How Guatemala’s Increase in Youth Assassins Relates to Migration

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Homicide cases involving minors in Guatemala have risen significantly in 2014, another indication of the high level of violence in the Northern Triangle region that is fueling the migration of unaccompanied children to the United States in record numbers.

According to the Judicial Organism of Guatemala, 36 minors were arrested for homicide during the first three months of 2014, representing a 620 percent increase over the same period last year when only 5 minors were arrested for the same crime. In the last 30 days alone, at least 10 minors have been arrested for murder, reported EFE.

The overall number of criminal cases against minors has risen as well, with 588 minors facing criminal charges between January and March 2014, a 26 percent increase from the same period last year.

According to the Secretary for Social Wellbeing (SBC), homicide ranks as the second most common crime among youth, with 15 percent of incarcerated minors serving time for murder, compared to 18.3 percent for extortion and 14 percent for rape. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The six-fold increase in youth assassins in Guatemala comes amidst an historic migration of unaccompanied youths from the Northern Triangle region — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras — to the United States. Some research has indicated this exodus is largely due to child migrants fleeing gang violence in their home countries. Many children are faced with the difficult choice of migrating north to the United States or staying home and risking being recruited into local gangs.

This data seems to back up that claim. The most recent figures illustrate the extent to which criminal groups seem to be targeting more and ever younger recruits, and employing them in increasingly dangerous jobs. Throughout the region, criminal groups recruit children and adolescents, who are often seen as a source of cheap and expendable manpower. But going from inductee to trusted assassin can take time, which means these recruits are getting younger and that there are probably more of them (InSight Crime also has anecdotal evidence of this). 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

Guatemala is not alone in facing down this issue. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas offer children food and education in exchange for joining the group, while in Mexico children are often used as hitmen by drug cartels. In Honduras, the powerful street gangs MS13 and Barrio 18 have reportedly recruited children as young as six.

One reason commonly cited for the high level of youth involvement in criminal groups is the relatively lax punishment facing minors who perpetrate crimes. In Guatemala, the maximum prison sentence a child can currently serve for homicide is six years, whereas an adult can spend up to 25 years behind bars for the same crime. 

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