By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of children in El Salvador flee their homes each year to escape gang violence, and the government is "either unwilling or unable" to protect them from persecution, a U.S.-based advocacy group said on Thursday.
Refugees International said El Salvador had not publicly acknowledged the leading role gangs played in driving families from their homes to seek refuge in other parts of the Central American nation or in the United States.
The country is racked by drug-fueled gang violence, with entire city neighborhoods controlled by powerful street gangs, known as maras.
"Although this violence is causing people to flee, the government prefers to say that most Salvadorans who leave the country are doing so for economic reasons, or to be reunited with family," RI said in its report.
Tania Camila Rosa, head of human rights at the foreign affairs ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year "The fundamental reason for 12 to 18-year-olds migrating north to the U.S. is reunification ... with their relatives."
But El Salvador recorded 594 murders in May alone, believed to be the deadliest month since the country's civil war ended in 1992.
The letters "MS" of the Mara Salvatrucha, and graffiti of rival gang Barrio 18, are scrawled on buildings, marking gang territory. The gangs impose control through extortion, sexual violence, threats, killings and forced recruitment of children.
Gangs have at times picked out a home or an apartment building because of its strategic location in a drug turf war.
"Once ordered out, residents have no alternative but to leave," the report said.
With few safe houses for people forced from their homes by gangs, some families end up hiding for months on end, moving from place to place.
"We need shelters for families. One of the biggest issues is the lack of safe spaces for families," one unnamed government employee is quoted as saying in the report.
One family with 10 children spent four months hiding from gangs, including three weeks in the home of relatives in another province, three days in a church, one night in a motel, 12 days outdoors, and one month in a safe house run by a charity, the report said.
"There is so much focus on the criminals to get them into
prison, but no attention is paid to the victims," the report quotes another government official as saying.
The flow of children from El Salvador to the United States is such that last year more than 32,000 Salvadoran children traveling alone reached the U.S. border, the report said.
"While the numbers have dropped this year, it is not because fewer children are fleeing El Salvador but because more deportations are occurring in Mexico. For the first time, Mexico is now recording more deportations of Salvadorans than the U.S.," the report said.
As Mexican authorities beef up security and police patrols at the porous border with the United States, children trying to cross Mexico are now more likely to be stopped at that border.
In the first two months of this year, Mexico deported over
25,000 children traveling alone.
"It's critical that regional countries keep their borders open to those seeking protection," Sarnata Reynolds, the report's author and RI senior adviser on human rights, said in a statement.
"Those who flee have a right to request and receive protection when they have fled a credible risk of torture or persecution."
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)