What We Need To Know About Immigrant Children Fleeing Rape and Human Trafficking

May 23, 2018


Washington, DCWHAT: Children from Central America are fleeing transnational gangs that ruthlessly target them for rape, sexual slavery, and human trafficking across Central America.

Too many innocent Central American children have fallen victim to the unthinkable violence of transnational gangs in Central America.

KIND is referred nearly daily children who have fled to the United States to escape sexual and gender-based violence by these gangs from which their government cannot protect them. Both girls and boys are victims. While sexual violence against children in general is underreported, the prevalence of this violence is even more dramatically underestimated for boys because of the greater stigma imposed on boy victims. Boys also often face violence by gangs who are trying to forcibly recruit them.

Honduras has the highest femicide rate per capita in the world; a woman is murdered every 16 hours. In El Salvador in 2017, a woman was murdered every 18 hours and 46 minutes. On average, two women are murdered each day in Guatemala, and the number of women murdered each year has more than tripled since 2000.

Lydia is from small city in Honduras. When she was 14 years old, gang members abducted her and raped her. Lydia escaped and told her mother, who called the police. Lydia identified the men, and they were briefly sent to jail. Lydia became pregnant as a result of the rape, and while she was pregnant the men who raped her were released from jail and threatened to kill her. Lydia and her mother relocated within Honduras, but the gang members followed them and continued to threaten Lydia. Lydia was forced to flee to the U.S. to save her life.

Gang members began to threaten 16-year-old Maria with sexual violence when her family refused to pay an extortion fee to the gang in El Salvador. Maria attempted to flee the country, but was stopped at the border by gang members who kidnapped her and took her to an abandoned house. There, Maria was drugged and continuously raped by gang members. She witnessed gang members bring other women and girls into the house and rape them. After three months in captivity, Maria managed to escape and flee to another country.

When Lorena was in middle school in a small town in Guatemala, a neighbor who was a gang member began to express interest in her. When she refused to become his girlfriend he began stalking and threatening her. During her walk home from school one day, the same gang member and his friend took 14-year-old Lorena by force to an isolated area and raped her. Lorena changed schools to avoid the gang member, but he continued to follow her and repeatedly threatened to rape her again. She eventually fled to the U.S. to escape further sexual violence.

WHY: Gangs in Central America use sexual and gender-based violence as a strategy of control

As a police officer in El Salvador said, “There are no viable options in this country for victims of gang violence. If you report, the gang will come after you, and the state can’t protect you. Even if the gang member goes to jail, there is a network in place to harm you.”

As gangs have increased their control in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala over the past several years, they have systematically used sexual violence as a principal tactic for establishing and maintaining dominance over the communities and territories in which they operate, similar to violent tactics used in other contexts of armed conflict. As an example of the scope of transnational gangs’ power, in El Salvador, gangs are a threatening presence in 247 of 262 municipalities and extort about 70 percent of businesses.

Girls living in gang controlled neighborhoods receive clear messages that they and their bodies belong to the gang, and that gang members have power to exercise sexual violence with complete impunity. Gang members have raped and tortured girls and left their mutilated and dismembered bodies in public places to demonstrate their dominance of the area and instill fear in the community. In other cases, women and girls who live in gang-controlled areas have gone missing; their bodies have been found in clandestine graves, with evidence of sexual violence and torture. Gangs use sexual violence to control the women and girls; for example, gang members frequently use rape to punish women and girls suspected of reporting gang activity to the police.

While gang members primarily target girls and young women for SGBV, they control boys and men by threatening sexual violence against sisters, girlfriends, daughters, wives, or other women and girls close to them. The Trump Administration has done little to address this brutal and pervasive violence in Central America that forces these children to leave their homes and all they have ever known to seek safety in the United States

KIND attorneys and our pro bono attorneys are working tirelessly to protect innocent girls from these brutalities by making sure the U.S. lives up to its constitutional obligations to provide due process and access to refugee protection.

See also, Neither Security Nor Justice: Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Gang Violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), June 2017.


Media Contact: Megan McKenna, mmckenna@supportkind.org, 202-631-9990