The Northern Triangle: Central America’s Turbulent Heart – Analysis


By Tanya Anand

Nestled in the heart of Central America, lies the Northern Triangle – a triangular region composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. El Salvador lies to the south along the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala to the west with a Pacific coast and a Caribbean coastline to the east, and Honduras to the east with coastlines along both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The region holds a crucial geopolitical position in Central America. Situated between North and South America, it serves as a bridge for regional trade and migration. However, the region has become a geopolitical powder keg, grappled by persistent suffering that demands our attention. In recent years, this threatened corner of Central America has become a vessel of complex socio-political challenges, the consequences of which impact not only the citizens within its borders but also the neighboring nations.

Central America has borne the brunt of violence and corruption, particularly in the northern triangle, fueled by the dangerous grip of organized crime and the drug trade. It is a place where homicide rates have reached horrifying heights, where extortion runs rampant, and where entire communities live under the threat of gang wars. Gender-based violence remains unchecked, and a veil of impunity shields most criminal activities, while economic despair and the lack of opportunities have become all too common.

But what truly brought this region into the global spotlight is the relentless flow of desperate Central Americans journeying through Mexico, risking everything to seek asylum at the United States’ southern border. Annually, a significant exodus occurs in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where countless individuals seek refuge from the grip of poverty and violence.

The Triad of Troubles – Political, Security and Economic Crisis

Following its independence from Spain, the Northern Triangle has endured a prolonged period marked by authoritarian rule and an uneven shift toward democracy. This historical trajectory has significantly shaped the region’s political landscape and socio-economic challenges. Over the past decade, the region became the trans-shipment corridor for Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) groups. Consequently, homicide rates rose rapidly in the region as it became the primary transit corridor for narcotics.

These issues only begin to highlight the complexity of poverty in the region, which has surged dramatically. It sets the stage for a booming human trafficking business model exploited by smugglers and TOCs. This predicament drives migration, with multiple factors at play. Security concerns loom large, exacerbated by poor governance characterized by corruption and the oppression of opposition. Climate change further fans the flames, bringing prolonged droughts and a barrage of back-to-back hurricanes. Yet, beneath it all, the core reason propelling the youth to migrate is the profound lack of economic opportunities and adequate training, severely curtailing their employability and aspirations for a brighter future.

Political Turmoil

The Northern Triangle grapples with a history of political instability. The political turmoil in the region sows the seeds of economic instability through policy uncertainty, inconsistent regulations, government mismanagement, deterring investors and hindering economic growth. Moreover, this instability fuels security concerns as weak governments struggle to maintain order, providing opportunities for criminal groups to thrive. Simultaneously, political trouble erodes vital institutions like the judiciary and law enforcement, eroding trust, and accountability. Systemic corruption further deepens the crisis, endangering both growth and democratic foundations.

The core of political instability in the region revolves around relentless power struggle. One key aspect of this struggle is the disproportionate influence of an economically privileged elite, hindering crucial reforms that could mitigate social inequality, improve governance, and foster economic development. Additionally, the region is characterized by a volatile and unpredictable political landscape. Frequent leadership changes and shifting political alliances contribute to instability, making it challenging to implement coherent, long-term policies and strategies.

Furthermore, the region’s citizens often encounter significant barriers when attempting to participate in the political process, as limited access to information and the presence of restrictive laws can impede their engagement. This situation breeds a prevailing sentiment among many citizens that their voices go unheard, and their votes fail to translate into tangible and meaningful change. Over time, this widespread disillusionment has led to decreased political participation.

Amidst these issues, corruption significantly amplifies instability and erodes trust in political institutions. Corruption has deeply penetrated every level of these societies, from top government officials to law enforcement agencies, creating a culture of impunity and diverting limited resources and allowing criminal elements to infiltrate state institutions. High-profile scandals involving embezzlement, bribery, and kickbacks have repeatedly shaken public trust in the political leadership. Many of the institutions responsible for upholding the rule of law, such as the judiciary, are often seen as susceptible to political interference and corruption leading to fragility of political institutions. The judiciary’s independence is compromised, undermining its ability to hold those in power accountable.

For instance, in El Salvador, in May 2021, the Bukele administration removed key members of the Constitutional Chamber and the prosecutor general. Despite the Constitutional Chamber deeming these actions unconstitutional, the legislature appointed new members. Ousted judges resigned under alleged duress and surveillance, highlighting the fragility of the rule of law. Moreover, an unconstitutional state of exception was imposed in March 2022, repeatedly extended with parliamentary approval. The judiciary’s inability to address this situation, resolve numerous habeas corpus petitions, or address human rights violations demonstrates a lack of independence.

In Guatemala, similar challenges persist. Organized crime and corruption continue to undermine government functioning, with limited recourse for victims of violence and extortion. Judges and prosecutors involved in corruption cases often face obstruction, intimidation, and attacks. The closure of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2019 further crippled the fight against corruption, with judges and prosecutors dedicated to this cause becoming targets of physical attacks and defamation campaigns. Honduras, too, is plagued by institutional weakness, corruption, and violence.

Rampant Insecurity

For years, the Northern Triangle has been mired in a daunting security crisis, primarily driven by powerful transnational criminal organizations, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang (M-18). These criminal groups compete for control of trafficking routes, local drug distribution, extortion, and various illegal activities.

The Northern Triangle boasts one of the world’s highest homicide rates, which in turn results in the forced displacement of entire communities, the recruitment of children and youth by gangs, limited access to healthcare, and a substantial number of children dropping out of school. Rates of sexual violence and femicide in the region far exceed global averages. According to the reports by the United Nations Development Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), between the year 2010 and 2020, over 144,000 individuals were murdered in this region, constituting 2.64 percent of global intentional homicides during this period, despite the subregion accounting for only 0.5 percent of the world’s population. Although homicide rates have been decreasing in the past decade in all three countries, complex public safety issues and various security threats persist.

The economic and social impacts of gang-related extortion significantly shape perceptions of crime in the region. In 2022, the estimated proceeds from extortion against Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran businesses and individuals ranged from $1.14 billion to $1.23 billion. While the financial consequences of widespread extortion are evident, its societal impact is even more pronounced. Recurring extortion, commonly referred to as “la renta,” places a heavy financial burden on small businesses and marginalized communities, eroding their quality of life and generating violence and displacement. The region lacks the resources and capacity within their security forces to effectively prevent, investigate, or prosecute crime.

The region’s extreme violence has devastating humanitarian consequences, with nearly one in three people requiring urgent assistance. Internal displacement due to violence is an added concern, with at least 318,590 Salvadorans and Hondurans estimated to have been displaced within their countries as of December 2022.

Honduras, with a global crime rate of 6.98, ranks among the top 10 most crime-prone countries worldwide. The country serves as a major drug trafficking route to the United States due to weak law enforcement. While the homicide rate has decreased recently, violent crime and gang activity persist. In 2022, the official murder rate was 36 per 100,000 people, showing significant improvement from the early 2010s, though Honduras remains one of Latin America’s and the world’s most violent nations.

El Salvador, the region’s smallest nation, has a crime rate of 5.94. It has experienced declining homicide rates but still grapples with the pervasive influence of street gangs, or maras, which maintain a stronghold over many communities. The country is home to a substantial number of gang members, both within and outside prison, and confronts challenges such as high youth gang participation, drug trafficking, and homicides.

The security challenges in the region go beyond gang violence, drug trafficking, and general violence; they also encompass the persistent threat of gender-based violence.

Gender Based Violence (GBV)

In the Northern Triangle, gender-based violence is not just a statistic; it’s a harsh reality that affects countless women and girls. It remains a silent epidemic in these countries, with alarmingly high rates of femicide, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Cultural norms deeply rooted patriarchal attitudes, and limited access to justice perpetuate this crisis. The impact of GBV goes beyond physical harm, affecting the psychological and economic well-being of women.

Northern Triangle countries consistently report some of the world’s highest femicide rates- gender-based killing of women. In 2021, El Salvador (2.4 cases per 100,000 women) and Honduras (4.6 cases per 100,000 women) rankedamong the Latin American countries with the highest femicide rates.

Beyond femicide, women endure domestic violence, including physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. Tragically, their safety is compromised not only in public spaces but even within their own households. The fear of sexual violence restricts women’s freedom of movement and contributes to their overall insecurity. Unfortunately, many victims remain silent, reluctant to report abuse due to concerns about retaliation or social stigma. Furthermore, the legal systems in these countries often lack the resources and capacity to effectively address GBV cases, leaving survivors without recourse.

Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have implemented policy reforms aimed at combating gender-based violence, which include the formal recognition of “femicide” as a crime punishable by law. There are certain institutions, such as the ISDEMU in El Salvador, the SEPREM in Guatemala, and the INAM in Honduras, that are entirely focused on promoting gender equality. However, in practice, laws and penalties against gender-based violence often go unenforced due to insufficient funding and a lack of political will. According to the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, “widespread impunity remains the norm.” It’s crucial to acknowledge that gender-based violence poses a significant security threat. Not only legal reforms but also a profound shift in societal attitudes towards gender equality and the protection of women’s rights is essential.

Economic Downturn

The Northern Triangle finds itself in the unenviable position of being one of the poorest regions in the Western Hemisphere. In 2022, these countries ranked near the bottom for gross domestic product (GDP) per capita among Latin American and Caribbean states. This economic distress, however, isn’t merely a recent phenomenon. It’s deeply rooted and has been exacerbated by a complex web of factors that have plagued the region for decades.

Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador faced economic contractions in 2020 due to the pandemic but experienced strong rebounds in 2021. This rebound is attributed to the recovery from the pandemic-induced recession. As restrictions eased and economic activities resumed, various sectors contributed to this growth. However, the rate of economic expansion in these countries has remained sluggish since 2022. This slow growth has failed to significantly enhance opportunities for their growing population, especially the younger generation. The absence of inclusive economic development and limited prospects has now emerged as the primary forces propelling emigration from these nations.

Poverty looms large over this region, with a significant portion of the population living below the poverty line. This dire situation not only deprives people of basic necessities but also perpetuates economic hardship. For those trapped in poverty, breaking free from its grip becomes a daunting and often unattainable dream. In Guatemala alone, around 3.8 million people, constituting over 20 percent of the total population, urgently require humanitarian assistance, with 60 percent of them living in poverty. This alarming poverty rate, one of the highest in the Latin American and Caribbean region, is the result of several factors, including a large and underserved rural population engaged in the informal sector, an inefficient state, a lack of educational and employment opportunities, and the frequent occurrence of natural disasters.

Income inequality is another troubling facet of the Northern Triangle’s economic landscape. The distribution of wealth is staggeringly imbalanced, with a substantial portion concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. This glaring wealth gap worsens poverty and effectively blocks pathways for social advancement. For most of the population, climbing the economic ladder remains a distant and elusive goal.

Guatemala stands out for its extreme income inequality, with the wealthiest 10 percent of the population commanding nearly half of the national income. While the country has exhibited resilience in the face of numerous challenges, including weathering economic crises, benefiting from prudent fiscal policies, low fiscal deficits, and substantial foreign reserves, recent economic indicators signal a slowdown. In 2022, GDP growth halved to 4.1 percent, and inflation surged, peaking at 9.9 percent year-on-year in February 2023 before slightly easing to 8.71 percent in March of the same year. These economic woes are compounded by under-executed public investments, high poverty rates, weak tax revenue, and governance deficiencies.

Another challenge plaguing the region is the persistent presence and influence of the informal economy. This realm of economic activity, characterized by its lack of formal regulation and job insecurity, has majorly contributed to economic woes in the region. It comprises a wide range of economic activities that operate outside the formal regulatory framework of the government. Informal workers engage in various occupations, from street vending and unregistered small businesses to day labor and subsistence farming. This sector frequently employs a significant portion of the workforce, serving as a vital source of income for countless families. However, workers in this sector encounter numerous hardships, including job insecurity, low wages, absence of employment benefits, and minimal legal protections. These difficulties entrench individuals in a cycle of economic vulnerability.

The region today faces a significant brain drain as skilled professionals, including doctors, nurses, and teachers, often seek better opportunities abroad, depleting the region’s vital human capital. While remittances provide vital family support, they underscore the scarcity of local economic prospects, perpetuating a generational cycle of emigration. Additionally, the growing severity of natural disasters, driven by climate change, threatens long-term economic stability.

Governments’ Struggle Against These Challenges: What’s Been Tried? 

Over the years, the Northern Triangle countries have implemented a range of development-oriented and tough-on-crime strategies in their quest to address the persistent challenges plaguing the region. Despite these efforts, the results have often fallen short of expectations, highlighting the complex nature of the issues at hand and the need for a more comprehensive approach.


During the 2000s and early 2010s, these countries predominantly employed a “Mano Dura” or “iron fist” approach. This policy relied heavily on military and police actions to combat gangs and organized crime. It was marked by mass arrests and incarcerations. However, despite its popularity, the mano dura policies often failed to significantly reduce crime and may have even contributed to increased gang recruitment. International bodies like the U.S. State Department, as well as human rights organizations and journalists, voiced concerns about the consequences of these policies.

In recent years, in response to escalating violence, governments in the region have declared states of emergency in specific areas, curtailing constitutional rights such as freedom of movement and due process. Additionally, there has been a growing trend of involving the military in public security. There has been a notable shift in El Salvador and Honduras towards heavy-handed crackdowns on gangs, with leaders like President Bukele of El Salvador and President Castro of Honduras resorting to strong-armed approaches. There have also been reports of attempts at negotiations and agreements with criminal groups. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of such measures in addressing the root causes of gang violence remains a subject of doubt among experts.


The governments of the Northern Triangle countries have undertaken various efforts at both national and regional levels, often with the support of international organizations like the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS).

At the national level, these countries have established specialized units and entities with the jurisdiction to investigate corruption and extortion cases. For example, Guatemala created the Special Prosecutor’s Unit Against Corruption Impunity (FECI), while Honduras established the Specialized Fiscal Unit Against Corruption. These entities were tasked with addressing corruption within their borders.

At the regional level, Guatemala benefited significantly from the presence of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), an independent investigative body. CICIG played a crucial role in convicting numerous individuals, including a sitting president, and contributed to a notable reduction in Guatemala’s homicide rate. Unfortunately, CICIG’s mandate was terminated, which was seen as a step backward in the region’s fight against corruption.

Similarly, Honduras established the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) with the backing of the Organization of American States (OAS). MACCIH initiated sweeping reforms, including the dismissal of a significant portion of the police force, in response to a major embezzlement case. However, MACCIH also ceased operations following a government decision.

Despite the anti-corruption initiatives, the countries have experienced instances of regression. In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales allowed CICIG’s mandate to expire, and those advocating for the rule of law have faced reprisals under his successor, Alejandro Giammattei. Honduras also allowed the mandate of its anti-corruption body to expire in 2020, coinciding with the reduction of penalties for drug trafficking and specific corruption cases. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, despite launching CICIES, has faced allegations of corruption, and concerns have been raised about growing authoritarianism under his leadership. In June 2021, his government announced the termination of its agreement for CICIES with the OAS.

Economic Instability

The most prominent joint initiative in the region aimed at mitigating economic instability was the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (A4P), supported by the United States and initiated in 2014. This plan was crafted to tackle the root causes of irregular migration and involved commitments to enhance productivity, reinforce institutions, broaden opportunities, and enhance public safety. However, assessing its impact has proven challenging, and there are ongoing debates regarding its outcomes.

Participation in trade agreements, such as CAFTA-DR (Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement) and bilateral agreements, has also facilitated trade and economic integration, potentially boosting economic stability. It was negotiated with the United States and entered into force at various times for each participating country between 2006 and 2007.

Governments also embarked on various economic reforms to attract investment, improve the business environment, and boost economic growth. These reforms included changes to taxation, trade policies, and regulations to encourage private sector development. Investment in infrastructure projects, such as transportation and energy, was also pursued to improve connectivity within and beyond the region.

The Northern Triangle countries also received financial assistance and support from international organizations. Recently, Honduras and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have reached a staff-level agreement on a 36-month arrangement combining the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) and Extended Credit Facility (ECF) with a total value of approximately $830 million. This agreement is designed to support Honduras’ economic reform efforts.

A Way Forward

The Northern Triangle stands at a critical crossroads, fighting with several challenges. From the enduring grip of corruption and violence to the persistent economic struggles and gender-based violence, this region has been tested on multiple fronts. To chart a path forward, a comprehensive strategy is important. Strengthening governance and the rule of law, rooted in accountability and transparency, serves as the bedrock for sustainable progress. Prioritizing education and skill development, especially for the youth, is essential. It will unlock their potential as engines of economic growth and resilience. Inclusivity should be at the base of economic growth efforts, with a focus on empowering small and medium-sized enterprises to bridge the gap of inequality. Gender-based violence must be confronted head-on through legal reforms, challenging societal norms, and providing support to survivors. However, the battle doesn’t end here. The region must also confront the threat of climate change, which amplifies existing vulnerabilities. This includes prolonged droughts, intensified natural disasters, and agricultural challenges disrupting livelihoods and worsening food insecurity. Therefore, adapting to changing conditions, investing in clean and sustainable energy sources, and mitigating environmental factors becomes significant. International cooperation, alongside regional organizations, can play a major role in this endeavor.

This article was published at Geopolitical

Geopolitical Monitor is an open-source intelligence collection and forecasting service, providing research, analysis and up to date coverage on situations and events that have a substantive impact on political, military and economic affairs.

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