Migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras at the US southern border are fleeing a region overwhelmed by the consequences of chronic un-development, drug trafficking, corruption, and violence. It is a complex crisis in the nations of the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), propelled by both, domestic and external circumstances. While these conditions continue to be relegated and misunderstood, the crisis could be exacerbated as the Trump administration continues to pursue a counterproductive strategy of disengagement in the region.
President Trump recently decided to cut off a total of $450 million in aid in the Northern Triangle. This foreign policy decision is the continuation of a hostile approach that started with the failed Implementation of the “Zero Tolerance” policy. A series of measures aimed to act as a deterrent for asylum-seekers, that led to the systematic separation of children from their parents at the border.
Central America has endured the scourge of drug trafficking moving from South America, crossing Mexico into the US. Illegal drug routes are controlled by the rivals MS 13 and Barrio 18 gangs that have continued to gain power and influence in an environment of social unrest. Gangs have terrorized and kidnapped poverty-stricken communities in countries which institutions are incapable of delivering economic opportunities, security, and justice for their citizens.
In the last three years, El Salvador has experienced a significant drop in the homicide rate from 103 to 51 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. whether if the country manages to sustain the homicide rate drop, it remains along with Guatemala and Honduras three of the most violent countries around the globe.
Migrants traveling north and crossing Mexico into the U.S. have become victims of the same criminal organizations they are trying to escape. As a result of Mexico’s War on Drugs, the country’s main drug cartels are experiencing a fragmentation process into smaller criminal organizations. This transition is leading to a resurgence of violence and a proliferation of criminal activities. With more than 8,000 homicides in the first three months of 2019 Mexico is headed, given the trajectory, towards one of its most violent years.
In 2014, the sudden arrival of unaccompanied children at the U.S. border mainly from the Northern Triangle triggered an immigration crisis. These developments compelled the Obama administration to launch the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America, a broader strategy centered on aid and cooperation to address the region’s complex reality.
Congress funding in aid for Central America rose from $338 million in 2014 to $750 million in 2016. This strategy strengthened cooperation between governments. It provided resources to The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to work towards a more proactive role in developing projects that focus on creating opportunities in a wide range of topics from violence prevention, economic distress, and poverty relief.
Cutting aid puts a halt to the different USAID projects that have aided in the fight against poverty and inequality in countries such as Honduras, which more than 60% of its population continues to live under the line of poverty. Under the Inter-American Development Bank leadership, the U.S. Obama Strategy led to the design of the Plan of the Alliance for the Prosperity in the NTCA. An ongoing international pact that aims to build and sustain cooperation centered around the geographical and historical ties to create intra-regional economic growth, security, and social development.
Moving forward, the current administration shouldn’t focus on the dismantling of American influence in the region but ensuring resources are directed into promoting democratic values and sustainable reforms. This is a challenge in countries where corruption and impunity have historically and continue to deplete national legitimacy, undermining efforts to build up and sustain functional states.
The UN-backed and internationally supported, International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala or CICG, for its initials in Spanish, has proven to be a successful attempt to fight crime in government, in a nation that according to the Fragile States Index, ranks after Haiti and Venezuela as the most fragile State of the Americas.
The Commission holds a remarkable record investigating and aiding in the prosecution of crimes, ranging in a variety of cases from narcotrafficking to government senior official, including “La Linea” case that led to the resignation of former President Perez Molina. The International body has impartially carried on investigations into corrupt political and economic elites and current investigation on incumbent President Morales has led to an ongoing confrontation. Under these circumstances, its permanence on Guatemala has become a key subject in the coming presidential elections in June.
Instability in Central America could be aggravated as neighboring Nicaragua’s crisis continues to unfold. The regime is accused of attacks on democracy and human rights. The crisis now one-year-old, caused more than 300 deaths in 2018 and its effects have already been felt in the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s GDP will drop 5% for the present year, following a 4% drop in 2018.
Historically, The U.S. has been the most important economic partner of Central America. After the cold war, American trade policy promoting open markets enabled the creation of The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Signed in 2005, and incorporating not only Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala but also Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic, the agreement has been an attempt to create stronger economic ties within the region, opening markets that would lead to the improving economic conditions of the general population.
The Northern Triangle has continually remained not only depended on trade with the U.S. but on workers sending money to their families as well. By 2017, remittances accounted for 20% of the total national production or GDP in El Salvador, 19% in Honduras and 11% in Guatemala. In an environment of inefficient corrupt governments, international support is vitally needed to keep leaders accountable.
The International role in Guatemala is proving that an institution such as the CICIG Commission is an opportunity, empowered by legitimacy, to tackle structural corruption and impunity. These efforts should continue to be channel towards ensuring the establishment of the rule of law and pressuring political and economic elites into delivering public institutions with the national support and resources to prevent citizens from leaving their homelands.
Regardless of U.S. troubling history of intervention and proxy wars in the 20th century, this is an opportunity for leadership with a pragmatic approach. A comprehensive long-term strategy must be based on continuous engagement in the ground, providing direct economic relief to communities that are most vulnerable. And, internationally, continuing supporting efforts to sustain democratic reforms and transparency. Without social peace, there cannot be sustainable economic and social development.