Governance, Violence, and Migration: Lessons Learned from El Salvador and Honduras

Photo by Wotancito, CC BY-SA 4.0. Source Wikimedia Commons.

By Leir-affiliated Faculty Anjuli Fahlberg, Katherine Garcia, Laura Garcia and Justin Pérez

For over a year now, our team of four researchers from Tufts University, El Salvador, and Honduras has been investigating the impact of differing governance approaches on violence and human rights in El Salvador and Honduras. The project includes in-depth interviews with civil society organizations, government agencies, and ordinary residents, as well as ongoing fieldwork and social media analyses. In this piece, we briefly share some important findings on how governance and violence are impacting migration into and out of Central America. 

First, though often overlooked by media narratives in the US, Central American countries are not only sites of departure–they have also become gateway and destination regions. Ironically, Central American countries are dealing with many of the same struggles as the United States as new migrants arrive in search of safety and resources. Thanks in part to their geographic location and easing restrictions around local border crossings, thousands of migrants are moving through the region each day. Consequently, Central America has become a bottleneck for migration and is at the heart of a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has referred to the migration situation in Central America as a “multidimensional crisis” that includes internal displacements within Central American countries, as well as migration from these countries through Mexico to the US border, and migration from South America, Asia, and Africa (OCHA 2024). 

In January and February 2024, for instance, more than 87,000 migrants crossed through Honduras, half of them from Venezuela, but many from countries as varied as Cuba, Afghanistan, Vietnam, China, and Nepal (EFE 2024). Lacking food or shelter, many of these migrants live on the streets of metropolitan areas, taxing already under-resourced neighborhoods and community organizations with additional needs for assistance and resources. This has provoked significant tensions locally: as we drive through the streets of Tegucigalpa, we cannot overlook the migrant encampments in back alleys and people asking for money in the streets, often in competition with local Hondurans for sympathy and aid. 

A second lesson we have learned is that, among Central Americans fleeing to the US, state repression is often just as potent a threat as the criminal violence of local gangs. In 2022, El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele implemented a series of severe security measures to combat organized crime, which has included the mass arrests and incarceration of those presumed to be involved in gangs, such as young people, those living in conflict zones, and people sporting tattoos. The military has also occupied hundreds of high-crime neighborhoods, increasing the chances of locals being arrested, many of whom disappear into the system with no information about trials or possibility of release. Human rights organizations recorded a total of 2,237 cases of forced internal displacement between 2020 and 2022 (Espinoza 2023), though this figure likely underestimates the problem. In addition, according to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, during the period from January to September 2023, 37,506 Salvadorans were detected entering the United States irregularly (Divergentes 2023), many of them fleeing the increasing risk of arbitrary detention. 

While gang violence continues to be a strong motivator for escape from this region, overly repressive security measures to combat gangs can cause the very problem it is supposedly meant to solve. Both criminal groups and repressive regimes violate human rights and force people to search for new places to live and work. Bukelismo and other strong-arm tactics are unlikely to offer a long-term solution to the “migration problem.” Ensuring that people’s safety and well-being are guarded is a far more sustainable way to reduce the push factors that drive people from their homes.

Third, we have learned through both our personal relationships with people from Honduras and El Salvador and our conversations with human rights organizations of the incredible risks that migrants take. For many of them, the journey is expensive, dangerous, and often fruitless. Migration requires funds to cover bus fares, adequate food, footwear and clothing, and extortion fees from illicit groups and corrupt officials. In 2020, for instance, migrants spent approximately $2.2 million to migrate from Central America (Civic Data Design Lab 2021). Families often must sell their assets at home, including furniture, clothing, and appliances to raise money for the journey, and may also take out loans from friends and family. Those who manage to find a new, safer place to live must leave their families behind and rebuild their lives in areas that may be hostile to migrants or have few employment opportunities. Those who are deported from or barred entry to Mexico or the US often return to their homes under the same conditions and risks as when they left, but with fewer goods and greater debts. 

A fourth valuable lesson is to be observant of how journalists are reporting about migration. Migration has become a hot topic among journalists thanks in large part to the political uproar it has stirred in arrival countries. Traditional media in Latin America and North America often depict migration as a crisis that mainly harms the citizens of the migrants’ country of arrival, with a particular focus on the impacts on the United States. However, by focusing on migration as the problem, journalists often overlook how migration is the result of other multiple underlying causes, including poor governance and weakening democracy, economic inequality, violence and insecurity, environmental disasters, and gender-based violence. US intervention into Latin American politics and economics often exacerbates these problems, thereby helping to create the very challenges they wish to avoid.

Additionally, much of the data and quotes introduced in news articles come from official government sources. However, ruling regimes have a vested interest in putting forth data that place them in the best light and reduce the possibility of criticism, and many regimes also lack the resources and infrastructure to properly measure local issues. In El Salvador, Bukele’s government has systematically removed the availability of public data on official websites and has instead disseminated figures on crime, income, health, and other social issues via social media posts by individual government actors. These data are unreliable and often contradictory. Reporters must look carefully at these sources before relying on them as trusted information. In Honduras, NGOs have worked independently to generate more reliable and holistic information by drawing on a combination of official government sources and reports gathered from non-government organizations to make up for the limitations in available public information. In both cases, reporters and researchers would do well to look beyond official sources as they seek to better understand the conditions pushing migrants out of Central America and towards Mexico and the US.


 Civic Data Design Lab. 2021. The Complex Motivations and Costs of Central American Migration. MIT.

Divergentes, Assane. 2023. “¿El Salvador, en camino a la migración inversa?” Divergentes, October 27.

EFE. 2024. “Unos 87,000 migrantes cruzaron Honduras en dos meses, la mitad venezolanos.” Telemundo Miami (51), March 9.

Espinoza, Claudia. 2023. “2,237 casos de desplazamiento forzado en El Salvador, pese a que existe Ley.” La Prensa Gráfica, February 16.

OCHA. 2024. Honduras: Necesidades Humanitarias y Plan de Respuesta 2024. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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