Why Invest in Central American Communities?


Imagine you get a phone call from a mysterious number. When you answer the phone, the voice on the other end demands $7,000— if you don’t pay up, the voice threatens to kill someone in your family.

That’s what happened to a young Guatemalan woman named Andrea*. Cristosal first connected with Andrea two years after she received this fateful phone call. She shared her story with Cristosal as part of a regional research project examining the experiences of returned Central American migrants with protection needs (see the whole report here).

A few months before the phone call, Andrea started a business in her community with the financial help of a sister who lived in the United States. This was enough to make extortionists think Andrea had the money, or the ability to get it.

As Andrea knew all too well, threats like theirs aren’t empty in Central America, nor are they uncommon.

“They told me they would give me an hour to get it . . . I hung up and broke into a panic right there,” remembers Andrea.

The first three installments of the One Program at a Time blog series will focus on one of our core programs: Community Development. This program reintegrates people who have been forcibly displaced by violence into appropriate communities, and it also works to mitigate the deepest roots of forced displacement by building environments in which all people can exercise their human rights.

Although it’s not a crisis that takes center stage in the headlines, the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has one of the highest rates of forced displacement in the world (IDMC, 2017). This displacement is driven by violence, which in turn is driven by social, political, and economic underdevelopment. The underdevelopment has roots in centuries of unequally distributed land and power, and the accompanying exclusion of millions from basic human rights such as access to owning property, equal protection under the law, and security.

Today, extortion, attempted murder, the murder of a family member, and other acts of violence are forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes every year in Central America’s Northern Triangle. Relative to population, some experts estimate that the rate of displacement in El Salvador is second only to Syria (GRID, 2017).

According to data collected from cases Cristosal has addressed this year, 77% of the violence initiating displacement was perpetrated by gangs, while a smaller but significant 14% was caused by state police and military forces**. Victims of violence are caught in an impossible situation: targeted by powerful and invasive gangs, yet wary of reporting their cases to governments that show little desire or ability to help them.

Environments like this makes it impossible for people like Andrea to claim essential human rights. When she was targeted, Andrea was already disadvantaged: she had grown up in poverty, and she was part of a structural system that was disinclined or unable to recognize her in her full humanity. To compound her plight, when she was directly threatened with violence, she didn't have access to a justice system that would hold her aggressors accountable. As there are no government programs available in Guatemala to assist victims of violence, the state failed in its duty to protect her in this crucial moment.

Our approach to community development addresses both a victim’s immediate need to be integrated into a safe community, and the long-term structural need for the creation of environments that honor human rights. Focusing only on assisting an individual in peril would be inadequate. The lasting solutions we seek must consider a larger context: the environments in which individuals are expected to develop and thrive.


Andrea did choose to go to the police and report the mystery caller. The police simply advised her to turn her phone off. They made no efforts to apprehend the caller, or provide Andrea with any long-term support. When the extortionists started calling her mother as well, Andrea and her mother hurriedly relocated to Guatemala City.

This was not a suitable place for them to live long-term. After a few months, Andrea’s mother moved back to their village. Andrea, still afraid for her life, decided to try moving to the United States. She reported to an immigration office immediately upon crossing the border, with the intent to request asylum. Despite the fact that Andrea brought proof of the extortion, including recordings of phone calls, her request was denied. She was deported.

Andrea now lives in Guatemala City. Although she was able to use her family and social connections to find a job in the city, she cannot return to her home community or reconstruct the life she had before the phone calls. She must live with fear every day.

“Right now, the challenge I’m facing is getting rid of that fear… It’s already been over a year since I was there (the village). I even told my mom just as I landed that I wanted to go back there, but she told me not to . . . I have not been there in a year and two months.”


Andrea didn’t want to abandon her home, family, language, and culture. She saw moving to the United States as her only option for long-term safety. Like Andrea, many victims of violence attempt to move to one or several places in-country before resorting to crossing international borders.

People like Andrea are suffering the consequences of centuries of human rights denials and abuses in Central America. They live in a culture where people have never been treated as subjects of rights. Cristosal’s Community Development Program works for change by empowering citizens and communities to claim their rights and create spaces defined by democratic participation and accountability. Check back next week to learn more.

This weekend, our community development team is heading to Andrea’s home country of Guatemala. We will work to identify and strengthen communities where other displaced Guatemalans can safely relocate. By working with communities to foster human rights environments, our community development program helps build places and cultures from which there is no need to flee.

Support our community development work at www.cristosal.org/give


*Name has been changed for protection

**These statistics represent only cases addressed by Cristosal in 2017. While this is not a representative sample, it demonstrates the existence of the two-pronged problem. 

Find out more about Andrea’s story: CMS (Center for Migration Studies) and Cristosal, June 2017. Point of no return: The fear and criminalization of Central American refugees. (pp 21-25). New York and San Salvador: CMS and Cristosal. www.cristosal.org/publications

IDMC, 2017. Database. http://www.internal-displacement.org/database/

Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID), 2017. El Salvador: Invisible displacement by criminal and gang violence. (p 22). http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2017-GRID.pdf

Hannah Rose Nelson