Skip to main site content.
As tens of thousands of women take flight from armed gangs, drug traffickers and their own partners, urgent action is called for to cope with a “looming refugee crisis"

On the run

Thousands of women flee Central America to escape deadly violence

By Rita Beamish on November 4, 2015

Violence against women has become so rampant in Central America that victims of rape, beatings, kidnapping and death threats are fleeing for their lives across borders and into the United States.

Tens of thousands of women, often traveling with their children, escape “pervasive” deadly violence by armed gangs, drug traffickers and their own husbands and boyfriends – daily lives filled with terror, the United Nations refugee agency said in a new report. “Women on the Run” chronicles the plight of women from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and parts of Mexico.

Describing a “looming refugee crisis,” it calls for urgent and coordinated action by the nations of the region. Female murder rates in the three Central American nations are among the world’s highest, with U.N. data showing that El Salvador ranks first, Guatemala third and Honduras seventh globally.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called the sobering report “an early warning to raise awareness” about refugee women and to spur a regional response. While international attention spotlights Europe’s refugee flood spurred by violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, a refugee crises is also building in the Americas, said Guterres.

“Women on the Run” was based on U.N. interviews with 160 women who made it to the United States and either were granted or were pursuing asylum. More than eight of 10 women came from areas controlled by criminal armed groups, called maras, or drug cartels. The increasing reach of such groups “has surpassed the capacity of governments in the region to respond,” the report said.

Women and children sit in a holding cell at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after being detained by agents near the U.S.-Mexico border. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Women and children sit in a holding cell at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after being detained by agents near the U.S.-Mexico border. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The women described gunfights, abductions, and having to pay extortion fees under threat of physical harm. Some saw dead bodies in their neighborhoods weekly. They described children killed and forced to join violent groups. “I saw the [drug cartel] kill someone on the street as I was leaving school,” said a Honduran woman, identified only as Anya, who was quoted in the report. “They saw me running away,” she said. “They told me if I said anything or moved, they’d kill me. They’d look for me, find me and kill me.They also said if I didn’t leave, they’d find my family and kill them, too. So, I decided to go.”

She said she was raped twice and kidnapped four times, and her partner was beaten.

The U.S. Border Patrol has reported it detained nearly triple the number of women crossing into the United States in 2014 as in 2011. Many also flee to other Central American countries, and to Mexico, a country of transit and asylum as well as a place where the abuse takes place, the U.N. report said.

A Honduran woman styles her daughter's hair at a migrant shelter which has seen its population of women and children more than double in recent months, in Tenosique, Mexico, May 29, 2014.(Meridith Kohut/The New York Times)
A Honduran woman styles her daughter’s hair at a migrant shelter which saw its population of women and children more than double, in Tenosique, Mexico, May 29, 2014. (Meridith Kohut/The New York Times)

Since 2008, the U.N. refugee agency has recorded a nearly fivefold jump in U.S. asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Such asylum applications also have skyrocketed in neighboring Central American nations.

Norma, a Salvadoran woman, fled because she and her family were threatened repeatedly after her husband, a police officer, reported her abduction and rape by gang members in 2014. The threats continued even when she hid out in a different part of El Salvador. “Gangs don’t forgive. If they didn’t harm me, they’d harm my children,” she said. “Sometimes, I wake up and think it was just a nightmare, but then I feel the pain and remember it was not.”

Domestic violence also is prevalent but is rarely discussed, with many women victimized at home, including by husbands who belong to groups that terrorize their neighborhoods, the refugee agency reported. Laws designed to protect women from violence for the most part do little, and authorities often are seen as being in league with the criminals. Forty percent of those interviewed didn’t bother going to police, seeing it as futile or fearing reprisal. “The police and the maras work together,” Alexa from El Salvador told the refugee agency. “If you call the police, you just get into more problems.”

The flight to safety itself often is “a journey through hell,” the report found, with beatings, rape and extortion along the way.

The U.N. report called for bolstering fair and efficient asylum procedures, strengthening alternatives to detention in asylum countries, and regional efforts against the causes of forced displacement.

In a statement to Women in the World, the State Department expressed support for the refugee agency’s efforts and for shared regional responsibility to curb violence against women, protect vulnerable migrants as well as borders, and disrupt human smuggling operations. It called on Congress to fund President Obama’s “critical” $1 billion request for his Strategy for Engagement in Central America, “so that we can address the underlying conditions that are driving irregular migration.”

Latin nations need to work on protecting women and children from abuse during their journeys, the statement said. U.S. and Mexican officials have agreed on the need to improve procedures for screening of vulnerable migrants.