The Northern Triangle Amidst Multiple Crises

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 49

Long before the onset of COVID, the Northern Triangle Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras (from here on referred to as the Northern Triangle, unless speaking of individual countries) were characterized by endemic poverty, political inefficacy and corruption, and frequent violence.  Violence is frequently linked to criminal organizations (also referred to as gangs), who have responded to and taken advantage of the poverty and corruption characterizing the region to acquire political and economic power.  Typical gang practices have included controlling communities by demanding “war taxes” from residents and business owners for the right to remain working and in their homes; kidnapping children and loved ones to extort ransom or to work in the illegal drug industry or as sex slaves; and threatening local politicians, police, and civil servants with death if they do not cooperate with their demands.  Youth also get seduced and/or forced into gang organizations as they are faced with a lack of economic opportunities.   

When the COVID-19 Virus hit, “trade disruptions,” lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and social gathering (in place by late March 2020) “forced some criminal outfits to slow illicit activities” and “caus[ed] an abrupt but short-lived drop in the revenues of criminal groups and street gangs.”  However, criminal groups “swiftly adapted” to COVID lockdowns – using the situation to “tighten or expand their control over people and territory.”  Gangs cut their expenses to stay afloat – for example, “gangs in El Salvador … limit[ed] ‘economic support’ to relatives and lawyers of jailed gang members and adapted to the virus-induced inability to rely on extortion to instead affirm their power through philanthropic, paternalistic or patron-driven practices such as “handing out food baskets and forgiving ‘protection’ payments.” As a result, violence fell briefly in Honduras and Guatemala in response to initial movement restrictions, but it has since returned to or exceeded pre-pandemic levels. Mobility restrictions and border closures also contributed to an initial decline in drug trafficking, but in general, this too rebounded quickly.  

In El Salvador, however, homicide has remained at a historical low.  The government claims that its own security efforts are to thanks, whereas the International Crisis group suggests that “gang and government leaders may have struck an informal agreement to scale back violence.”  Criminal collusion with state actors in the Northern Triangle and beyond is nothing new as those working to maintain “peace” are often motivated by varying degrees of their own volition and pressure from the gangs themselves to cooperate, and this combines with a lack of economic resources to make government at all levels relatively weak and unable to respond adequately to the epidemic itself.  

Mass Migration and Economic Hardship

The poverty and violence shaping the region have caused an explosion in migration in the last decade, as hundreds and even thousands of migrants join together to form caravans.  World Bank figures indicate that in 2017, 1,387,022 (22% of the total population), 621,059 (7% of the total population), and 935,707 (5% of the total population) migrated to the US from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala respectively.  Consequently, the highest percentages of U.S. foreign- born residents by nationality come from the Northern Triangle: 61% of Salvadorans, 64% of Guatemalans, and 66% of Hondurans.

COVID has only exacerbated poor economic conditions – further strengthening motivations for migration – yet the pandemic has also resulted in the closure of borders and thereby shut down options for migration.  Nonetheless, residents of the Northern Triangle (particularly Hondurans) continue to join caravans with the hopes of securing what they hope will be a better life in the United States.  Information on national poverty and standard of living in each country presented below does, however, suggest that violence is a larger factor than poverty driving migration, as the poorest country, Guatemala, has the lowest percentage of migrants (5%) despite its larger population and proximity to Mexico; whereas El Salvador, despite its medium levels of economic hardship within the three countries, has by far the most at 22%.

There is, however, one result of border closures which some would view positively – the suspension and pending termination of the Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) program.  Based on “asylum cooperative agreements” (ACAs) between the United States and the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the AVR sends asylum-seeking migrants at the Mexican-U.S. border back to different, purportedly “safer” Northern Triangle countries than the ones from which they fled, to wait for their petitions to be processed there.  However, such “sanctuary” countries have frequently been unsafe for such migrants, as the region is cohesive and small and the threatening forces and people that such migrants fled could easily find them again.  This practice was halted in March 2020 due to COVID, and President Joe Biden recently announced his plans to terminate the ACAs “as the first concrete steps on the path to greater partnership and collaboration in the [North American] region…”  

In the Northern Triangle, what COVID had already ensured was “one of the most severe economic contractions in decades,” was magnified by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, reaching landfall in the region on Nov. 3 and 16, respectively. Consequently, as of early February 2021, expected falls in 2020 GDP of close to 10% have led to surging unemployment and “are set to reverse advances in reducing inequality and poverty, weaken public services in poor areas, intensify criminal rivalries and sharpen officials’ motives for consorting with illicit business.”  

Failing Public Health Infrastructures and Systems

The Northern Triangle countries’ susceptibility to COVID also results from their under-prioritization of health care.  This is evident in their low scores in the amount of funding dedicated to health care on a global scale.  Despite pledges to the Pan American Health Organization’s “Sustainable Health Agenda Development Agenda for the Americas, 2018-2030,” no Central American country is fulfilling its promise to spend “at … least 6% of … GDP in public expenditure on health.”  Such countries have also abandoned commitments to other international agreements.  Furthermore, despite having an additional two months of time to prepare for COVID than North America or Europe, Central American countries failed to get sufficient medical supplies or medical personnel in place.  

In certain countries, a lack of proper precautions and protocols also poses significant risk to front-line healthcare workers.  It is important to acknowledge that this is not true throughout Latin or even Central America, as “[s]ome states … have taken extraordinary and innovative measures to tackle the … pandemic in line with human rights [standards] including swift adoptions of decrees and laws to strengthen health and workers’ rights …,” but in others, “the recurrence of key failings to comply with human rights obligations offers reason to evaluate possible breaches of treaty obligations by governments of the region.”  Honduras and El Salvador provide notable examples of failures in administering public health responses to COVID.

Fortunately, although Central American countries are not living up to national and international public health responsibilities as outlined in the agreements above, in early February 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced country-by-country vaccine distribution figures for its COVAX mechanism to provide equal access to vaccines.  Guatemala is slated to receive 847,200 vaccines, El Salvador 375,480; Honduras 496,800, which will reach 4.9%, 5.7%, and 5.4% of Guatemala’s 17.2 million, El Salvador’s 6.5 million, and Honduras’s 9.2 million populations, respectively.  The presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have also reported various plans to purchase additional vaccines. All three countries have also administered between 500,000 and 700,000 tests.  However, because of the different population sizes, these have reached disproportionate segments of the population.  In Guatemala, only 4.6% received the 791,928 tests Guatemala was reported to administer in early February, whereas the 700,000 tests and less than 600,000 tests El Salvador and Honduras issued, could have provided results for at most 10.7% and 6.5% of those populations.  

Regional and International Aid

The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) generated an $8 million non-reimbursable financial package to combat the widening economic fallout from COVID-19 in all eight Central American countries. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the U.S. government has provided many forms of aid to the Northern Triangle, summarized as follows.  

Guatemala has received over $8.4 million of COVID relief aid from the United States. An initial grant of $2.4 million aimed to improve case management; treatment, containment and prevention of infection in health facilities; disease surveillance; and risk communication.  An additional $6 million in International Disaster Assistance (IDA) has provided further help with risk communication, water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructures and services. On top of this, previously established programs continue – for example, redirected USAID funding has helped with the provision of medical supplies, including expedited delivery of hygiene kits and sanitation supplies to Guatemalan migrants returned from the U.S. border and transportation to reunite unaccompanied minors with their families.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program continue providing 132,000 school lunches to underprivileged Guatemalan children each school day as well as additional “take-home rations.” And the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has provided $200 million channeled through the Banco Industrial in order to “expand lending to Guatemala’s small and medium enterprises, which are facing a roughly $14 billion credit gap that limits their ability to expand, increase revenues, and create jobs. At least 30 percent of loan proceeds will go to women borrowers.

El Salvador has received $6.6 million from the United States: $2 million in humanitarian International Disaster Assistance (IDA); $2 million in Economic Support Funds (ESF) to create jobs and increase access to credit, partly in hopes that such initiatives would help deter illegal immigration to the United States; and almost $2.6 million in pandemic-related health assistance. In addition, funds have been redirected from USAID to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to support COVID-19 quarantine centers and the reintegration of deportees into their communities after they have quarantined. In addition, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has invested more than $500 million in energy, clean water, and inclusive financial services in El Salvador, including a $350 million investment in the Energía del Pacífico natural gas power plant which will supply over 20 percent of El Salvador’s electricity requirements. In January, the United States and El Salvador signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a framework for bilateral cooperation in support of the América Crece initiative, which aims to catalyze private sector investment in infrastructure and energy projects across Latin America and the Caribbean. The United States has also provided equipment and supplies in addition to monetary grants, including 250 portable ventilators; 7,500 food kits; and more than 1,000 hygiene supplies, mostly to quarantine shelters for returned Salvadoran nationals and other migrants. 

Finally, the United States has allocated more than $5.4 million of aid to Honduras: $3 million in IDA and more than $2.4 million to improve laboratories, disease surveillance, clinical management of COVID-19 cases, and infection control in migrant returnee communities. In addition, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has worked to improve delivery of health supplies, “refurbish infrastructure in seven quarantine shelters,” and “provide … hygiene kits, meals, and clothing to returned Honduran nationals.”  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has also provided supplies to the national lab, data clerks and staff to serve on emergency response workgroups, and funding for Rapid Response Teams carrying out contact tracing.

Although all three countries face similar challenges – poverty, violence, corruption, environmental disaster and climate change, and migrants fleeing, passing through, and returning “home” against their will – these experiences play out differently in each country. In addition, each of these aspects of life interacts with the others in different ways in particular contexts – and have different degrees of influence on the national landscape.  It is therefore useful to look at the situation in each country independently.

By Sarah Buck Kachaluba

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