Crisis In the Northern Triangle

Anusha Rao

A wave of migrants coming from a region of Central America, known as the Northern Triangle, has showcased how the culmination of poverty, violence, and instability in the area is forcing residents away. The Northern Triangle, comprising three countries- El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, have suffered from these chronic issues and despite attempts by their respective governments to mitigate them, these problems still persist. 

Why are people fleeing the region? 

Migrants have continued to leave the Northern Triangle in large numbers, although the number has significantly decreased  since the start of the coronavirus pandemic amid restrictions and border closures. The people leaving the region make the dangerous and treacherous journey out of desperation, seeking asylum and a more prosperous life. While there are many compounding factors that are driving people to leave their own countries, the major drivers are a lack of economic opportunity, chronic violence, and climate change. 

The region is considered one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Three years ago, all three countries ranked at the bottom for gross domestic product per capita among Latin American states. In 2020, according to the World Bank, nearly 21 percent of the countries’ economic output was attributed to remittances, money sent home by family members or friends living abroad. The lack of economic opportunity has forced residents to pursue livelihoods elsewhere, contributing to the mass of migrants leaving the countries.  

Many of these problems come from the decades of violence, war, and instability rooted in the region’s history. The region is plagued by complex, structured criminal organizations, including gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18). The prevalence of violence has caused the murder rates to be among the world’s highest in recent decades. Despite the fact that the COVID-19 restrictions eased crime rates across the Northern Triangle, experts have argued that this is surely temporary and that violent groups will seize this opportunity in order to expand their power. 

On top of this, the ongoing challenges that arise from climate change have heavily impacted the economic opportunities that exist for Northern Triangle residents. Devastating hurricanes and an outbreak of coffee rust have heavily impacted the countries’ economies, further adding to the issues of poverty and food insecurity. 

How have the region’s governments attempted to solve these issues? 

The region has implemented various interventions to tackle the region’s enduring problems, but they all have made limited progress. The most significant coordinated effort to reduce economic instability has been the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P). The plan was designed to address the drivers of excessive migration and made commitments to strengthen institutions, expand opportunities, and increase production. The extent of A4P’s impact has been disputed and has proven difficult to measure.

Despite the fact that GDPs were improving across the region prior to the pandemic, the months-long COVID-19 restrictions crushed the industries that were fueling regional economies. In order to roll out support programs, Northern Triangle countries borrowed large sums but a lack of institutional structure crippled their delivery of aid and public services. It was estimated by the International Monetary Fund that in 2020, they suffered economic contractions between 1.5 percent and 8.6 percent. 

In order to curb the extreme violence plaguing the region, Northern Triangle governments deployed a series of anti-crime policies that significantly expanded police powers and enacted harsher punishments for gang members in the early 2000s. Despite support from the public, these policies mostly failed to reduce crime. The resultant mass incarcerations increased the burden on already at-capacity prisons, which exacerbated the issue since many jails are controlled by gangs as well. 

Regional governments have also attempted to physically stop migrants on the move. In January 2021, Guatemalan authorities employed force and broke up a group of migrants that were headed for the American border. 

Anusha Rao is a sophomore majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University. She is originally from Washington D.C. and is part of the editorial team for the Hopkins Podcast on Foreign Affairs. 

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