Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle
- More than two million people are estimated to have left El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since 2014, many fleeing poverty, violence, and other hardships.
- The region’s governments have tried various development-centric, tough-on-crime interventions with little success.
- U.S. administrations have sought to stem the Northern Triangle’s exodus by reducing economic insecurity, violence, and irregular migration.
A rise in migrants coming from a region of Central America known as the Northern Triangle—comprised of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—has cast a spotlight on a long-suffering part of the world. Governments in the region have made some efforts to mitigate the poverty, violence, and corruption that are driving citizens away, but the problems remain widespread.
Recent U.S. administrations have varied in their responses to the Northern Triangle challenge, which have included changes to foreign aid and immigration policies. So far, the Joe Biden administration has named senior U.S. officials to liaise with Northern Triangle governments, proposed a $4 billion plan to address migration’s root causes in Central America, and issued a series of executive orders regarding U.S. immigration and asylum procedures.
Who is leaving the Northern Triangle, and where are they going?
Migrants, including women and children, continue to flee the troubled region in large numbers. On average, an estimated 407,000 people [PDF] have left annually in recent years, though this number plummeted in 2020 due to border closures and restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But numbers have surged again as many Latin American governments lift border restrictions. Some migrants seek asylum or economic opportunities in other parts of Latin America or in Europe. However, most endure a treacherous journey north through Mexico to the United States. Hondurans account for the largest share of Northern Triangle migrants intercepted by U.S. border authorities, closely followed by Guatemalans and then Salvadorans.
Why have so many people fled the region?
Many interrelated factors are driving people from the Northern Triangle, including lack of economic opportunity, environmental challenges, and chronic violence.
The region is among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. In 2020, all three countries ranked near the bottom for gross domestic product (GDP) per capita among Latin American and Caribbean states. Inequality and indigence have grown amid the pandemic. In July 2021, the Honduran government estimated that more than 73 percent of the country’s population lived below the poverty line, with nearly 54 percent living in extreme poverty.
Environmental crises, including a destructive coffee rust and devastating back-to-back hurricanes in 2020, have fueled food insecurity and driven migration. Many households depend on remittances, or money sent home by relatives or friends living and working abroad. Though they dropped early in the pandemic, remittances to Latin America amounted to nearly $135 billion in 2021, a 24 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. Remittances to the Northern Triangle made up nearly a quarter of that. Historically, corruption and meager tax revenues [PDF], particularly in Guatemala, have crippled governments’ ability to provide social services.
Many of the region’s economic problems stem from deep-rooted violence. Decades of civil war and political instability [PDF] planted the seeds for the complex criminal ecosystem that plagues the region today, which includes transnational gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18). Critics say that U.S. interventions during the Cold War helped destabilize the region. Homicide rates in the Northern Triangle have been among the world’s highest in recent decades. In 2019, Honduras saw its first rise in murders in seven years, though all three countries recorded declines in 2020 due to pandemic-related restrictions.
Women in the region are also fleeing gender-based violence, which the pandemic has exacerbated. As of 2020, El Salvador and Honduras had some of Latin America’s highest rates of femicide [PDF], or gender-based murders of women and girls.
Looking ahead, experts say that population growth and climate change, which is linked to an increasing number of extreme weather events, could put further strain on Northern Triangle economies, pushing more people to migrate.
How have Northern Triangle governments attempted to address these problems?
Successive governments have tried various development-centric, tough-on-crime interventions to tackle the region’s enduring problems, but they have yielded limited gains.
Economic instability. The region’s most significant coordinated effort to reduce economic instability has been the U.S.-backed Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P). Aimed at addressing the drivers of irregular migration, A4P made commitments to increase production, strengthen institutions, expand opportunities, and improve public safety. But its outcomes are disputed and difficult to measure.
GDPs were rising across the Northern Triangle before the pandemic. However, monthslong COVID-19 restrictions paralyzed the vast informal sectors that keep regional economies afloat, fueling poverty and food insecurity. Northern Triangle countries borrowed heavily to roll out support programs, but institutional weaknesses impeded their delivery of aid and public services. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that they suffered economic contractions of between 1.5 percent and 8.6 percent in 2020.
Corruption. Endemic corruption has long been a drag on the region’s economies. In 2006, Guatemala and the United Nations agreed to create the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent investigatory body that helped convict more than four hundred people, including a sitting president, and contributed to a significant reduction in Guatemala’s homicide rate.
In 2019, El Salvador announced its own anticorruption panel, which was backed by the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional bloc. Critics said the body—called the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES)—had limited power, questionable independence, and opaque inner workings, but it did help uncover mismanagement in pandemic-related government spending. Honduras also established an anticorruption committee with the OAS, known as the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), and it fired 40 percent of its police as part of sweeping reforms beginning in 2016. However, security forces have continued to violate human rights [PDF] without consequence.
All three countries have backslid on their progress. After CICIG began investigating President Jimmy Morales, he allowed its mandate to expire in 2019, and Guatemalan judicial officials who promote the rule of law have faced retribution. The mandate for Honduras’s anticorruption body was likewise left to expire in 2020, months before the country eased penalties for drug trafficking and certain corruption. Graft allegedly exists at the highest levels of the Honduran government: in April 2022, the government extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernandez to the United States to face drug- and weapons-trafficking charges.
Despite launching CICIES, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his administration have similarly faced accusations of graft, and experts warn of rising authoritarianism under the highly popular leader. Since taking office in 2019, Bukele has threatened press freedom, stormed parliament with security forces, defied the Supreme Court, and consolidated power with the help of a ruling party–controlled legislature. In June 2021, his government announced the termination of its deal for CICIES with the OAS.
Violence. Beginning in the early 2000s, Northern Triangle governments implemented a series of controversial anti-crime policies that significantly expanded police powers and enacted harsher punishments for gang members.
Though popular [PDF], these policies in most cases failed to reduce crime and may have led to an increase in gang membership. Mass incarcerations increased the burden on already overcrowded prisons, many of which are effectively run by gangs. The U.S. State Department, human rights groups, and journalists have raised concerns about these policies, denouncing poor prison conditions and police violence against civilians.
In a change of tactic, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes brokered a truce in 2012 between the MS-13 and M-18 gangs, which experts credited with halving the country’s homicide rate. However, murders skyrocketed after the agreement fell apart in 2014, and the negotiations are faulted for giving the gangs political legitimacy. In 2016, a new tough-on-crime Salvadoran government designated gangs as “terrorist groups,” and authorities arrested officials and others who helped arrange the truce. In 2020, Bukele’s government was itself accused of negotiating with MS-13. Some experts suspect an undisclosed deal between authorities and gang members contributed to a plunge in homicides that year, though a sudden surge in killings in March 2022 renewed concerns over the Bukele administration’s controversial strategy.
COVID-19 restrictions helped temporarily reduce homicides across the Northern Triangle and briefly curtailed revenue for criminal groups. However, experts say these groups quickly adapted to the health crisis, seizing on new opportunities to expand their power.
Migration. Regional governments have sought not only to address migration’s drivers but also to physically halt migrants on the move. For example, Guatemalan authorities used force to break up a so-called caravan of migrants bound for the United States in January 2021. Guatemala’s northern neighbor, Mexico, has sporadically worked to prevent migrants from crossing its southern border, including by deploying thousands of National Guard members to bolster border enforcement.
What’s been the U.S. approach to the Northern Triangle?
Over the past twenty years, the United States has tried to help Northern Triangle countries manage irregular migration flows by fighting economic insecurity and violence. However, critics say U.S. policies have been largely reactive, prompted by upturns in migration to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Barack Obama administration. President Obama and Congress isolated the Central America portion of the Merida Initiative, a U.S. assistance program benefiting the region and Mexico, and rebranded it as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) [PDF]. Over the years, the U.S. government has budgeted more than $2 billion in aid through CARSI to help the region’s law enforcement, counternarcotics agencies, and justice systems. Midway through his second term, Obama recast the U.S. strategy [PDF] for Central America, forging what was intended to be a more holistic, interagency approach to complement A4P.
After a 2014 upswing in migration from the region, particularly by unaccompanied minors, the administration partnered with Northern Triangle governments on anti-smuggling operations and information campaigns intended to deter would-be migrants. It also cracked down on undocumented immigrants inside the United States. Court-mandated removals during Obama’s administration outpaced those under President George W. Bush, totaling about three million. After Mexico, the Northern Triangle countries accounted for the largest shares of Obama-era removals.
Donald Trump administration. Trump kept Obama’s framework for the region but prioritized stemming migration to the United States and ramping up border security. In 2018, the administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy [PDF] that sought to criminally prosecute all adults entering the United States illegally, which resulted in authorities controversially separating several thousand children from their parents. The administration also sparked criticism for deploying troops and diverting funds to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as for negotiating deals with Mexico and the Northern Triangle governments to send asylum seekers back to countries they traveled through en route to the United States. Of the Northern Triangle governments, only Guatemala’s began implementing the agreement, but it suspended the deal in 2020. Trump also sought to end temporary protected status, a program that allows migrants from crisis-stricken countries to live and work in the United States for a period of time, for Hondurans and Salvadorans.
In 2019, the Trump administration began withholding most aid to the Northern Triangle over the region’s failure to curb migration; it reportedly reinstated the assistance [PDF] by the following year. However, annual funding for the Obama-era Central America strategy—most of which has gone to Northern Triangle countries—dropped by almost one-third during Trump’s presidency.
Apprehensions of Northern Triangle migrants at the U.S. southern border plunged in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic after soaring in fiscal year 2019. In March 2020, border authorities began expelling most migrants under Title 42, a pandemic-related public health order. Critics say the Trump administration used this and other measures to unnecessarily restrict immigration. Additionally, some observers allege that Trump overlooked governance issues in the Northern Triangle. Weeks before Trump left office, Congress passed legislation championed by Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) that requires the United States to name and sanction corrupt or undemocratic officials in the region.
Joe Biden administration. The Biden administration has taken steps to roll back several Trump-era immigration policies related to the Northern Triangle. Notable among them are: canceling the asylum deals with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras; raising the refugee cap to 125,000; reserving temporary visas for workers from the Northern Triangle; and reinstating an Obama-era program, which Trump discontinued in 2017, that allows eligible children from the region to join their parents already living in the United States. It has also launched a $4 billion plan [PDF] for Central America that seeks to mitigate the root causes of migration.
At the same time, the administration has sought to discourage irregular migration through messaging campaigns; called on Central American and Mexican officials to disrupt migrant flows; and continued to expel migrants—with the exceptions of unaccompanied children and some families and adults—under Title 42. Additionally, the administration has tried to end the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols, but legal setbacks have stalled those efforts.
In March 2021, the Biden administration named Ricardo Zuniga as special envoy for the Northern Triangle and designated Vice President Kamala Harris to lead regional diplomacy aimed at curbing migration to the U.S. southern border. Harris’s involvement has so far focused on border enforcement, stimulating private-sector investment, and supporting civil society.
This 2021 report [PDF] from the Center for Strategic and International Studies lays out the Northern Triangle’s challenges and recommends priorities for Biden’s strategy toward the region.
The International Crisis Group discusses how organized criminal groups in the Northern Triangle and Mexico have adapted amid the pandemic.
The Congressional Research Service analyzes the root causes of Central American migration [PDF] and the Biden administration’s response.
This Backgrounder examines the debate over how to secure the southern U.S. border.
Former CFR Fellow Paul J. Angelo explains why Central American migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Will Merrow created the graphics for this Backgrounder. Danielle Renwick and Rocio Cara Labrador contributed to this report.