Why Roots of U.S. Border Crisis Lie South of Mexico


(Bloomberg) -- The so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, consisting of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is a hotbed of poverty, corruption, gang violence and extortion. It’s also the leading source of the migrants who traverse Mexico in hopes of gaining entry into the U.S., and whose numbers have strained relations between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. President Donald Trump, who has vowed to build a wall on the Mexico border and deployed troops there, threatens to further slash aid to the three Northern Triangle nations and to impose a tariff on Mexican goods should the flow of migrants not decrease, and fast.

1. How many people flee the Northern Triangle?

As measured by who is apprehended trying to cross the U.S. border, there’s been a spike in migrants leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In the first eight months of the fiscal year that started in October, some 440,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle were apprehended, twice as many as in the whole year prior, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Of those who leave Northern Triangle countries, fewer than 10% stay in Central America, according to one estimate. Most try to reach the U.S., in some cases by paying smugglers, in others by traveling in caravans for safety, often in hopes of applying for and receiving asylum. One such caravan late in 2018 had as many as 7,000 men, women and children.

Why Roots of U.S. Border Crisis Lie South of Mexico

2. Why is it called the Northern Triangle?

The term began as an economic one, used to describe a free-trade deal among the three countries that was signed in 1992.

Why Roots of U.S. Border Crisis Lie South of Mexico

3. Why are so many people leaving?

Honduras and El Salvador have among the highest murder rates in the world; in Honduras, there were 40 murders for every 100,000 people in 2018, compared to 19 per 100,000 in Mexico. Extortion is another problem. La Prensa reported in 2015 that residents of the three countries pay more than $650 million per year, combined, in protection money. And economic opportunity is at a premium. In both Honduras and Guatemala, around 60% of the population lives below the national poverty line. The International Organization for Migration said more than half of Salvadoran migrants who joined together in a northbound caravan in October 2018 cited economic opportunity as their motive for leaving the region.

4. What explains all the violence?

Decades of war, the legacy of which lives on in the form of organized crime and weak state control. When civil wars ended in El Salvador (1992) and Guatemala (1996), paramilitary gangs that had been recruited for counter-insurgency campaigns were not effectively dismantled. Some youths who fled to Los Angeles during those wars, especially from El Salvador, formed the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 gangs, only to be deported back home in the late 1990s under a push ordered by President Bill Clinton. Back home, these gangs established a shadow economy in extortion. Narco-traffickers and local cartels distribute drugs in the Northern Triangle, and competition to dominate this trade -- and the territory required to run it -- is a major source of conflict. Outgunned and in some cases complicit, law enforcement has had little impact.

5. What can Northern Triangle governments do?

Successive leaders have struggled to combat violence and boost economic prospects. But the countries also see benefits when people leave in large numbers, since citizens who find better economic opportunities elsewhere send home billions of dollars every year to their families. “It is our fault” that people flee their homes, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, acknowledged on June 30. Though all three countries made strides toward market-oriented economic policies in the 1980s and 1990s, the gains “have not translated into improved living conditions for many of the region’s residents,” the Congressional Research Service reports. Guatemala spends $258 per capita on social programs, according to the World Bank, compared with $2,193 by Costa Rica. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. tied increased financial aid to positive steps by the three Northern Triangle governments, which reported spending over $4.4 billion to complement U.S. aid from 2016 to 2018.

6. How much aid does the U.S. give?

The Trump administration initially maintained the Obama strategy, and the U.S. has appropriated almost $2.6 billion to Central America since 2016, the vast majority of it directed to the three countries of the Northern Triangle. But the U.S. appropriation has gone down every year, and Trump has threatened to slash it further.

7. Why is Trump cutting aid?

He said in an October Twitter post that the three countries “were not able to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the U.S.,” so his administration “will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them.” In March, the State Department said it had ended all foreign assistance, at Trump’s instruction. Then in May, the administration announced that two-thirds of aid spending to the Northern Triangle would go ahead, with the balance held back pending discussions with Congress. Some Democrats vying for the nomination to challenge Trump in next year’s election promise a boost in aid to Central American countries.

The Reference Shelf

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.