15 September marks Independence Day in Mexico and most Central American nations.
It’s almost 200 years since Central American leaders accepted a plan, drafted by Mexican Agustín de Iturbide in 1821, that declared the six countries free from Spain.
Bells chime in the distance as children and families flood the streets.
A sinister presence
Flags hang from every door and shops bustle with jubilant revellers. But I notice the many police. It’s no strange thing: a police presence would be normal in any public celebration of this kind across the world.
Still, having just spent the past few weeks gathering research in four of the independent nations, the sight carries far darker significance, for me.
Violence has woven its way into the very fabric of everyday life in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. From taxi drivers and schoolchildren to my own Save the Children colleagues, there is not one person I have spoken to who has not been affected in some way by the terror infecting their society.
A complicated matter
Violence is a complicated matter across the region.
A recent ACAPS survey revealed that nearly 80% of small businesses pay extortion in Honduras, and the other countries are far from immune. ‘Everyone pays it…people who don’t are no longer living,’ I am told by Ana*, mother of two children who attend workshops at our Building Schools for Peace project in Guatemala.
Ana herself had to close her small tortilla stall after being unable to meet the demands of an anonymous group in her neighbourhood.
A buckling system
People speak of a buckling health system, close to collapse under the strain of the violence and the trauma cases that result.
An education system where teachers need to consider the repercussions for their own safety before intervening in playground fights.
There has been a 130% increase in asylum claims from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since 2009. UNICEF reports that homicide is the biggest killer of boys under 19 in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Carlos, who works for a partner organisation, tells me about Victor*, a teenager from Honduras who has already tried to flee to the US after his friend was killed and he was shot in the leg by a group in his neighbourhood. Victor lost his leg.
We try to meet him but we learn from ‘Coyote’, the smuggler at the other end of the phone, that Victor is making the dangerous trip again.
A terrible feeling of impotence
Like so many of the people I’ve spoken to, Carlos tells me how impotent he feels, how unable to make a difference to an ingrained problem that is causing his country so much harm.
As the fireworks light the sky, I can’t help but think of this sinister tie between these four independent states, unified by a crisis of violence that no policy has yet to tackle seriously – one that the rest of the world has failed to see.
*Names changed to protect identities