Cuscatlan,  El Salvador/Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Liliana was there when local men abducted her teenage friend on the outskirts of El Salvador's capital, and she saw exactly who did it. But when police came to question her, she kept quiet.

Her family, who were living in the urban sprawl around San Salvador, knew the men responsible for the kidnapping could come back to harm her. So, like many others living in gang-controlled territory in Central America, they fled.

"Sometimes [the gangs] kill just for fun...they were in charge," Liliana, 29, said in an interview in her new home, a quiet, agricultural village in central El Salvador, dotted with mango and jocote trees.

"Here in the countryside you feel free. There in the city, you don't," said Liliana, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. 

Honduras Gangs

A member of the "Calle 18" street gang covers his face while squatting next to a wall covered with graffiti in memory of their late members, at the prison in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on 28th May, 2013. PICTURE: Reuters/Jorge Cabrera/file photo

Hundreds of thousands of Hondurans and Salvadorans have been forced to abandon their homes in recent years due to gang violence, often leaving property and loved ones behind, say human rights experts. 

Although gangs operate in rural areas, the violence is worst in marginalised, urban areas that have been poorly planned, according to several experts. 

"Urbanisation has put a lot of people in precarious financial situations in precarious urban areas...it only helps criminality to perpetuate its work and to perpetuate its reign of terror."

- Giovanni Bassu, regional representative for Central America and Cuba at the UN refugee agency, UNHCR

"That's where the state has left the biggest vacuum," Giovanni Bassu, regional representative for Central America and Cuba at the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Urbanisation has put a lot of people in precarious financial situations in precarious urban areas...it only helps criminality to perpetuate its work and to perpetuate its reign of terror," he said in a phone interview.

Central America is one of the world's fastest urbanizing regions, second only to Africa, according to a 2017 report from the World Bank. 

Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, was the second-fastest growing city in Latin America between 2000 and 2018, according to the United Nations, going from 752,000 people to almost 1.4 million. 

Both Honduras and El Salvador's capital cities are plagued by similar phenomena, say human rights advocates: Gangs that control territory, extort citizens, infiltrate local law enforcement and kill rivals.

While many of those driven from their homes make it to the United States - whether in small groups or large caravans - others move within their country's borders.

The need to hide, coupled with mistrust of police, means authorities don't have a good mapping of the problem, Bassu said.

More than 190,000 people in Honduras were displaced internally from 2004 to 2018, according to UNHCR estimates. 

San Salvador National Palace

The National Palace in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. PICTURE: David Stanley (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In El Salvador, a country of six million people, a poll by the Central American University in San Salvador revealed that more than five per cent of respondents were forced to move due to violence in 2018. 

And many more are at risk in both countries, where the homicide rate has been above 40 per 100,000 people every year since 2000, making them among the world's deadliest nations, according to World Bank data. 

Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarape Institute, a Brazil-based thinktank, said there is evidence that fast, unregulated urbanisation can lead to higher levels of violent crime, including homicide.

"Rapid growth is also often accompanied with rising inequality, particularly between the urban elites (the 'haves') and the wider urban poor living on the periphery (the 'have nots')," he said.

Central America's urbanisation was more recent than in the rest of Latin America, and the region's metropolitan areas have grown outwards physically at a fast rate, said Carlos Ferrufino, an expert in urban planning at the Central American University.

"The municipalities that have had the fastest urbanisation are the ones with the most critical levels of violence. Why? Because it's precarious urbanisation."

- Carlos Ferrufino, an expert in urban planning at the Central American University.

"The municipalities that have had the fastest urbanisation are the ones with the most critical levels of violence. Why? Because it's precarious urbanisation," Ferrufino said. 

In San Salvador, many of the most violent parts of the city were built by private developers with permits, whereas in Tegucigalpa spontaneous informal housing is more common, he noted.

But both contain large areas of small, low-quality housing with little public space that creates areas easily taken over by gangs. 

Ferrufino cited long pedestrian passages that make it easy for lookouts to tell other gang members that the authorities are coming.

"It's a fertile breeding ground for criminal networks to take over certain spaces and has contributed to the state losing control of large parts of the urban periphery," he said.

In one community in Honduras' Central District, an area controlled by the Barrio 18 gang, young men can't even cross into neighbouring areas for fear of attack by rivals, UNHCR officials said.

A group of local teachers in a closed-door conversation with reporters in late February said their school was recently raided by several men who destroyed a classroom and stored weapons on the premises.

Just as for Liliana, telling the police wasn't an option, the teachers said. They simply locked the room with the weapons in, sure that their owners would return for them.

"We can't say anything, we don't talk," one of them told reporters.

The teachers said that class sizes had fallen as gangs forced people out.

Tegucigalpa

Houses in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa pictured in May, 2014. PICTURE: Alba Sud Fotografia (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After years of legal challenges and civil society activism, El Salvador passed a law in January to recognise and protect victims of forced displacement and give them access to humanitarian assistance.

But Sonja Wolf, who is studying forced migration from Central America at Mexico's CIDE University, said more detail is needed on how the law would work. 

There is also scant information on how the government would address the underlying issues that drive forced migration, like insecurity and gang control of territory due to the physical absence of the state, she added. 

A similar law delivered to Honduras' National Congress in March, 2019, is yet to be approved. 

Until authorities can provide solutions, civil society groups and other organisations are stepping in to help internally displaced people and others at risk in El Salvador and Honduras.

In both countries there has been considerable investment in urban violence prevention in recent years, said Muggah of the Igarape Institute.

As examples, he pointed to agencies like the Inter-American Development Bank, the UN Development Programme, and the US Agency for International Development.

In Honduras, community-led efforts aim to address the violence in cities, such as the Warrior Zulu Nation group which runs dance and music workshops to try to get young people to reject gang culture.

And a network of more than 450 young men and women called Young People Against Violence works in the seven most affected cities trying to give young people alternatives to gangs.

Networks of ambassadors run workshops, including one that encourages kids to exchange toy guns for school supplies and another to teach parents and children how to better communicate with each other.

A 24-year-old leader in the group said in the past eight years they've reached some 50,000 young people, despite the challenges.

"It's not easy to get up every morning and tell young people 'Let's talk about peace, let's talk about prevention' when you have the world against you," the group leader said.

"We have a lot of people working in communities doing good things, but a bullet makes a good act invisible."