The “Northern Triangle” label is making headlines again as the Biden administration focuses on reducing illegal immigration from the three countries that make up the triangle: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Many people in Central America don’t like the term because they think it unfairly – and sometimes diminishes – the three very different nations.
But the administration believes there are enough similarities in the types of policies it wishes to implement, and the related issues with the three governments that will complicate the mission, that the term is part of the official lexicon. President Biden has appointed Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of Northern Triangle policy, and there is a special envoy for the Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zúñiga of the State Department.
Why these three countries? Don’t most of the migrants come from Mexico?
For many years, Mexican nationals made up a higher percentage of people attempting to cross their northern border into the United States. And as the numbers fluctuate, Central Americans in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras over the past decade have dramatically increased their arrivals and attempted arrivals.
For example, in fiscal 2008, over 90% of those apprehended by US law enforcement at the border were Mexicans. In the first three quarters of 2019, Central Americans accounted for 74% of apprehensions. (Apprehensions are often how the U.S. government measures immigration.)
The number of cross-border workers from Northern Triangle countries fell last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is rebounding.
Why are Central Americans fleeing these three countries?
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have seen their governments chronically fail to improve political conditions, squander foreign aid, and allow corruption to deepen and enrich a handful of elites as the majority suffer from poverty.
In 2014, there may have been a silver lining when the Obama administration also announced ambitious plans to improve the region’s security and economy – a job Vice President Biden was then commissioned to do. to manage. But those efforts failed, in part because Central American Presidents failed to keep their end of their bargain, and then the Trump administration shifted from aid to law enforcement. If anything, conditions have deteriorated.
Climate disasters have also made tens of thousands of Central American citizens even more desperate. Two consecutive devastating hurricanes in 2020 destroyed large swathes of the region, areas not yet lost to climate change-fueled droughts. The loss of crops robs countless Central Americans of their livelihoods in the agricultural economy.
By making the Northern Triangle a priority, U.S. officials calculate that they can make the biggest dent in migration in areas where they can more easily channel aid to grassroots and development organizations, far from government coffers. central government.
Why avoid giving money to governments? Are they not the best equipped to spend it efficiently?
This may be true in theory, but the governments of the Northern Triangle have been shown to be ineffective or corrupt, or, as in the case of the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, have engaged in undemocratic behavior that the Biden administration does not want to reward.
Bukele has taken steps to take back the judiciary and consolidate his grip on power. In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández was involved in a major drug trafficking case in which his brother was sentenced to life in prison by a New York court. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has tried to crush independent courts and corruption investigations and is said to be beholden to the country’s powerful oligarchs.
Isn’t the history of American involvement in Central America long and controversial? Does the United States bear responsibility for the unrest besetting the Northern Triangle?
Yes and yes.
For much of the past two centuries, the United States has viewed parts of Central America as their private plantation for the cultivation of bananas and other fruits, or a landscape of wild adventures and colonization, or a proxy battlefield in the fights against communism.
U.S. officials considered it to be in their own best interests to continue the subjugation of Central Americans, often by overthrowing leftist leaders like Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in the 1950s or
by supporting dictators like Nicaraguan Anastasio Somoza in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nicaragua remains a deeply divided, repressive and impoverished country after wars and disorder. But the Biden administration did not include it in the Northern Triangle because most Nicaraguans who flee their country head south, to Costa Rica or Panama. (Nicaraguans who sought refuge in the United States in the 1980s found an easier path to legal status because then-President Reagan ruled they had fled communism.)
In the Northern Triangle, American interventionism has stifled the democratic political development which still troubles these countries today.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the United States supported an intransigent military government in El Salvador in its civil war against leftist guerrillas fighting for peasants and workers with the support of Cuba and the Soviet Union. The war claimed more than 75,000 lives and sent hundreds of thousands to flee mainly to California and the Washington, DC area.
The United States also intervened in Guatemala’s 35-year civil war, which ended in 1996 and killed hundreds of thousands of people, most of them indigenous peasants. And the United States used Honduras as the staging ground for a separate war at around the same time to topple leftists in Nicaragua, causing lasting damage to both countries.
Who comes from the three countries?
Migrants arriving from these countries run the gamut, but many are farmers, eager to gather crops where labor is often scarce, and plenty of construction, domestic or service work. The more educated or connected often find academic and professional positions, although their legal status tends to hold them back. Many pay taxes and support local economies.
Many were children brought illegally to the United States by their parents and now constitute the so-called Dreamers, an estimated 800,000 group for whom Obama has deferred deportation to give them time to gain full legal status.
In the early 1990s, the United States for the first time deported members of a Los Angeles-born gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, to their birthplace, El Salvador. The gang grew exponentially in number and ferocity, eventually taking root throughout the region. Many recent asylum seekers say they are escaping from MS-13 or other gangs that have taken over their neighborhoods to extort, rape and kill.