Editorial World Politics Review, 21.11.2022
Violence and corruption in Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle countries, is causing a wave of outward migration. Since taking office, the Biden administration has pledged to tackle the root causes of the problem, which the Trump administration’s restrictive measures and pressure on regional governments did nothing to address. Meanwhile, efforts at reform across the region face opposition from entrenched interests that benefit from the status quo.
For years, Central America has contended with the violence and corruption stemming from organized crime and the drug trade. More recently, the countries of the region also found themselves in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s line of fire, due to the many desperate Central Americans who make their way across Mexico to seek asylum at the United States’ southern border.
The steady stream of outward migration is driven by ongoing turmoil, particularly in Nicaragua and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The three Northern Triangle countries rank among the most violent in the world, a legacy of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, which destabilized security structures and flooded the region with guns. In that context, gangs—often brought back home by deportees from the U.S.—have proliferated, and along with them the drug trade and corruption, fueling increasing lawlessness. Popular unrest has done little to produce political solutions, leading many of the most vulnerable to flee.
Trump instrumentalized migration for domestic political purposes, while also using threatened cuts in U.S. development aid to pressure governments in the region to do more to hamper the outflow and to take in migrants returned from the U.S. border. But his administration did little to help regional governments address the root causes of the crisis—graft and violence. His successor, President Joe Biden, pledged to return to a more conventional approach of using development aid and high-level support for anti-corruption efforts to address the region’s political, economic and security deficits. But the situation on the southern U.S. border since Biden took office confirms that the issue will remain no less of a challenge for his administration, even as the migration flows have begun to shift.
In places where it seemed that popular movements and a new generation of leaders might make a difference, like Guatemala and El Salvador, entrenched interests have done their best to maintain the status quo, much as they have in the face of reformist efforts in other countries in the region. And El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, has more recently raised fears of a return to authoritarianism by concentrating power in his own hands and politicizing the military.