A Persistent Crisis in Central America

A Persistent Crisis in Central America
A man crosses a street blocked by a burning barricade during a protest to demand the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Oct. 24, 2019 (AP photo by Elmer Martinez).

Violence and corruption in Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle countries, is causing a wave of outward migration. Since taking office, the Biden administration has pledged to tackle the root causes of the problem, which the Trump administration’s restrictive measures and pressure on regional governments did nothing to address. Meanwhile, efforts at reform across the region 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 once again find themselves at the center of U.S. domestic politics, 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 Guatemala, Honduras and—until recently—El Salvador. The Northern Triangle countries have historically ranked 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.

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump instrumentalized migration for domestic political purposes, while also using threatened cuts in U.S. development aid to pressure governments in the region to do more to hamper the outflow and to take in migrants returned from the U.S. border. But his administration did little to help regional governments address the root causes of the crisis—graft and violence. His successor, President Joe Biden, pledged to return to a more conventional approach of using development aid and high-level support for anti-corruption efforts to address the region’s political, economic and security deficits. But in practice, his approach to the crisis on the southern U.S. border since taking office has represented more continuity than change. Now, the issue promises to be a central one driving the U.S. presidential election in November, even as the migration flows have begun to shift.

In places where it seemed that popular movements and a new generation of leaders might make a difference, like Guatemala and El Salvador, 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. Since taking office, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has raised fears of a return to authoritarianism by concentrating power in his own hands and politicizing the military. His ongoing crackdown on the country’s gangs, while undeniably reducing violence, is causing human rights abuses that have raised echoes of the country’s civil war. And his recent reelection, despite a clear constitutional prohibition on doing so, further eroded the country’s rule of law. Meanwhile, the surprise victory by Bernardo Arevalo in Guatemala’s recent presidential election has revived nearly extinguished hopes for the country’s anti-corruption efforts and—now that he has successfully taken office—its democracy.

WPR has covered the Central America crisis in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next there. Will popular anti-corruption movements survive the backlash against them by the region’s entrenched political interests? Will more countries in the region adopt Bukele’s “war on gangs” model? How effective will the Biden administration’s approach to the region be when it comes to addressing the factors driving outmigration? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Domestic Politics

A few years ago, the region seemed to be at a political crossroads, driven by citizens’ frustration with the seemingly perpetual corruption and violence. But entrenched elites in Guatemala and Honduras succeeded in dismantling independent commissions that had proven effective at uprooting corruption. Both countries once again have leaders determined to tackle corruption, but they face stiff resistance. Meanwhile, Bukele’s authoritarian slide has raised alarm over the health of El Salvador’s democracy.


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 and Honduras, the entrenched interests have fought back.


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 there is no exit strategy in sight from what has become Nicaragua’s “new normal” of repression, particularly following sham elections in 2021 that cemented Ortega’s grip on power.

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, though Bukele’s draconian approach is now winning acolytes across the region. Meanwhile, global efforts to reduce drug trafficking through aid programs are undermined by the demand for narcotics from the United States and Europe.

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 regional governments—and on Mexico, which is currently grappling with the influx of migrants and refugees. Biden promised to reverse Trump’s border policies and focus on helping regional partners address the root causes of migration. But political hurdles—in the U.S. among Trump supporters and in the Northern Triangle among the region’s entrenched elites—have resulted in more continuity than change.


Trump used 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.

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

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