People walk down a dirt road in Guatemala

Verité research has documented the ways in which high levels of violent crime and the incursion of maras (street gangs) and Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have displaced a large number of Guatemalans from their homes and forced them to migrate. The Northern Triangle of Central America is the most violent region in the world; Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are first, fourth, and fifth in the world, respectively, in terms of homicide rates. In the case of Guatemala, which registered the bloodiest civil war in all of Latin America with over 200,000 killed, today the per capita rate of killing surpasses the rate of killing during the civil war.

This violence is in many cases linked to DTOs and maras—which wreak violence in both urban and rural communities and engage in forced recruitment of minors as foot soldiers, drug smugglers, and assassins—and in many ways parallels the child soldiers involved in civil wars in Africa. In fact, the rates of killing in Honduras surpass those of the Congo and Sudan. Central American children, however, are not afforded the same protections as war refugees. Therefore, a child who refuses to join a gang because he does not want to be forced to commit violent crimes may have to flee for his life. Ironically, if he is able to make it through the gauntlet that is Mexico and arrives in the U.S., some argue that he should be labeled as a “criminal” rather than as a refugee or potential victim of forced recruitment or human trafficking.

The crisis surrounding the surge of “unaccompanied minors” migrating from Central America to the United States is grabbing headlines and generating fierce debate. The 2008 amendments to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA)—requiring that undocumented minors from countries other than Mexico or Canada are assessed to determine whether they are victims of human trafficking before they are deported—are the source of much of the attention and blame. Some politicians argue that these amendments have encouraged young people to migrate to the United States, and that there is a low probability that they are victims of human trafficking. In reality, the blame cannot be placed on the TVPRA; most minors are fleeing violence, extreme poverty, and/or forced labor.

The International Labor Rights Working Group (ILRWG), of which Verité is a member, urges policymakers to leave the TVPRA’s protections for minors in place. Free the Slaves has presented compelling evidence demonstrating that there is not a link between the protections against trafficking and the jump in the number of unaccompanied minors. Following the 2008 amendments, the number of unaccompanied minors detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection increased only marginally from 3,304 in fiscal year (FY) 2009 to 3,923 in FY 2011, and then more than doubled each following year—to 10,146 in FY 2012, 20,805 in FY 2013, and 43,933 in just the first nine months of FY 2014—demonstrating that there are a number of other factors at play.

The high rate of violence, impunity, and poverty makes Central American children extremely vulnerable to human trafficking in criminal activities, as well as in the agricultural sector. Verité has carried out research in Guatemala’s sugar, coffee, and palm sectors, and has detected a large number of indicators of forced labor, including among children. Between 2009 and 2011, Verité interviewed 372 coffee sector workers throughout Guatemala. Workers reported a variety of indicators of forced labor, and 98.9 percent of all workers interviewed reported that children worked alongside them—indicating that minors are extremely vulnerable to forced labor in Guatemala’s coffee sector, which employed 11 percent of the country’s labor force in 2009.

The coffee sector, in which there is a high level of vulnerability to forced labor, is one of the primary employers throughout the Northern Triangle of Central America. A recent outbreak of la roya (“coffee rust”), which has decimated coffee fincas throughout the region, began in 2011 and directly coincides with the spike in unaccompanied minors. Outbreaks of la royaand violence have caused migration to the United States in the past, including some of these children’s parents, and are push factors forcing children to migrate to the United States today. This is not a case of people seeking material comfort, but rather an attempt to survive, to escape countries with some of the highest violence and malnutrition rates in the world.

Central American children are at a high risk of trafficking at the hands of farm owners, drug traffickers, and human smugglers. The United States, which has positioned itself as an international leader in the fight against human trafficking, has a responsibility to ensure that we are not deporting trafficked children to be victimized yet again.