children like Selena, visit UNrefugees.org.

1 “Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems,” 2016, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS