The Northern Triangle, the Migrant Flow, and the Risk of Criminal Violence

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans, migrants from the three countries comprising what is known as the Northern Triangle, have for decades been pushing into the United States. The Northern Triangle is remarkable for the extraordinarily high levels of criminal violence that persist in the face of government attempts to combat it and despite billions of dollars in US security and economic development aid. Alongside stark inequality and lack of opportunity, migrants cite organized crime and gang violence as reasons or seeking residence in other countries. Neighboring states of Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama have seen flows sharply increase over the last 15 years. But most migrants have set their eyes on the United States as their destination. As of 2015 (the most recent statistics), some 3.5 million Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans live in the United States. That figure represents a more than doubling of persons from that region over the decade. More than half of them are in the United States illegally. 

It is important to note that the surrounding countries of Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama do not exhibit nearly the levels of crime and violence as the countries of the Northern Triangle do. Part of this is explained by the historical circumstances of these countries. Between 1979 and 1992, in fighting that left some 75 thousand dead, the population of El Salvador was pulled into a struggle between leftist guerrillas and government forces. Between 1960 and 1996, fighting in Guatemala resulted in the deaths of some 200 thousand persons. During the US government’s campaign to destabilize the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the United States used Honduras as the forward staging area for the projection of death squads, called Contras, into Nicaragua. As these conflicts came to an end, the large supply of weapons and conflict-hardened men, many of whom had been raised in the service of illegal clandestine operations, coalesced into organized criminal networks. There is evidence that both the international drug enforcement activities and the use of drug networks to supply clandestine funding for counterrevolutionary operations created the context for the drug trafficking that represents the business interests of organized crime in the region.

These networks operate both domestically and transnationally, involved in extortion, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities. Domestic street gangs, or pandillas, are part of the daily experience of local populations. Transnational gangs, or maras, have a much wider reach. The Eighteenth Street Gang, more popularly known as M-18, and Mara Salvatrucha, the notorious MS-13, enjoy an estimated 85 thousand members. Mexicans formed M-18 in Los Angeles in the 1960s. MS-13 was the work of Salvadorans in the 1980s, also in Los Angeles. In the 1990s, responding to extraordinarily high rates of gang violence, the Clinton Administration and local law enforcement authorities pursued large-scale deportations of illegal aliens with criminal records (an estimated 10 thousand remain in the US). It is likely that, while reducing gang violence in the United States, relocating large numbers of gang members had the opposite effect in the Northern Triangle. The depth of the depravity of gangs has made it difficult for law enforcement to contain the crime and violence in the Northern Triangle. Moreover, the mano dura (“heavy-handed”) police tactics and use of mass incarceration may have helped gangs in their recruitment efforts. (See Clare Ribando Seelke’s Gangs in Central America, Congressional Research Service, August 29, 2016, as well as the report Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle by the Woodrow Wilson Center, 2015.)

The new millennium brought with it a surge in crime in the region. In 2005, migrants, in part fleeing the violence, but also seeking the higher standard of living and social services built by US workers, sought to enter the United States to live and work. The Bush Administration responded with Operation Streamline, a “zero-tolerance” policy that criminally prosecuted and deported those who illegally crossed the US-Mexico border. Alongside aggressive law enforcement efforts, Bush introduced the Merida Initiative, a security assistance package that funded expanded law enforcement efforts. Congress appropriated money to extend physical security barriers along the border, construction pursued under the Obama Administration. Obama reorganized and rebranded the Bush programs as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). As with Bush, Obama pursued economic development strategies. All told, the US government spent billions of dollars to help the region combat its crime problem. However, illegal immigration increased, reaching a crisis point in 2015. If violence explained the increase, then it was clear that El Salvador was the main problem. Violence, as measured by homicide rates, had been declining in Guatemala since 2009. And violence using the same measure has been declining in Honduras since 2011. Whatever the cause, Obama responded by ordering mass deportations of all migrants with denied asylum claims. The express reason was to deter migration to the United States.

Assuming power in 2017, the Trump Administration pursued strategies similar to his predecessors. Most notably, Trump sought to expand construction of physical security barriers and step up prosecutions of those who crossed the border illegally. Trump’s initial efforts produced a sharp drop in attempted border crossings in 2017 (not surprisingly, more than half of those apprehended were from Northern Triangle countries). However, sharp criticism of Trump’s policies from the corporate and leftwing media, religious organizations, and libertarian groups, have weakened his legitimacy. I have written about the organized efforts to challenge the US border in previous blogs so I will refer you there. The point I wish to leave you with today is the danger of allowing large numbers of people from the Northern Triangle to enter the US without a legitimate reason or without supervision. The transnational character of the criminal networks described in this blog reflect a deep culture of violence. The US has made great strides in reducing criminal violence in our nation. There is a very real risk of reversing that success with lax immigration controls.

Note: I benefitted from Rocio Cara Labrador and Danielle Renwick’s “Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle,” published in Foreign Affairs on June 26, 2018. The charts used above are from their work.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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