Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle
Backgrounder

Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle

The United States continues to seek strategies for responding to the growing number of migrants fleeing poverty, violence, and other challenges in the Central American region.
The casket of a migrant teenager who suffocated in a truck in Texas is buried in Guatemala.
The casket of a migrant teenager who suffocated in a truck in Texas is buried in Guatemala. Carlos Alonzo/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • Millions of people have left the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in recent years, with many fleeing poverty, violence, and other hardships.
  • The region’s governments have long tried various development-centric, tough-on-crime interventions with little success. Rights groups have criticized some recent efforts to curb growing violence.
  • Successive U.S. administrations have sought to stem the Northern Triangle’s exodus by reducing economic insecurity, violence, and irregular migration, but the root causes persist.

Introduction

An ongoing rise in the number of migrants coming from Central America’s so-called 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.

More From Our Experts

Recent U.S. administrations have varied in their responses to the Northern Triangle challenge, which have included changes to foreign aid and U.S. immigration policies. So far, the Joe Biden administration has proposed a $4 billion plan to address the root causes of migration from Central America, worked to stimulate private-sector investment in the region, and extended temporary legal protections for certain migrant groups.

Who is leaving the Northern Triangle?

More on:

Latin America

El Salvador

Honduras

Guatemala

Immigration and Migration

Migrants continue to flee the region in large numbers: more than two million people [PDF] have left since 2019, corresponding with a spike in the number of families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border. Although migration plummeted in 2020 due to border closures and restrictions implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic, numbers have surged again as many Latin American governments have eased restrictions. In fiscal year 2022 (FY2022), U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered more than 541,000 people from Northern Triangle countries at the southern U.S. border, nearly a quarter of all encounters.

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. Guatemalans currently account for the largest share of Northern Triangle migrants intercepted by U.S. border authorities, followed by Hondurans and Salvadorans.

Why are so many people fleeing the region?

Many interrelated factors drive people from the Northern Triangle, including lack of economic opportunity, environmental challenges, and chronic violence.

More From Our Experts

The region is among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. In 2021, all three countries ranked near the bottom for gross domestic product (GDP) per capita among Latin American and Caribbean states. Inequality and indigence only grew amid the early years of the pandemic, which saw all three countries experience steep economic declines. According to the World Food Program, more than six million people in the region were food insecure as of 2021, and more than 43 percent of households indicated a desire to emigrate permanently, compared to 8 percent just two years prior. 

Environmental crises, including a destructive coffee rust and devastating back-to-back hurricanes in 2020, have fueled food insecurity and driven migration. A 2018 projection by the World Bank Group estimated that, in the worst-case scenario, up to four million climate refugees could flee Central America in the next three decades. 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 $150 billion in 2022, a 14 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 hindered governments’ ability to provide social services.

More on:

Latin America

El Salvador

Honduras

Guatemala

Immigration and Migration

Many of the region’s economic problems stem from deep-rooted violence. Decades of civil war and political instability 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 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18). Critics say that U.S. interventions during the Cold War helped further destabilize the region. Homicide rates in the Northern Triangle have been among the world’s highest in recent decades, though recent anti-gang crackdowns in El Salvador and Honduras have helped to reduce the murder rate in both countries.

Women in the region are also fleeing gender-based violence, which grew more prevalent amid the pandemic. As of 2021, El Salvador and Honduras had some of Latin America’s highest rates of femicide, 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 was the U.S.-backed Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P) launched in 2014. 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.

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 continue to violate human rights [PDF].

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 are facing retribution. Additional backsliding under Alejandro Giammattei, Morales’s successor, has prompted sanctions from Washington.

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 has seemingly reached the highest levels of the Honduran government: in April 2022, the government extradited former President Juan Orlando Hernández to the United States on drug- and weapons-trafficking charges; he now faces life in prison. Meanwhile, negotiations are underway to create the International Commission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (CICIH) at the request of President Xiomara Castro, who took office in 2022 promising to fight systemic corruption.

Despite launching CICIES, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his administration have similarly faced accusations of graft, and experts warn of rising authoritarianism under the popular leader. Since taking office in 2019, Bukele has threatened press freedom and civil society groups, used the military to pressure Congress, 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, mano dura (iron fist) policies in most cases failed to reduce crime and some experts say likely increased 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.

By 2015, El Salvador was the deadliest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 105 homicides per 100,000 people. But since then, Bukele has gained international notoriety for a heavy-handed crackdown on gangs, despite reports that his administration initially secretly negotiated with them. In March 2022, he declared a state of emergency, still ongoing, that has suspended some constitutional rights, including freedom of assembly and the right to legal counsel, and weakened oversight of public spending. At least 67,000 suspected gang members have been arrested so far.

Castro took a similarly strong-armed approach when she declared a partial state of emergency in Honduras in December 2022, suspending some constitutional rights. It has since been renewed several times and expanded, though experts have expressed doubt that the measure will effectively address the root causes of gang violence.

In the early years of the pandemic, public health 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. The recent crackdown in El Salvador has reportedly contributed to a rise in criminal activity in southern Mexico as gang members head north.

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. Still, increasing numbers of U.S.-bound migrants continue to strain Mexican government resources [PDF].

How has U.S. policy addressed 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.

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 Mérida 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 billions of dollars in aid through CARSI to help bolster the region’s law enforcement, counternarcotics agencies, and justice systems. (Between FY2017 and FY2022, the United States sent more than $1.8 billion in aid [PDF] through CARSI.) 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 “safe third country” 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 began implementing the agreement, but it terminated the deal in 2021. 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 southern U.S. border plunged in the early months of the pandemic after soaring in FY2019. 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 (then 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 annual 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 sought to mitigate the root causes of migration from Central America, pledging $4 billion to countries in the region, though analysts say the four-year initiative has made little progress [PDF].

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 up until the policy expired in May 2023. Additionally, the administration has tried to end the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols, but legal setbacks continue to stall those efforts.

In March 2021, the Biden administration named Ricardo Zúniga as special envoy for the Northern Triangle and designated Vice President Kamala Harris to lead regional diplomacy aimed at curbing migration to the southern U.S. border. Harris’s involvement has so far focused on border enforcement, stimulating private-sector investment, and supporting civil society. That June, the administration also announced the creation of Joint Task Force Alpha, a law enforcement task force aimed at combating human trafficking and smuggling via partnerships with Mexico and Northern Triangle countries.

As irregular migration to the United States increases, the Biden administration is building upon pledges made at the 2022 Summit of the Americas, including by requesting more than $945 million [PDF] in foreign aid to implement the root causes strategy in Central America for FY2024 and announcing plans to open regional processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala, where migrants can apply for legal entry into the United States. In June 2023, the Biden administration also extended the temporary legal status of more than three hundred thousand immigrants, most of which are from El Salvador and Honduras.

Recommended Resources

This 2022 report [PDF] from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation lays out how the organization has sought to promote economic growth and development in the region.

Former CFR Fellow Paul Angelo details what climate change means for Central American economies, food security, and migration.

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.

Experts discuss the converging risks of climate, insecurity, and migration at this 2023 event at the Wilson Center.

The United States Institute of Peace’s Mary Speck argues that El Salvador’s government needs to invest in long-standing solutions to gang violence.

Joseph Wehmeyer, Danielle Renwick, and Rocio Cara Labrador contributed to this report. Will Merrow created the graphics.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
Close

Top Stories on CFR

Russia

The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.

LGBTQ+

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: The United States may come to rue its failure to get its fiscal house in order.