The Northern Triangle: Forgotten Conflict In Central America


The Northern Triangle refers to a region in Central American: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries are consistently listed as some of the most dangerous in the world, outside of war zones. They have some of the highest homicide and extortion rates, with the broader region of Latin America containing 37% of the world’s homicides.

The reasons for this constant state of violence are complex, but throughout all three countries, there is an abundance of drug trafficking, government corruption and gang-related violence. The region is still dealing with the consequences of civil wars in the 1980s. According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, apart from high civilian casualties, the wars left behind high levels of unemployment and easy access to weaponry. This resulted in the rise of a large number of criminal gangs, many of which are associated with drug trafficking. These gangs, especially in El Salvador and Honduras, have grown in size and influence.

The consequences of this constant state of violence are far-reaching. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are regularly displaced from their homes as they flee gang-related violence. Many go north in the hope of seeking refuge in the United States. As a result of the current political situation in the US, however, many are forced to remain in Mexico, unable to cross the border to their final destination. According to a May 2017 report by Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF), or Doctors without Borders, Mexico receives over half a million refugees from this region every year. Many of these people are suffering from extreme trauma, similar to those in a war zone. According to the report, along the route up to Mexico, migrants and refugees are subject to “abuse, rape, torture, theft and extortion.” Alongside damage to the victim’s lives and families, the governments of Northern Triangle States rendered weak and vulnerable to further conflict. This weakness then affects the entirety of Central America, as pressure is placed on other countries in the region, such as Mexico, to support those who are fleeing the violence.

Responses to the crisis vary, partly due to the longevity and complexity of the issue at hand. In the early 2000s, the governments of El Salvador and Honduras implemented policies that attempted to crack down on violence and more severely punish those involved in criminal gangs. While these measures were popular amongst the people, they ultimately failed to reduce the levels of violence perpetrated by these gangs. Rather ironically, as the government put more people behind bars, gangs used the prisons to recruit more members. Further, these governments remain corrupt and therefore unable to build strong state foundations that would prevent people turning to gangs as a form of protection.

The United States is of course involved as well, some of the drug-related violence could be attributed to US Policies, commonly referred to as the ‘War on Drugs.’ The tightening up of the Colombian drug trade has led to an increase in the flow of cocaine from South America to the United States. According to the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), more than 90% of cocaine produced in South America flows up through the “Central American corridor.” Until this flow stops, or at least lessens, the question may be asked whether or not is it fair to expect these relatively new democracies to manage the violence in their states.

In any event, whether the situation is fair or not is irrelevant, actions must be taken by the El Salvadorian, Honduras, and Guatemalan governments to stop this crisis continuing. I think it is helpful to look at crises that have happened elsewhere around the world and see what solutions were successful and which were not. The longevity of the crisis predetermines that the route to a strong Central America will be long and painful, results will not be seen overnight, and as such some longer-term solutions will be required.

The first comment regarding what should be done in the region is in regards to foreign intervention, or rather an acknowledgement of the negatives of foreign intervention. We have seen in the Middle East what happens to a region when there is constant intervention by larger foreign powers. It has been proven to yield weak states, propped up governments and a frustrated populace. If the US continues to intervene in the Central American region, could we see a similar thread to the that in the Middle East? Some may argue that the governments in the Northern Triangle do not have the funds nor the strength to grapple with a task this large on their own. But if they rely on the US now, they may be rendering themselves dependent on the hegemon for years to come.

This is not to say, however, that Central America should not have a relationship with the US, but merely to emphasize the need to remain independent and strong within the Central American region. If the governments of the Northern Triangle come to the negotiating table and emphasize that dealing with this migration crisis is in America’s best interest, they may place themselves on equal ground with North American powers. Almost like an “I help you, you help me” situation. This is particularly prominent in the current political environment, with Trump’s strong anti-immigration policies and clear interest in strengthening the US-Mexico border.

The second important factor will be reducing the unemployment levels. Unless people have an income that allows them to sustainably support themselves and their families, there is a risk that people will continue to turn to drug trafficking in order to make ends meet. If men and women are kept busy and provided the structure that comes with employment, there is less chance that they will be on the streets and involved in criminal gang organizations. This is something that the US could potentially assist with, that is providing the funding for a strengthening of the labour force.

The third and final factor that will play a role in the region, and one that is perhaps more difficult to address, is that of dissatisfaction with the government, and high levels of government corruption. The UN has previously set up an anti-corruption commission in Guatemala, which was used with limited success as the government ordered the commission to stop involving itself in government affairs. As the governments of the region are still relatively recently democratic, there is a temptation to revert back to the ways of authoritarianism.

Whilst these are some longer-term ideas for the future of the region, it would be careless and erroneous to ignore the immediate needs of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are fleeing the turmoil. The positive impacts of NGOs, like Doctors without Borders, cannot be overemphasized, and so the assistance of like-minded organizations would go far in helping those who need immediate care.

The violence and terror that is being perpetrated by gangs throughout the Northern Triangle is abhorrent and causing a migration crisis that is, and will continue to affect the entire region for decades to come. The governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador need to step up and make this their priority. Doing so will build the foundation for a strong democracy and an independent Central America.

Riley Cahill

Riley has just graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of International and Global Studies. She is currently completing a Masters of International Relations and International Law at UNSW.

About Riley Cahill

Riley has just graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of International and Global Studies. She is currently completing a Masters of International Relations and International Law at UNSW.