Why the crisis in Central America is so persistent

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Violence and corruption in Central America, especially in the countries of the Northern Triangle, are causing a wave of emigration. The Trump administration’s restrictive measures and pressure on regional governments have done nothing to address the root causes of the problem, which the Biden administration has now pledged to address. Meanwhile, reform efforts across the region are facing opposition from entrenched interests that benefit from the status quo. Explore WPR’s extensive coverage of the crisis in Central America.

For years, Central America has faced violence and corruption stemming from organized crime and drug trafficking. More recently, countries in the region have also found themselves in the crosshairs of former US President Donald Trump, due to the many desperate Central Americans crossing into Mexico to seek asylum at the US southern border.

The steady flow of outward migration is driven by ongoing unrest, particularly in Nicaragua and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The three countries of the Northern Triangle rank among the most violent in the world, a legacy of civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, which destabilized security structures and flooded the region with gunfire. Against this backdrop, gangs – often brought home by deportees from the United States – proliferated, and with them drug trafficking and corruption, fueling growing lawlessness. Popular unrest did little to produce political solutions, driving many of the most vulnerable to flee.

Trump has instrumentalized migration for domestic political ends, while using threats of US development aid cuts to pressure governments in the region to do more to stem the outflow and welcome migrants income from the American border. But his administration has done little to help regional governments address the root causes of the crisis: corruption and violence. His successor, President Joe Biden, has pledged to return to a more conventional approach of using development aid and high-level support for anti-corruption efforts to address the political, economic and security deficits of the region. But the situation on the US southern border since Biden took office suggests the issue will remain just as difficult for his administration.

In places where it looked like grassroots movements and a new generation of leaders could make a difference, like Guatemala and El Salvador, entrenched interests did their best to maintain the status quo, just as they did in the face of reform efforts in other countries. In the region. And the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has more recently raised fears of a return to authoritarianism by concentrating power in his hands and politicizing the army.

WPR has covered the crisis in Central America in detail and continues to examine key questions about what happens next there. Will grassroots anti-corruption movements survive the backlash of entrenched political interests in the region? What effect will the coronavirus pandemic have on the factors driving emigration? How effective will the Biden administration’s approach be in the region? Below are some highlights from WPR’s coverage.

Our most recent coverage

As cryptocurrency investors nervously watched the value of their assets drop, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, one of Bitcoin’s biggest boosters, announced this week that it was doubling. But Bukele’s decision to make Bitcoin El Salvador legal tender seems as reckless as global financial institutions had warned.


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Policy

A few years ago, the region seemed to be at a political crossroads, driven by citizen frustration with seemingly perpetual corruption and violence. But entrenched elites in Guatemala and Honduras managed to dismantle independent commissions that had proven effective in rooting out corruption, while elsewhere leaders promising reform failed to deliver. Meanwhile, Bukele’s authoritarian slide has sounded the alarm over the health of Salvadoran democracy.

Corruption

The region is plagued by corruption, often linked to the organized crime syndicates behind drug trafficking. Persistent citizen protests and the spreading of scandals seem to have little impact on the systems that perpetuate corruption. And in countries where anti-corruption campaigns have won major victories, such as Guatemala and Honduras, entrenched interests have fought back.

Nicaragua

Nicaragua was brought to the brink of civil war in 2018 over proposed economic reforms. After suspending the measures in a concession to protesters, President Daniel Ortega then violently suppressed the opposition, sparking international alarm. Now, there is no exit strategy in sight from what has become the “new normal” of repression in Nicaragua, especially after the recent rigged elections that cemented Ortega’s grip on power.


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Migrant crisis and the Northern Triangle

In addition to endemic violence, mass migration from the three Northern Triangle countries is driven by a lack of economic opportunities and the absence of rule of law. However, by imposing increasingly difficult obstacles to the entry of Central Americans into the United States, Washington is increasing the pressure on regional governments and its Mexican ally, which is currently struggling with the influx of migrants and refugees. Biden has vowed to reverse Trump’s border policies and focus on helping regional partners tackle the root causes of migration, but both initiatives face political hurdles – with the United States among the Trump supporters and in the Northern Triangle among entrenched elites in the region, respectively.

Security and Drugs

Violence linked to gangs and drug trafficking casts a shadow on the region, but particularly on the countries of the Northern Triangle. Government attempts to crack down on crime through tough militarized policies have largely failed, while global efforts to reduce drug trafficking through aid programs are undermined by demand for narcotics from the United States and from Europe.

Swap

Trump has used trade as an unlikely weapon in his battle to keep Central American migrants from reaching the United States. But Central American leaders are busy exploring other options. Several countries have recently severed ties with Taiwan, sending a clear signal to Beijing that they want to open channels for negotiations.


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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