In November 2018, US border guards fired tear gas into Mexico. Their targets: men, women, and children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador who had come to the border to voice their frustrations after weeks of waiting in a purposefully prolonged asylum application process.
The aggressive border “security” — and the long wait times — were part of then-President Trump’s strategy to halt migration to the US. The idea was simple: erect physical and bureaucratic obstacles, and the “caravans” of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America would stop coming. But Trump’s plan didn’t work. There was another tear gas incident a month later. Yet another caravan the next year. And in 2020. And 2021.
President Joe Biden has unveiled his strategy for curbing the waves of migrants, not by increasing barriers, but by addressing the “root causes” of migration, including creating economic opportunity, strengthening the rule of law, and tackling the corruption that has come to define the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, collectively known as the “Northern Triangle.” The strategy is part of his overall immigration bill, the proposed US Citizenship Act of 2021.
While experts say this holistic plan is a step in the right direction, they are skeptical about Biden’s ability to tackle corruption quickly enough to reduce migration in the short term. They say it will take years or even decades of concerted international effort to put pressure on these governments to reform. In the meantime, the root causes will remain, and the result will most likely be a continuation of mass migration for the foreseeable future.
Corruption in the Northern Triangle
It is hard to overstate the extent to which corruption dominates life in the Northern Triangle. As in other so-called narco-states, organized crime has infiltrated every institution in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, deteriorating the rule of law and weakening confidence in government. Nearly all public officials in the region are susceptible to — and cooperate with — organized crime. High-ranking officials are often embroiled in corruption scandals, and use their positions to cash in on the illicit drug market by various means, including embezzlement, money laundering, directing police against political dissidents, and taking bribes from drug traffickers.
“In Central America politics is not a division of ideological lines,” said Salvador Sanabria, development specialist and executive director of El Rescate, a legal aid organization focused on Central American migrants. “It is simply the business of corrupt elites.”
And business is booming. According to a 2019 report, corruption drains an estimated $13 billion from Central American economies, subverting critical resources that could otherwise be used for public spending, economic development, and improving security measures against organized crime. Migration, according to Sanabria, is the only way that communities can make up for what the governments have stolen.
“Corruption is a main cause [of migration]. When you get to the States, secure a job, and send your first remittance, you’re considered a hero. Many families depend on that,” Sanabria told WhoWhatWhy. Elites also like this system, he said, because it weakens the expectations that people have for what they can get from their government, pushing citizens to find alternative means of income. “Why do you think we see so much reporting on the linkage of political power and organized crime?”
And we do see quite a lot. In the last three years, mayors, police chiefs, army generals, and presidents from the Northern Triangle have been convicted of working with organized crime. Just last month, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was implicated in an international drug smuggling operation, the same crime that put his younger brother in jail in 2019.
Poverty and Violence
Corruption is the glue between the various other factors that drive people to leave the Northern Triangle.
Despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars per year just from the US for infrastructure and security, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala make up one of the most impoverished and violent regions in the Western Hemisphere. More than one in four Guatemalans and Salvadorians live below the poverty line; in Honduras that number is one in two. Stable employment is a rarity, and most people who do find work do so on an informal or day-to-day basis. Tenuous work prospects force the region’s young population to look for alternative sources of income, exacerbating another root cause of migration: organized crime.
“Each year more youth graduate high school than there are jobs available,” Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute, told WhoWhatWhy. “The result makes youth particularly susceptible to gang recruitment and activity, especially in communities with weak government infrastructure or services. Subsequently, gang activity and violence engender fear and limit the success of businesses.”
Extortion and murder are a fact of daily life in these countries. Owning a car, a business, or even a house means regular visits from gangs who demand an extra “tax.” The penalty for not complying with their demands is most often death or the death of a loved one, leaving the Northern Triangle with rates of violence comparable to war zones.
The police that would otherwise serve as a deterrent are chronically inefficient and underfunded. A 2014 report indicated that more than 96 percent of homicides in Honduras did not result in an arrest or conviction. That underfunding also feeds back into corruption by creating greater incentive for police to accept bribes from gangs.
This reciprocating nature of poverty, violence, and corruption creates a difficult situation for any would-be reformer.
Biden’s Hurdles, and a Lesson From Guatemala
While details are still unknown, Biden’s plan recognizes that stopping corruption and gang violence and boosting economic development are key to easing the massive waves of migration. His strategy mirrors the $1 billion multi-year plan he helped draft as vice president in 2015, including encouraging private investment, funding a more robust security apparatus, and “investing in improving professional standards” to create a stronger judiciary. When Congress was done it was a $750 million plan, but it was soon dismantled by Trump. The major difference this time is that he is proposing a $4 billion plan, far beyond what he did under Obama.
However, this type of aid is still vulnerable to corrupt Central American government actors who make a habit of pocketing money earmarked for public spending. The impact might be further diluted by the amount that must be spent back in the US on management and implementation.
“It’s not going to have much impact,” Sanabria said of the $4 billion, “because the money is going to be stolen. Or it will be spent mostly on the overhead costs of implementing this so-called development. That’s the history of American aid. I would push for independent, national and international, coordinated anti-corruption mission in those three countries, tied to transparent reporting of how the money gets spent.”
Biden would agree with Sanabria, as his plan specifically calls for such missions. And there is precedent that suggests an international focus on corruption and transparency could yield results.
The UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was responsible for the prosecution of many high-ranking officials, including former presidents, mayors, generals, and a sitting vice president. For that reason, the CICIG is widely considered to be one of the most effective anti-corruption mechanisms in history. However, like many international efforts, the CICIG was still limited in its capabilities. It did not have the power to independently prosecute or investigate suspects without the approval of the attorney general, and its mandate had to be renewed by the government each year. Despite that limitation, however, the CICIG is credited with removing many dozens of corrupt officials, lowering the homicide rate considerably and increasing public faith in the judiciary.
But after 12 years of work, the CICIG itself fell victim to corruption. In 2019, then-President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales led a failed attempt to expel the CICIG after it opened an investigation into his family for campaign finance violations, and he later refused to renew the mission’s mandate. A similar program in Honduras, the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), was also disbanded the same year. But the successes of these types of programs could very well be the answer to tackling corruption — although they won’t be an immediate fix.
“Restarting anti-corruption bodies like MACCIH/CICIG would be a promising effort in addressing systemic corruption and opening deeper opportunities to support institution building,” said Soto. “However, even with these agencies back, efforts to end corruption will take years to be successful.”
While the US waits for Biden’s new strategy, the situation on the ground in the Northern Triangle is dire. “Maybe we will see progress in 10 or 15 years,” Sanabria told WhoWhatWhy. “But the president can only last eight. So, let’s prepare for the pressure of forced migration to continue.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Courtesy of Peter Kronish