Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle

Police arrest a woman as they search people for drugs and weapons during a patrol in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

Violence and rampant crime have driven asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States, which is seeking to help address the root causes.

Last updated June 26, 2018

Police arrest a woman as they search people for drugs and weapons during a patrol in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Jorge Cabrera/Reuters
Backgrounder
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Introduction

Tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans, many of them unaccompanied minors, have arrived in the United States in recent years, seeking asylum from the region’s skyrocketing violence. Their countries, which form a region known as the Northern Triangle, were rocked by civil wars in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of violence and fragile institutions.

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The region remains menaced by corruption, drug trafficking, and gang violence despite tough police and judicial reforms. While the United States has provided the three governments billions of dollars in aid over the past decade, some analysts believe U.S. immigration policies have exacerbated threats to regional security.

How many people have left the Northern Triangle in recent years?

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El Salvador

Honduras

Guatemala

Immigration and Migration

Transnational Crime

The number of asylum seekers worldwide originating from the Northern Triangle reached 110,000 in 2015, a five-fold increase from 2012. Unaccompanied minors accounted for much of this surge [PDF]. Migrants from all three countries cite violence, forced gang recruitment, and extortion, as well as poverty and lack of opportunity, as their reasons for leaving. While Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama have reported a sharp increase in flows from the Northern Triangle since 2008, most migrants are passing through to settle in the United States. In 2015, the latest year for which data is available, as many as 3.4 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were living in the United States, more than double the estimated 1.5 million people in 2000. About 55 percent of them were undocumented.

Central America Homicide Rates 2016

Why are so many people fleeing the Northern Triangle?

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. El Salvador became the world’s most violent country not at war in 2015, when gang-related violence brought its homicide rate to 103 per hundred thousand. It has since fallen by one third. Nevertheless, all three countries have significantly higher homicide rates than neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Extortion is also rampant. A 2015 investigation by Honduran newspaper La Prensa found that Salvadorans and Hondurans pay an estimated $390 million, $200 million, and $61 million, respectively, in annual extortion fees to organized crime groups. Extortionists primarily target public transportation operators, small businesses, and residents of poor neighborhoods, according to the report, and attacks on people who do not pay contribute to the violence.

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What causes the violence?

The nature of the violence is distinct in each country, but the proliferation of gangs, narcotics trafficking, weak rule of law, and official corruption are common threads.

Organized crime is a legacy of decades of war in the region, notes a CFR special report. In El Salvador, fighting between the military-led government and leftist guerrilla groups (1979–92) left as many as seventy-five thousand dead, and Guatemala’s civil war (1960–96) killed as many as two hundred thousand civilians. Honduras did not have a civil war of its own, but nonetheless felt the effects of nearby conflicts; it served as a staging ground for the U.S.-backed Contras, a right-wing rebel group fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government during the 1980s.

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El Salvador

Honduras

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Transnational Crime

At war’s end, a large pool of demobilized and unemployed men with easy access to weapons morphed into organized criminal groups, most notably in El Salvador. In Guatemala, groups known as illegal clandestine security apparatuses and clandestine security apparatuses grew out of state intelligence and military forces.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world.

Criminal groups in the Northern Triangle includes transnational criminal organizations, many of which are associated with Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs); domestic organized-crime groups; transnational gangs, or maras, such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18); and pandillas, or street gangs.

MS-13 and M-18, the region’s largest gangs, are estimated to have as many as eighty-five thousand members [PDF] in total. Both were formed in Los Angeles: M-18 in the 1960s by Mexican youth, and MS-13 in the 1980s by Salvadorans who had fled the civil war. Their presence in Central America grew in the mid-1990s following large-scale deportations from the United States of undocumented immigrants with criminal records. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates there are ten thousand MS-13 members in the United States.

Drug trafficking adds to the violence. U.S.-led interdiction efforts in Colombia, Mexico, and the Caribbean have pushed trafficking routes into Central America, and U.S. officials report that 90 percent of documented cocaine flows into the United States now pass through the region. DTOs sometimes partner with maras to transport and distribute narcotics, sparking turf wars. In addition to the drug trade and extortion, criminal groups in the region also profit from kidnapping for ransom and human trafficking and smuggling.

Northern Triangle Homicide Rates

Why has violence persisted?

Weak, underfunded institutions, combined with corruption, have undermined efforts to address gang violence and extortion. Tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in the Northern Triangle are among the lowest in Latin America, exacerbating inequality and straining public services. Transparency International, a global anticorruption watchdog, places all three countries in the bottom half of its corruption perceptions rankings. Honduran institutions remain particularly shaky following a 2009 coup—Latin America’s first in nearly two decades—and a contested presidential election in 2017.

As many as 95 percent of crimes go unpunished [PDF] in some areas, and the public has little trust in the police and security forces. (The police and military were accused of widespread human rights abuses during El Salvador’s and Guatemala’s civil wars.) “There has been so much penetration of the state and so much criminal involvement in security forces, it makes it difficult to think about how they would [reform] without some outside intervention,” says Eric Olson, an expert on the region at the Wilson Center.

How have Northern Triangle countries tried to stop the violence?

In the early 2000s, Northern Triangle governments enacted a series of mano dura, or “heavy hand,” policies that expanded police powers and enacted harsher punishments for gang members. Around the same time, military personnel were deployed [PDF] to carry out police functions.

Though popular [PDF], these policies in most cases failed to reduce crime and could have indirectly led to a growth in gang membership. Mass incarcerations increased the burden on already overcrowded prisons, where gangs, which effectively run many of them, recruited thousands of new members. The U.S. State Department, human rights groups, and journalists have raised concerns about these policies, denouncing prison conditions and police violence against civilians.

In 2012, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes’s administration helped broker a truce between the MS-13 and M-18 gangs. Homicides fell by more than 40 percent that year. Despite the reduction in violence between the gangs, crimes against civilians, such as extortion, continued unabated, and when the peace deal unraveled in 2014, killings more than doubled. The government of Funes’s successor, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, granted authorities the right to use force “without any fear of suffering consequences,” leading police to kill eight times as many gang members in 2015 as in 2013. In 2016, these mano dura tactics were given congressional backing with the creation of elite police units with extraordinary leeway to conduct searches and seizures and invoke the military. While El Salvador’s homicide rate has since declined by nearly 25 percent, it remains eleven times higher than that of the United States.

Weak, underfunded institutions, combined with corruption, have undermined efforts to address gang violence.

Guatemala saw major gains thanks in part to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent body created by the United Nations in 2007 to investigate and prosecute criminal groups believed to have infiltrated state institutions. Between 2009 and 2012, impunity levels fell [PDF] from 95 percent to 72 percent, according to CICIG, and in 2015 the tribunal worked with Guatemala’s attorney general on an investigation into a customs corruption scheme that led to the ouster and arrest of President Otto Perez Molina. In a sign of disillusionment with Guatemala’s political class, voters in 2015 elected Jimmy Morales, a comedian with no prior political experience, to the presidency. Two years later, Morales found himself mired in scandal after failing to account for more than $800,000 in campaign financing and attempting to oust the head of the CICIG. While the body remains active, the government has instructed it to “refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the country.”

In Honduras, allegations that members of the ruling National Party embezzled social security funds led protesters to call for the ouster of President Juan Orlando Hernandez in 2015. In response, the Organization of American States established the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), a body similar to CICIG that seeks to prevent corruption, reform the criminal justice and electoral systems, and improve public safety. The anticorruption body’s authority was called into question following alleged fraud in Hernandez’ 2017 reelection, prompting several members of MACCIH to resign.

How has the United States responded?

Recent U.S. administrations have responded to violence in Northern Triangle countries in different ways. President George W. Bush focused on fostering the region’s growth and stability by increasing trade and introducing free-market reforms. Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, his administration awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In 2005, rising crime rates in Central America and Mexico led to a surge of migrants coming to the United States. In response, the Bush administration adopted Operation Streamline, a “zero-tolerance policy” under which migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were criminally prosecuted and deported. In its last year, the Bush administration introduced a security assistance package for the region known as the Merida Initiative.

President Barack Obama separated Mexico from the Merida grouping and rebranded it the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Over the years, the United States has provided more than $1 billion in aid through CARSI to help the region’s law enforcement, counternarcotics, and justice systems. Midway through his second term, Obama recast U.S. strategy for Central America, forging what was intended to be a more holistic interagency approach. This strategy had three objectives [PDF]: promoting prosperity and regional integration, strengthening governance, and improving security.

Obama’s strategy was designed to mesh with the so-called Alliance for Prosperity (A4P), a multiyear, multi–billion dollar effort [PDF] by Northern Triangle governments and the Inter-American Development Bank to promote commerce and security in response to the 2014 influx of unaccompanied minors into the United States. In 2016, amid a rush of arrivals from Central America, Obama ordered the rounding up and deportation of recently arrived migrants whose asylum claims had been denied. The administration said its aim was to deter would-be migrants.

President Donald J. Trump has adopted some of his predecessor’s approach to the region—continuing A4P, for instance—but has taken a much harder line on immigration policies, including those that affect Central Americans. Within the next few years, nearly 350,000 immigrants from Northern Triangle countries will lose the legal right to live and work in the United States as a result of Trump revoking their temporary protected status (TPS), a designation granted to immigrants from countries that have suffered severe hardships. Trump is also expanding construction of the wall along the U.S. southwestern border, and his administration has implemented many policies intended to deter migrants from seeking asylum or illegally crossing the border, including criminally prosecuting all undocumented entrants and separating migrant parents from their minor children. The Trump administration separated some two thousand children from their parents before ending the practice in June, following international outcry. Analysts say that anti-immigration rhetoric and increased border security contributed to a 26 percent decrease [PDF] in attempted border crossings in fiscal year 2017; 54 percent of apprehended migrants originated from the Northern Triangle.

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Resources

This 2014 Wilson Center report [PDF] looks at the causes of violence in the Northern Triangle and evaluates U.S. efforts to improve the security situation.

The Congressional Research Service looks at gangs in Central America [PDF], CARSI [PDF], and President Obama’s $1 billion aid request [PDF].

This InSight Crime profile of MS-13 looks at the group’s history and how it has affected El Salvador and neighboring countries.

This New Yorker piece looks at police violence in El Salvador amid the country’s disintegrating gang truce.

These New Republic articles look at extortion and gang violence in Guatemala.

This CFR Backgrounder looks at the influx of unaccompanied minors into the United States.