The images are harrowing: thousands of Hondurans fleeing their country, on foot, heading north in an attempt to reach the US-Mexico border and ultimately make it into the United States. But most didn’t even make it to Mexico — Guatemalan police and military officers in riot gear detained or forcibly returned them to Honduras.
The scenes, which played out in the last few weeks, are evidence of the worsening situation in Central America — specifically, the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — where longstanding poverty and violence have become almost intractable. Government institutions are plagued by corruption and impunity. It’s an explosive mix that’s constantly pushing people to migrate. Now the global pandemic and the devastating effects of two recent hurricanes, with the prospect of more natural disasters fueled by worsening climate change, have only exacerbated the crippling status quo.
Before last year, half of Hondurans already lived in poverty. But by the end of 2020, that number was expected to grow to two-thirds of the population. Last year, there were, on average, 10 murders per daythere (in a country with a population the size of North Carolina’s). In Guatemala, the largest economy in Central America, 59 percent of the population were already poor pre-pandemic. Roughly one million more people are estimated to have fallen into poverty as a result of the recession caused by the pandemic. In El Salvador, president Nayib Bukele has taken a worrisome turn to authoritarian populism, threatening democratic institutions and cracking down on the press. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has taken more than 10,000 lives in Central America.
Whereas for the last four years former president Donald Trump was obsessed with stopping migrant flowsfrom the region, the new Biden administration is proposing a much more humane approach, backed by $4 billion in aid over four years. The money, while substantially more than what both Trump and President Obama sent to the region, is not enough. But if spent correctly and in the right places, the funds would go a long way toward finally addressing the underlying factors behind the mass Central American exodus seen in the last decade.
Pre-Trump, the approach toward the region was, for the most part, the right one. In 2015, Obama unveiled the Alliance for Prosperity for the region, an assistance package valued at nearly $1 billion. The effort was led by then-Vice President Biden; though much of it was focused on security and military assistance, it also pumped money into tackling civic dysfunction in the region. Under Trump, though, most aid was cut and programs that were showing promise at tackling systemic issues were left to expire. For instance, funding for pilot programs to prevent violence in Honduras — such as establishing neighborhood outreach centerswith mentors for children to help them get jobs and keep them away from gangs — all but disappeared.
The Biden administration should double down on funding that exact type of programming. The United States should also make sure the funds are channeled through properly vetted civil society organizations. “In the 2015 approach, there was too much assistance directed toward security forces,” said Lisa Haugaard, codirector of the Latin America Working Group, a human rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. “There was not enough civil society consultation.”
Rethinking stakeholders in the region is also perhaps an idea whose time has come. Traditionally, the US government works with other governments, said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, a Chicago-based network of immigrant rights groups in the United States. “If the US were to say, ‘We are going to work directly and indirectly to change the level of economic and social opportunities for Central Americans so that they really don’t have to look outside their borders,’ that would be very powerful,” Chacón said.
Because the rule of law is practically nonexistent in the Northern Triangle, one of the most impactful measures in the region had been the anti-corruption units overseen by international organizations, which have recently disbanded. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, backed by the United Nations, shut down in 2019; Honduras’s Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity (MACCIH, by its Spanish acronym) ended last year. But their impact cannot be overstated: The CICIG was considered one of the most successful anti-corruption units worldwide. It helped Guatemalan authorities investigate corruption cases that resulted in the indictment of a former president and a vice president, and the prosecution of dozens of high-level government actors, including a Supreme Court justice and members of Congress.
Despite evidence of the success of the anti-corruption commissions, Trump did virtually nothing to protect them and did not push the countries to renew their mandates. Another idea some experts are suggesting is the appointment of a US special envoy on corruption and the use of targeted sanctions, such as the Magnitsky Act, to go after corrupt individuals in high levels of government. “Central America is the perfect place to apply that law,” said Haugaard.
Here’s why anti-corruption efforts should be a priority: Honduras has become a narco-state. According to US federal prosecutors, President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose own brother was convicted in the United States for drug trafficking in 2019, was directly involved in — you guessed it — protecting drug traffickers.
Biden’s $4 billion plan is still a promise; Congress must first authorize the funds. It’s also important to understand another piece of the economic puzzle in the Northern Triangle: People living in these countries have become extremely dependent on remittances from relatives in the United States, which went up last year. “They are a crucial piece keeping [Central Americans] afloat,” Chacón said. “Collectively, people here sent $23 billion to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.”
The Northern Triangle shouldn’t have to be perpetually destined to sink deeper and deeper into a humanitarian crisis after crisis after crisis. But the kind of transformational change the region needs to experience won’t happen overnight.
What’s clear is that the best way to manage migration is to treat it effectively at the source. It’s a difficult challenge, but significant and targeted investments will provide much-needed humanitarian relief and stem the exodus north.