Top Conflicts to Watch in 2020: Worsening Conditions in the Northern Triangle
In this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey, foreign policy experts ranked deteriorating economic and security conditions in the Northern Triangle, resulting in increased migration outflows from the region, as a top conflict to watch in 2020. A wave of political instability, a security crisis, and an unprecedented exodus of migrants have alerted U.S. policymakers and citizens alike to the enduring drama of the countries of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The 2015 resignation and subsequent arrest of the Guatemalan president on corruption charges and a 2017 presidential contest fraught with irregularities in Honduras have tested the region’s fledgling democratic institutions. Despite a considerable reduction in homicides from peaks in 2014 and 2015, El Salvador continues to have the world’s highest homicide rate, while Guatemala and Honduras remain among the top ten deadliest countries. Transnational criminal organizations, violent street gangs, and crooked elites have all conspired—sometimes literally—to corrode the institutions charged with administering the rule of law in the region.
The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented period of international cooperation aimed at helping the Northern Triangle reduce impunity, resulting in judicial proceedings against former presidents in all three countries; however, this progress has largely come to an end. Elite backlash against the investigators and prosecutors responsible for putting away venal officials spelled the demise of the celebrated UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), further undermining popular confidence in local institutions. Meanwhile, climate change has fueled concerns about food security—especially in countries that are already among the most impoverished in the hemisphere and the principal sources of irregular migration to the United States. Murder and other crime rates in the Northern Triangle continue to soar, while flat economic growth has compounded the livelihoods of those most vulnerable to violence. With few prospects for a safe and gainful life at home, many Central Americans will continue to seek refuge beyond their national borders.
U.S. policies toward the region have increased the likelihood of a prolonged crisis in the Northern Triangle. In a stark turn away from the Barack Obama administration’s strategy, which sought to address the root causes of migration, the Donald J. Trump administration announced the revocation of aid to the governments of the Northern Triangle in March 2019 for their purported failure to stem migration. Some of that aid has been reinstated, but the punitive measure stunted initial progress on preventing crime and violence. Although apprehensions of undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have decreased following a surge in migrant detentions by Mexico last summer, it is unlikely that the countries of the Northern Triangle, along with Mexico—a country that experienced zero percent GDP growth in 2019—will be able to keep hundreds of thousands of global migrants from seeking access to, and opportunity in, the United States. If economic and political conditions worsen and U.S. assistance remains absent, it is conceivable that in the near future the U.S. government will be contending with yet another Central American migrant crisis on its southern border.
About the Preventive Priorities Survey
Since 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action (CPA) has conducted an annual survey of foreign policy experts for their collective assessments on contingencies that represent the greatest risk to U.S. interests. This year, CPA began soliciting contingencies in October 2019, narrowing down a list of possible conflicts from nearly one thousand suggestions to thirty contingencies deemed likely and potentially harmful to U.S. interests. In early November, CPA sent the survey to nearly six thousand experts and received about five hundred responses. The survey results were scored according to their rankings and the contingencies were sorted into one of three preventive priority tiers (I, II, III) according to their placement on CPA’s risk assessment matrix.
The results reflect the expert opinion of respondents at that time. As such, it should be viewed as a snapshot assessment. Recognizing this, CPA tracks ongoing conflicts with the Global Conflict Tracker.
View the full results of the Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2020.