Northern Triangle: The root causes of US border migration

USA aims to confront the root causes of migration affecting its border, but which are they?

US Vice President, Kamala Harris, made her first overseas trip to Guatemala and Mexico in a fact-finding mission -as her close associates put it- to address the root causes of US border migration. The Biden administration, after April’s highest migration flow spike in 20 years (more than 178,000 migrants), in an effort to revert the erratic Trump era hardline, seeks to implement a different approach to immigration policies. However, the chronic predicaments of the Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) in Central America that result in migration flows persist.

More than 40% of April’s spike comes from the troubled Northern Triangle region. It is estimated that an average of 311,000 people annually fled El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras between 2014 and 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic led to postponing the migration flows the past year (about 709,000 people left the region in 2019 and 139,000 in 2020) which contributed to the sudden rise of movements in 2021. Nevertheless, it is more than obvious that the numbers indicate an issue that should be regarded as a multilevel humanitarian crisis.

Before Donald Trump and his “big beautiful wall”, US efforts to tackle the issue oriented in long-term foreign aid to the Northern Triangle region, alongside regional cooperation, including neighboring Mexico. By rebranding this orientation, the Biden administration seeks to address the root causes of US border migration. And the root causes range from a variety of political, social and economic plights.

Security and corruption at the heart of the issue

The people of the Northern Triangle region are facing a harsh reality. Organized crime and gang violence flourish in their countries while corruption and decreasing state power constitute a deep poor governance problem. At the same time, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rank among the highest countries of homicide rate per capita.

Organized crime groups are strong in the region. As strong as to say they “run the county” -at least this is what most citizens of El Salvador think-, proving the immensity of the difficult situation. Their activities are being fueled by drugs, money laundering, human trafficking, kidnapping, ransom and extortion making their operation transnational. On the other hand, despite the anti-corruption efforts that have been conducted over the years, Northern Triangle countries are still struggling with billions of losses that could have been distributed in support of weakened institutions and social policies.

The authoritarian Bukele government in El Salvador is allegedly negotiating with Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang in order to curb its activities, probably in the same way it was done by Salvadorian officials back in 2012.

On top of crime and corruption problems, Guatemala is facing a continuously increasing number of femicides, alongside numerous cases of gender violence, an issue that sparked protests across the country.

Another typical example of the deep-rooted corruption that plagues the region is when Honduras failed to renew the Organization of American States (OAS) anti-corruption mission in the country, a move seen as providing immunity to its officials.

The economy: poverty and inequality

Even if the people of the Northern Triangle region manage to avoid the above frightening conditions they will certainly face probably the most common root cause of migration: poverty and inequality.

The worldwide problem of unequal wealth distribution is a destabilizing factor even for the most developed countries. Conceptualizing the issue in the poorer countries is, of course, even worse and the Northern Triangle region is no different. Economic elites have concentrated great power resulting in great numbers of inequality, while economic growth throughout the past decades failed to provide adequate job opportunities for the poor. The youth population, which in fact is on the rise in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is plagued the most and subsequently is forced to migrate.

The greatest challenge in El Salvador is posed by urbanization, as more than 1/3 of the country’s population lives in rural areas where fewer economic opportunities are being presented and the agricultural sector suffers.

Indigenous people of Guatemala are being affected the most by the country’s exacerbating poverty and inequality. The World Bank estimates half of the Guatemalan population lives under the poverty line, while the same numbers are being taken into account for Honduras also. The significance of the economic causes of migration cannot be more visible as Honduras, the poorest country in mainland Latin America, constitutes the majority of migrants on the US border.

Natural disasters and COVID-19 on top

All of the above political and economic root causes of US border migration can be traced back to the US interventionism in the region during the Cold War era. But there are also causes outside this context and are being even more devastating on top of the other problems.

The region of the Northern Triangle is one of the most typical examples of the effects of climate change. Droughts, but floods also, have stricken the heavily agricultural-based region since the beginning of the previous decade resulting in unrecovered damage. At the same time, a coffee leaf rust outbreak resulted in millions of jobs lost in a sector that is of utmost importance to Guatemala. 2020 was also a devastating year in terms of hurricanes, where about 7 million people in Guatemala and Honduras have been affected.

And of course, except for harsh restrictive measures and deaths, the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have deteriorated even more the prospects of the people living in the Northern Triangle region. A study conducted by Fusades and Commitment to Equity Institute (CEQ) found that destitution percentages in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are higher than before as of January 2021, safely assuming that the COVID-19 pandemic created more poverty in the region.

Naturally, the root causes of US border migration lying in the Northern Triangle region can be faced neither at once nor by the US alone. The interconnectedness of the causes transcends the borders and call for a holistic multilateral approach including those who are not directly affected. But most importantly of all, it is an issue that reminds us that migrant crises cannot be resolved by harsher border restrictions and force.