go to top
A demonstrator in Panama City holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Stop the corrupted. A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Stop the corrupted” outside the National Assembly in Panama City, Panama, March 11, 2018 (AP photo by Arnulfo Franco).

A Persistent Crisis in Central America

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Violence and corruption in Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle countries, is causing a wave of outward migration. The Trump administration's response to the problem could make it worse. Meanwhile, reformist leaders in El Salvador and Panama face opposition from entrenched interests that benefit from the status quo. Explore WPR’s extensive coverage of the Central America crisis.

For years, Central America has contended with the violence and corruption stemming from organized crime and the drug trade. Now the countries of the region also find themselves in U.S. President Donald Trump’s line of fire, due to the many desperate Central Americans who make their way across Mexico to seek asylum at the United States’ southern border.

The steady stream of outward migration is driven by ongoing turmoil, particularly in Nicaragua and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The three Northern Triangle countries rank among the most violent in the world, a legacy of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, which destabilized security structures and flooded the region with guns. In that context, gangs—often brought back home by deportees from the U.S.—have proliferated, and along with them the drug trade and corruption, fueling increasing lawlessness. Popular unrest has done little to produce political solutions, leading many of the most vulnerable to flee.

The highly publicized and politically instrumentalized caravans of migrants have drawn Trump’s ire, resulting in threats to cut U.S. development aid to the region. Some experts predict this will only fuel more people to flee. Meanwhile, Washington’s influence is also being steadily eroded as administrations across Central America consider deepening their ties to China.

The presidential election in early 2019 of a 37-year-old populist in El Salvador and an anti-corruption crusader in Panama raised hopes that new efforts to address graft and violence were on the horizon. But entrenched interests have done their best to maintain the status quo, much as they have in the face of reformist efforts in other countries in the region. And El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, has more recently raised fears of a return to authoritarianism due to his politicization of the military.

WPR has covered the Central America crisis in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next there. Will Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, having succeeded in stamping out that country’s protest movement, lose support for his failure to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic? What impact will Trump’s efforts to return asylum-seekers to Northern Triangle countries have on the region? And what will become of the migrants that prompted the Trump administration’s backlash? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Crackdown Is Creating New Coronavirus Hotspots

The Trump administration has seized on the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to enact more of its anti-immigrant agenda, without regard to Congress or the courts. In addition to their cruel impacts on the lives of migrants and asylum-seekers, the administration’s policies are spreading infection.

World Politics Review

Special introductory, limited-time offer: 30 days full access for $1! Act now to take advantage of this special offer.

Get unlimited access to must-read news, analysis and opinion from top experts.

Subscribe to World Politics Review and you'll receive instant access to 10,000+ articles in the World Politics Review Library, along with new comprehensive analysis every weekday . . . written by leading topic experts.

Politics

The region may be at a political crossroads, driven by citizens frustrated with the seemingly perpetual corruption and violence. Panama and El Salvador handed the reins to politicians promising dramatic reforms. And the administrations in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are all facing challenges to their political legitimacy. That could either fuel transformation or provoke a political crackdown.

Security and Drugs

Violence tied to gangs and drug trafficking overshadows the region, but particularly the Northern Triangle countries. Government attempts to clamp down on crime through strict militarized policies have largely failed, while global efforts to reduce drug trafficking through aid programs are undermined by the demand for narcotics from the United States and Europe. Now even those programs are in jeopardy under the Trump administration.

Corruption

The region is plagued by corruption, often tied to the organized crime syndicates behind the drug trade. Persistent citizen protests and the airing of scandals seem to have little impact on systems that perpetuate graft. And in countries where anti-corruption campaigns scored major victories, like Guatemala, the entrenched interests have fought back.

World Politics Review

Special introductory, limited-time offer: 30 days full access for $1! Act now to take advantage of this special offer.

Get unlimited access to must-read news, analysis and opinion from top experts.

Subscribe to World Politics Review and you'll receive instant access to 10,000+ articles in the World Politics Review Library, along with new comprehensive analysis every weekday . . . written by leading topic experts.

Nicaragua

Nicaragua was brought to the brink of a civil war in 2018 over proposed economic reforms. After shelving the measures in a concession to protesters, President Daniel Ortega went on to violently repress the opposition, causing international alarm. Now, however, there is no exit strategy in sight from what has become Nicaragua’s “new normal” of repression.

Migrant Crisis and the Northern Triangle

In addition to rampant violence, the massive migration from the three Northern Triangle countries is driven by a lack of economic opportunities and the absence of rule of law. By setting increasingly difficult hurdles for Central Americans to enter the United States, though, Washington is increasing the pressure on its Mexican ally, which is currently grappling with the influx of migrants and refugees.

Trade

Trump is using trade as an unlikely weapon in his battle to stop Central American migrants from heading to the United States. But Central American leaders are busy exploring other options. Several countries have cut ties recently with Taiwan, sending a clear signal to Beijing that they are keen to open negotiation channels.

But this is just a fraction of what you’ll get in WPR’s searchable library of content, where you’ll find over 10,000 articles on topics such as international diplomacy, the global refugee crisis, global finance, economic trends, gender equality, water rights, and so much more!

And the World Politics Review library is searchable by author, region, and issue, so you can find specific topics quickly and easily!

An All-Access subscription to World Politics Review will allow you to:

  • Prepare your business, organization, or institution to stay ahead of the curve by better understanding critical global trends as they emerge and develop.
  • Be first to know how to act upon world events and emerging trends, with our uncompromising analysis and recommendations.
  • Save time following the most important international news and events by reading digested and curated content from the expert editors at World Politics Review.
  • Stay up to date on emerging events and trends so you can take advantage of opportunities for investment, and insulate your business from political pitfalls.
  • Speak confidently to anyone—whether at a work meeting or a cocktail party—about global events and trends, with a perspective that’s intelligent, informed, probing, analytical, and—frankly—quite impressive!

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of 10,000+ articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Daily links to must-read news, analysis, and opinion from top sources around the globe, curated by our keen-eyed team of editors.
  • Weekly in-depth reports, including features and country- and region-specific reports.
  • Smartphone- and tablet-friendly website.
  • PDF versions of all articles for easy offline reading, at your leisure.

And all of this is available to you —right now—with a subscription to World Politics Review.

That’s right: you’ll get immediate access to all of our uncompromising global-trend analysis that delivers actionable advice for policymakers, analysts, business strategists, academics, influencers, and thought leaders who have a deep interest in international affairs.

World Politics Review

Special introductory, limited-time offer: 30 days full access for $1! Act now to take advantage of this special offer.

Get unlimited access to must-read news, analysis and opinion from top experts.

Subscribe to World Politics Review and you'll receive instant access to 10,000+ articles in the World Politics Review Library, along with new comprehensive analysis every weekday . . . written by leading topic experts.

Why not join us right now? Thousands of others already have.

World Politics Review (WPR) is produced by a vast network of leading experts and influential observers on the ground; our substantive content gives you access to comprehensive and detailed perspectives that are as valuable as they are unique and rare.

Though strictly nonpartisan with regard to political-party affiliation or allegiance, WPR relies on a reality-based approach that recognizes the need for all the tools and instruments of statecraft—with a preference for diplomacy and multilateralism in support of a rules- and norms-based global order.

WPR’s mission is simple—we’re committed to integrity, quality, and the principles of an intellectually honest press whose exclusive purpose is to inform and educate its readers.

Why not join us today and benefit from all the valuable insights you can’t get anywhere else?

World Politics Review

Special introductory, limited-time offer: 30 days full access for $1! Act now to take advantage of this special offer.

Get unlimited access to must-read news, analysis and opinion from top experts.

Subscribe to World Politics Review and you'll receive instant access to 10,000+ articles in the World Politics Review Library, along with new comprehensive analysis every weekday . . . written by leading topic experts.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

Do you have thoughts on the Central America crisis? We would love to hear them. Scroll down to leave your comment.