Over the past decade, Central America’s Northern Triangle, which consists of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, has gained the reputation of being one of the world’s most violent and unruly regions. In 2015, El Salvador’s murder rate was the highest in the world with around 104 murders per 100,000 people, an increase of 70 per cent from the year before. Honduras and Guatemala were also ranked in the top five for global homicide rates in 2015. In comparison, the U.S. had approximately five murders per 100,000 and Afghanistan, only 10.
While the region has experienced some progress following years of war and violence throughout the 1990s, the current levels of violence and crime continue to inhibit the Northern Triangle’s ability to experience lasting growth and prosperity. It is estimated that the cost of law enforcement, court systems, health care, and private security relating to violence, has cost countries in the Northern Triangle anywhere from 10-24 per cent of their overall GDPs.
Efforts to address violence, extortion, and crime in the region have been undermined by underfunded, frail, and corrupt institutions. Government corruption has often been linked to violence, which means that for the Northern Triangle, corruption is not simply a matter of greed or immorality, but rather a major problem that prolongs the existence of crime and violence in the region.
The Northern Triangle’s corruption issue run deeps throughout the region’s law enforcement, judicial, and governmental bodies as a whole. Whether it be the looting of $USD 350 million from the Honduran health system by government officials, or former El Salvadoran president Francisco Flores diverting $USD 15 million intended for earthquake victims to his personal account, corruption is rampant throughout the region. El Salvador’s past three presidents have been accused of corruption with all three having faced, or are currently facing, supreme court investigations into their incomes and assets. El Salvador’s ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has been reportedly involved in laundering suspicious money with the help of Venezuela and Colombia’s narco-terrorist group FARC.
In many cases, the police and law enforcement bodies in the region are a part of the problem rather than the solution. Police in El Salvador have been known to carry out extrajudicial executions on suspected gang members, while authorities in Guatemala have engaged in kidnappings and robberies. In Guatemala, 65 per cent of the population believes that the police are involved in criminal activities, while in El Salvador and Honduras, the figure is around 50 per cent. When a large portion of the population believes, and in many cases has experienced, that the institutions designed to protect them are corrupt, it undermines efforts to address violence and crime in the region.
With corruption rampant throughout the region and government institutions that have been infiltrated by criminals, potential donor nations such as the U.S. are less likely to provide foreign assistance to the region for fear of money ending up in the wrong hands. Without foreign aid, countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which are among the poorest nations in the Americas, will be unable to tackle the violence and crime that cripples their societies. The violence is so pervasive in the region that thousands of people, especially children, are willing to risk their lives by fleeing their home countries in search of a better life. Between October 2013 and July 2015, approximately 100,000 unaccompanied minors fled from the Northern Triangle to the U.S. There are currently over 3 million Central Americans living in the United States, with 90 per cent of them emanating from the Northern Triangle. As of mid-2014, 60 per cent of them were undocumented immigrants or were living under temporary protected status. Because neither of these statutes allow for legal options to bring separated family members to the U.S., many have turned to illegal smuggling in order to reunite with family members. The smuggling industry, which has seen an increase in recent years, has been plagued with reports of extortion, misinformation being given to immigrants regarding U.S immigration policy, abandonment of the refugees, and violence being perpetrated by smugglers towards their paying customers. The recent migrant crisis represents one of the several negative externalities that have arisen from corruption in the region.
To be fair, all three countries, along with outside international actors, have taken steps in recent years to tackle the widespread corruption problem. In Honduras, government authorities agreed to a mission supported by the Organization of American States (OAS) called the “Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).” Guatemala has pledged support for the United Nations (UN) sponsored “International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG),” which helped to gather the necessary evidence to bring former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina to trial on corruption charges. In January 2016, the UN and the U.S. announced a program to help fight corruption in El Salvador. While the program does not have the same investigative powers as CICIG, the three-year program is a step in the right direction for a country that has been incapacitated by corruption in recent years.
While these efforts should be celebrated, there is still a long road ahead for the countries of the Northern Triangle. Outside actors such as the U.S. and Canada should leverage the momentum and anti-corruption sentiment in the region to root out the factors of plaguing corruption that are hampering efforts to address the widespread violence throughout the Northern Triangle. Such involvement, however, does not come without its challenges. With many cases of failed capacity building efforts over the years, from Pakistan to Iraq to Somalia, outside actors, most notably the U.S., need to ensure that funding and training are targeted in a way that does not support the failed and corrupt systems that they are claiming to fix. Creative, long-term, and collaborative solutions that involve all actors with a stake in the issue, including NGOs, civil society groups, individual citizens, alongside government officials and institutions, are needed to ensure accountable allocation of resources necessary for creating lasting change in the region. While long-term investment in foreign countries is often frowned upon by policymakers, a lack of abiding resolve has proven in recent years, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, to create states that are no better, and often worse, then when the outside actor intervened.
Now is the time to commit to supporting long-term efforts to increase transparency, accountability, the rule of law, and political reform in the Northern Triangle to ensure that the authorities meant to protect the people of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are fighting for the people and not against them.