Chronicling the Reasons Central Americans Migrate to the United States


Fred Ramos’s photos of the forces compelling migrants to flee Central America are timeless. That’s not necessarily because of their composition, but rather because of their subject: the region’s longstanding political, social and environmental crises.

For the last five years, Mr. Ramos has been photographing the root causes of migration in a region where the wealthy and politically connected openly flout laws that protect the environment or forbid corruption. Violence is used as a political force — or just to settle scores — while gangs hold sway over entire neighborhoods. Police officers in San Salvador find themselves under fire — literally — or in cahoots with organized crime. In the meantime, Mr. Ramos said, climate change and a lack of proper planning and agricultural infrastructure has left agricultural workers, known as campesinos, at the mercy of devastating droughts.

While headlines focus on gangs and violence, Mr. Ramos — who works for the investigative site El Faro in El Salvador — knows that the reasons people are fleeing stretch far beyond any one cause.

“The migrant crisis in Central America is so complicated,” Mr. Ramos said. “People leave for one reason, or all the reasons at once. But the international media deals with it in a simple manner, but it’s not just simply because some gang wants to kill them.”

Traveling between Nicaragua and Guatemala over the years, Mr. Ramos has documented the human toll along the journey. Last October, he caught up with the migrant caravan in Guatemala City, and followed it into Mexico and north to Tijuana. He said the migrants who joined in the Guatemalan capital were fleeing a government in which corruption and impunity remain stubbornly entrenched.

Although the Guatemalan Congress proposed granting amnesty for war crimes committed during the country’s 36-year civil war, in which more than 200,000 people were killed, an international outcry resulted in a postponement of the vote. Earlier this year, the government tried to ban United Nations anti-corruption investigators from the country after they began looking into campaign contributions to President Jimmy Morales.

“People said last year there were political motivations to the migration,” Mr. Ramos said. “But why were there so many people?” He added that the migrants he saw were different from those of previous decades.

“There were a lot of women and children,” he said. “This was different from ‘regular’ migrants, who were usually single men.”

In Honduras, ongoing political upheaval over last year’s contested presidential election is only the latest challenge. On top of that, drought conditions over the years left farmers vulnerable, underscoring a lack of foresight on the part of the government. In the meantime, controversial mining concessions and other foreign concessions have had deleterious effects in the countryside.

In one area, not far from where Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist, was killed, Mr. Ramos explored the effects of a dam that cut off access to a necessary source of water.

“The campesinos lack education, climate change affects their harvest and they live in areas surrounded by gangs,” Mr. Ramos said. “That’s what I saw in the caravan.”

Mr. Ramos found that while Nicaragua was spared the kind of gang activity seen elsewhere in the region, its political stalemate has fueled migration north. President Daniel Ortega — the former Sandinista leader whose revolution ousted Anastasio Somoza Debayle — has faced increased calls for his resignation over accusations of corruption.

“Daniel Ortega has surpassed Somoza by a lot,” Mr. Ramos said. “Now he’s the worst dictator in Nicaraguan history.”

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