Central America’s Northern Triangle: Challenges for U.S. Policymakers in 2021

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Central America’s Northern Triangle:
Challenges for U.S. Policymakers in 2021

February 16, 2021
Instability in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (the Northern Triangle of Central America; see
Figure 1) is among the most pressing chal enges for U.S. policymakers in the Western Hemisphere. The
United States historical y has played a prominent role in the political and economic development of the
region, which has long struggled with widespread insecurity, fragile democratic institutions, and high
levels of poverty and inequality.
Already difficult living conditions have deteriorated over the past year due to the Coronavirus Disease
2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and two hurricanes. The World Bank estimates the Honduran economy
contracted by 9.7% in 2020, and the Salvadoran and Guatemalan economies contracted by 7.2% and
3.5%, respectively. More than 3.5 mil ion people in Central America are now facing crisis levels of food
Although the pandemic and government lockdowns initial y disrupted criminal activities,
reports suggest domestic violence increased, and gangs and il icit trafficking groups quickly adapted to
the changed circumstances. Some government officials have sought to take advantage of the disorder,
al egedly engaging in corruption, repressing dissent, and undermining the rule of law to advance their
personal and political interests.
These interrelated socioeconomic, security, and political chal enges could have far-reaching implications
for the United States. Mixed migration flows of asylum-seekers and economic migrants from the region
may swel over the course of 2021, especial y once governments ease COVID-19-related border
restrictions. Some Hondurans have already formed large-scale “caravans” to make the journey north.
Conditions in the region also could affect il icit trafficking patterns, as some analysts warn that criminal
organizations may take advantage of the devastation in the region to further tighten their grip on the
“economies, people, and politics” of the Northern Triangle.
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Figure 1. Map of Central America

Source: Congressional Research Service.
Since FY2016, Congress has appropriated more than $3.6 bil ion of foreign assistance through the U.S.
Strategy for Engagement in Central America to improve conditions in the region and address the
underlying drivers of migration. The Obama Administration devised the strategy after a surge of
unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle arrived at the Southwest border in 2014. The Trump
Administration maintained the initiative but suspended most foreign assistance for the Northern Triangle
in March 2019. It reprogrammed $396 mil ion to other foreign policy priorities and withheld most of the
remaining assistance for more than a year while it negotiated a series of border security and asylum
with the Northern Triangle governments. The aid suspension resulted in U.S. agencies closing
or scaling back programs throughout the region.
U.S. policy in Central America is now at a crossroads. The United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced
Engagement Act (P.L. 116-260, Division FF, Subtitle F), signed into law in December 2020, directs the
State Department, in coordination with other U.S. agencies, to develop a new five-year strategy to
advance inclusive economic growth, combat corruption, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve
security conditions in the region. During his campaign, President Biden pledged to develop a
comprehensive, four-year $4 bil ion strategy for the region. To that end, the President issued Executive
Order (E.O.) 14010
on February 2, 2021, directing the Administration to begin preparing a strategy to
address the root causes of Central American migration.
As U.S. policymakers formulate a new strategy and consider potential authorization and appropriations
legislation, they may assess the effectiveness of the programs implemented under the U.S. Strategy for
Engagement in Central America. It is difficult to evaluate the full impact of that strategy because
congressional holds on funding delayed implementation until mid-2017, and the Trump Administration
suspended funding for many programs less than two years later. Nevertheless, a 2020 State Department
and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) progress report suggests U.S. programs
produced mixed results. For example, crime and violence prevention efforts, which U.S. agencies had
been refining for more than a decade, appear to have contributed to improved security conditions in the
Northern Triangle. Conversely, U.S. support for specialized law enforcement units did not result in
increased seizures of il icit narcotics.
U.S. efforts to foster structural changes in the Northern Triangle have faced significant resistance from a
smal but powerful group of elites who benefit from the status quo. Their opposition to anti-corruption
and good governance reforms has left Northern Triangle institutions without the resources or capabilities
necessary to respond to the region’s chal enges and susceptible to cooptation by private and criminal

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interests. Accordingly, many analysts argue that combatting systemic corruption should be the U.S.
government’s top priority in the region. Among other policies, they recommend increasing political and
financial support to reformers inside and outside of government while using diplomatic pressure and
targeted sanctions to spur political wil among those resistant to change. Although Congress has placed
anti-corruption conditions on assistance to the Northern Triangle governments and has created other anti-
sanctions authorities, prior Administrations have appeared reluctant to use those policy tools in
the region. The United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act requires the President to
produce an annual list of corrupt actors, due by June 2021, and directs the President to impose visa
sanctions on those identified.
Significantly, sustainable improvements in conditions in the region—and at the Southwest border—likely
would require years of concerted efforts by the Northern Triangle countries and international donors .
Although there is some evidence that foreign assistance can al eviate some drivers of forced
displacement, such as violence and food insecurity, economic migration appears to be more linked to
long-term demographic and development trends. To manage migration pressures in the near-term, some
analysts argue that policymakers should increase legal U.S. pathways for temporary laborers and asylum-
seekers while working with partners throughout the Western Hemisphere to strengthen humanitarian
protection systems. E.O. 14010 directs the Administration to consider actions along those lines as part of
a new collaborative migration management strategy. Pursuant to the executive order, the State Department
suspended the 2019 asylum agreements with the Northern Triangle countries. The Biden Administration
and Congress may consider additional executive actions or legislation to reestablish in-country refugee
processing programs in Central America, extend or expand Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for
Northern Triangle nationals, and adjust the status of TPS holders.

Author Information

Peter J. Meyer

Specialist in Latin American and Canadian Affairs

This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff
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