A Persistent Crisis in Central America

A protester holds a sign that reads, in Spanish, “Hooray for those who fight,” during a demonstration 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. More recently, the countries of the region also found themselves in former 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.

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 the situation on the southern U.S. border since Biden took office confirms that the issue will remain no less of a challenge for his administration, 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. And El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, has more recently raised fears of a return to authoritarianism by concentrating power in his own hands and politicizing the military.

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? What effect will the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic have on the factors driving outmigration? How effective will the Biden administration’s approach to the region be? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

U.S. Border Policy Must Adapt to the Region’s New Migration Patterns

Between October 2021 and August 2022, U.S. authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border took undocumented migrants into custody more than 2 million times—a record number that has generated nonstop commentary about a “border crisis.” But the numbers fail to convey a dramatic shift in the migrant population over the past nine years.

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 there is no exit strategy in sight from what has become Nicaragua’s “new normal” of repression, particularly following the recent sham elections 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, while global efforts to reduce drug trafficking through aid programs are undermined by the demand for narcotics from the United States and Europe.

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, while elsewhere, leaders promising reform have failed to deliver. Meanwhile, Bukele’s authoritarian slide has raised alarm over the health of El Salvador’s democracy.

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 and Honduras, the entrenched interests have fought back.

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 its Mexican ally, which is currently grappling with the influx of migrants and refugees. Biden has promised to reverse Trump’s border policies and focus on helping regional partners address the root causes of migration, but both initiatives face political hurdles—in the U.S. among Trump supporters and in the Northern Triangle among the region’s entrenched elites, respectively.

Trade

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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