Drivers of Migration in Central America

By: Shannon Mizzi, Columnist

Photo Credit: USArmy, SPC Steven K Young (via HastalaVictoria Blog)

While the Trump administration has largely focused on Mexico when discussing migration to the United States, many migrants do not come from Mexico at all, but from the Northern Triangle (NT) region encompassing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In order to create sound immigration policy, the current administration must better appreciate the key social, economic, and security drivers of migration from that region, as well as how the United States may be contributing to the problem.

In all three NT states, poor governance, weak rule of law, a culture of impunity, economic underdevelopment, and North American drug demand have made their populations vulnerable to deprivation and physical violence. Each state has a history of political instability, sometimes precipitated by the United States, which, during the second half of the 20th century, propped up or installed military governments across Latin America to prevent the spread of communism. Guatemala experienced a civil war from 1960-1996, and El Salvador from 1980-1992. Honduras avoided civil war, but the government massacred leftist political figures during the 1970s and 1980s in fear of a domino effect from neighboring insurgent movements. Issues at the heart of these conflicts, such as social, racial, and economic inequality, remain unresolved. Necessary reforms around corruption were never implemented, leading to continued corrupt and weak governance. Today, corruption is still regionally endemic. Even when anti-corruption legislation is passed, it is rarely enforced because the people directly benefitting from lax anti-corruption enforcement are in power. Weak political institutions and corruption directly inhibit the ability of these governments to deliver public goods to citizens, including physical security, health care, and economic opportunity.

Weak governance, absence of the rule of law, and underdevelopment have made for an unstable security environment attractive to criminal elements at all spectrums of society. Insecurity allows violence to flourish at the individual level in the form of vigilantism, machismo culture, and violence against women; the local level with gangs controlling entire neighborhoods by the threat of violence and extortion rackets; and the national level via drug trafficking and organized crime.

For an example of how corruption weakens institutions, one need look no further than Central American justice and law enforcement sectors, which are highly corrupt, not professionalized, overburdened, and not trusted by their publics. Their goal is to control crime through mano dura (“strong hand”) policies, rather than using development to deal with the motivating factors for engagement in criminal activity. Politicians frequently interfere with court proceedings, making the system even more inefficient. Ninety percent of murders go unprosecuted because police forces are corrupt and poorly trained.[i] Gangs and drug traffickers are emboldened by the fact that they can kill with the assurance of impunity. The Latin American Public Opinion Project—a survey run by Vanderbilt University since the 1970s—has demonstrated that in the region, perceptions of insecurity have a negative impact on support for democracy.[ii]

Poor central governance has also ensured that the Northern Triangle remains underdeveloped. All three states have small tax bases relative to GDP, reducing government accountability and constraining economic, social, and infrastructure spending. Moreover, the high levels of violence costs these states tens of billions each year that might have otherwise been spent on public services. Stark income inequality exists in each, and a majority of people in Guatemala and Honduras live below the poverty line.[iii] While the economies of Guatemala and Honduras have grown between 2.5-4.5% for the last four years, the average person has seen little benefit.[iv] The fact that remittances constitute between 10-18% of GDP in these states is testament to their underdeveloped economies and serves to reinforce the notion that opportunity is best found elsewhere.[v]

The unstable security situation has created a hospitable environment for drug trafficking and transnational organized crime that drives migration. A lack of educational and employment opportunities, especially for youth, encourage many to look to the illicit economy to make money, or otherwise try to escape the pervasive violence associated with these activities. In 2015, the populations of the NT countries paid over $651 million in extortion payments to criminal groups; failure to pay can be deadly.[vi] Though homicides have declined significantly in El Salvador over the last year (due to a gang truce), it’s murder rate remains the highest in Latin America.[vii] Ninety percent of all cocaine headed to the United States and Canada passes through the Northern Triangle.[viii] The violence caused by the drug trade fuels migration to Mexico and the United States. In fiscal year 2016, the United States apprehended 46,900 unaccompanied minors—a historic high—as well as 70,400 families from the Northern Triangle at the US-Mexico border.[ix]

The Trump administration should publicly recognize American drug demand as a key driver of migration from Central America to the United States. The extreme levels of violence and poverty that migrants are fleeing constitute a humanitarian crisis, and Central American migrants in many cases could more accurately be referred to as refugees. Mexico has stationed more guards at the Guatemala-Mexico border to help migrants with asylum applications in response to the recent increase in people electing to stay in Mexico rather than risk crossing the US border amidst the current Trump immigration crackdown.[x] While this policy seems to be an effective deterrent, the current administration must also grapple with the long-term strategic consequences of its actions. Mexico is not equipped to handle the current volume of refugees. As an important US trading partner, it would not be in American interests to see the state sharing its southern border further destabilized by refugees it cannot absorb into its economy––a situation which may ultimately cause more refugees to flee to the US border in the long run.

The United States should also increase cooperation with and contribute to the professionalization of Mexican and Northern Triangle security forces to decrease drug flows, as was done effectively in the Caribbean––the reason some cite as to why the drug supply route shifted to the NT in the first place. The United States should expand, and absolutely avoid cuts to, low-cost, high-impact programs like the Merida Initiative and the Central American Regional Security Initiative, which focus on security force and government institution capacity-building, disruption of organized crime, legal education, economic development, medical care, and drug treatment programs. American policymakers should pair those efforts with equal vigor towards decreasing domestic demand for opioids and methamphetamine by increasing access to drug rehabilitation programs.

[i] David Gagne, “InSight Crime’s 2016 Homicide Round-Up,” InSight Crime January 16, 2017.

[ii] Dinorah Azpuru and Elizabeth Zechmeister, “Political Culture of Democracy in Guatemala and the Americas, 2014: Democratic Governance Across 10 Years of the Americas Barometer,” LAPOP and USAID, March 2015.

[iii] United Nations Human Development Program and The World Bank, “Income Gini coefficient,” 2013.

[iv] “Guatemala Economic Outlook,” Focus Economics, April 11, 2017.

[v] The World Bank, “Personal remittances, received (% of GDP).”

[vi] Silva Mathema, “They Are Refugees: An Increasing Number of People are Fleeing Violence in the Northern Triangle,” Center for American Progress, February 24, 2016.

[vii] “InSight Crime’s 2016 Homicide Round-up.”

[viii] UN Office of Drugs and Crime, “Cocaine from South America to the United States,” 2015.

[ix] Gabriel Lesser and Jeanne Batalova, “Central American Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, April 5, 2017.

[x] UN Information Center, “Entrevista con Mark Manly, Representante en Mexico de ACNUR,” April 12, 2017.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.