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Research Report

Building a Better Future: A Blueprint for Central America’s Northern Triangle

John Negroponte
Eduardo Stein
Maria Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila
Luis Cosenza
Jason Marczak
Copyright Date: May. 1, 2017
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 52
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-1)
    Eliot Engel and David Valadao

    To many Americans, the difficult issues facing Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—may seem distant. But the future of the United States is tied to these countries as some of our closest neighbors. Geography alone demonstrates that their stability and prosperity is critical to our national interest.

    Trafficking, gang violence, economic underdevelopment, and an atmosphere of impunity and corruption continue to present serious challenges to the Northern Triangle. Some progress has been made, but more needs to be done to ensure that the citizens of those countries feel they have options other than making the perilous...

  2. (pp. 8-9)

    Athree-hour flight from Miami or Houston, Central America’s Northern Triangle is locked into a vicious cycle of lost opportunity and violence. Made up of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the region has seen 50,000 murders over the past three years, the majority due to gang violence and drug trafficking.¹ Weak governance in the three countries has helped give rise to an illicit corridor for narco-trafficking and organized crime that begins just 2,500 miles from the US Southwest border. These crimes not only pose a crisis for law enforcement and the citizenry overall, but also have broad implications for Central America...

  3. (pp. 10-11)

    This Atlantic Council Task Force has its origins in a public opinion survey in Northern Triangle countries conducted in late August/early September 2016. The poll served as a critical starting point to bring the voices of the people and their concerns into the work of the task force. Commissioned by the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and carried out by CID-Gallup, it found that 75 percent of residents believe their country is on the wrong path; nine out of ten people in all three countries believe that corruption is widespread and that the justice system favors the rich and powerful....

  4. (pp. 12-15)

    The 2014 surge of unaccompanied children and adults with children from the Northern Triangle to the Southwest border of the United States galvanized bipartisan US support for a strategy to reduce child migration from the Northern Triangle. The increased financial support, technical assistance, and diplomatic attention by the United States and much of the international community represented an unprecedented investment in laying the groundwork for a secure and prosperous Central America—with modern borders, strong institutions, interconnected electricity and infrastructure grids, and productive human capital. To date, international attention has helped push local leaders to action, most notably in the...

  5. (pp. 16-16)

    Through a deep analysis of the situation in the Northern Triangle and consideration of the baseline poll results, the Northern Triangle Security and Economic Opportunity Task Force outlined the top challenges in which the United States can be of further assistance and sought solutions that would bring together Northern Triangle governments, the US Congress, the US private sector, and the international community. At the same time, the task force believes that US assistance must be met with additional game-changing measures taken by the governments, private sector, and civil society within the three countries themselves. The central focus for the recommendations...

  6. (pp. 17-23)

    Already underdeveloped, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were hit hard by the 2008-2009 global economic crisis. Recovery has been slow, compounded by factors such as natural disasters and a coffee rust. Unemployment has fluctuated, and even risen, in recent years.22 High levels of joblessness pose grave risks to societies where gang recruitment thrives among jobless youth and fractured families. The percentage of youth who neither study nor work is staggering—up to a quarter of people ages fifteen to twenty-nine in El Salvador and Honduras, compared with 20 percent in Latin America as a whole. 23

    Jobless youth today will...

  7. (pp. 24-29)

    Systemic corruption, coupled with inefficient public spending and insufficient local and foreign private investment, stagnates economic growth in the Northern Triangle. In fact, eight in ten poll respondents see corruption as widespread.

    Numerous investigations reveal massive networks dedicated to co-opting public funds for the personal enrichment of government officials: La Linea, which brought down Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina; the cases against former Salvadoran officials, including ex-presidents Mauricio Funes and Antonio Saca and former Attorney General Luis Martínez; and corruption scandals in Honduras, including embezzlement of social security funds and links to the Cachiros criminal group, and allegedly involving the...

  8. (pp. 30-37)

    One of the most troubling problems for Northern Triangle residents—especially middle- and low-income citizens—is insecurity. Drug trafficking and conflict among rival gangs—and between the gangs and the police—as well as burgeoning levels of organized crime and impunity have made the region one of the world’s most violent.

    Authorities estimate there are more than 85,000 active gang members in the Northern Triangle, with nearly a million more—relatives, business partners, corrupt police officers—dependent on the gangs.68 Though the two main gangs are the same throughout the region—Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street)—they...

  9. (pp. 38-38)

    There is no magic bullet for all the issues plaguing the Northern Triangle today. Any strategy that focuses only on security and neglects strengthening institutions and fostering an enabling economic climate will inevitably be insufficient. Only a holistic approach that builds on recent efforts, but also recognizes their shortcomings and pushes for more assertive action, will generate transformational change. That is what is needed to profoundly alter course in the region. If not, we are doomed to a continued deterioration in the local economy, rule of law, and security with reverberations felt not only locally but also north of the...