This piece is part of a series titled "Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies: What the Biden administration needs to know," from Brookings's Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.
The Biden administration kicks off with a range of interests to address in the Northern Triangle of Central America — democracy, human rights, trade and investment, and stemming drug trafficking. However, immigration remains its priority. In contrast to the Trump administration’s focus on stopping the immediate flows across the border, the incoming administration has committed to boost spending to $4 billion to address the underlying causes of immigration in Central America.
Those root causes have only worsened in the past few years, thanks largely to nefarious nonstate actors and corrupt and exclusionary states. Economic problems, ongoing violence, worsening corruption, and challenges to democracy have been aggravated by the devastating impact of the coronavirus. In December, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected that Central America’s economies will have shrunk 6% in 2020, with a short-lived drop in remittances last spring and ongoing declines in tourism. Although all three governments of the Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador — borrowed heavily to extend massive support packages, especially to the poorest sectors, it may take years to recover from virus’ economic consequences. One key problem is that none of the three governments represent an optimal partner for advancing U.S. interests.
Honduras is the most serious challenge. Already the poorest country of mainland Latin America, Hurricanes Eta and Iota displaced over 100,000 people, many of whose houses were destroyed, and wrought significant agricultural destruction. Despite having experienced some growth in the past few years, its deep inequality, poverty, and corruption long predate the 2020 hurricanes. With a poverty rate of 48% and a middle class of only 11% in 2015 (much lower than the 35% regional average), it is no surprise that Honduras became the largest source of migrants to the U.S. in the past few years. In the same week that Joe Biden was inaugurated, Guatemalan and Mexican authorities used force to stop a caravan of an estimated 7,500 people, mainly Hondurans, from advancing north through their countries.
Honduras is also emblematic of the problem of providing large amounts of aid. The entire political system is infused with corruption, as is the judicial system, and politicians keep voting to give themselves new immunities. After an Organization of American States (OAS) anti-corruption mission was terminated last year when the government wanted to gut its investigative authorities, the courts have dismissed many of the charges in key cases. The epitome of malfeasance is sitting President Juan O. Hernández, who has been named in New York’s federal court as a co-conspirator of the notorious drug trafficker “El Chapo.” And one opposition party seems bent on nominating a presidential candidate for the November elections who was released in 2020 from a U.S. prison after serving a three-year term for money laundering.
In Guatemala, the presence of violent gangs and drug trafficking organizations persists, as does impunity, as courts continue to release people indicted in high-profile corruption cases. The country, which suffered a 2% economic decline in 2020, is experiencing political turmoil under President Alejandro Giammattei, a conservative just completing his first year in office. Here too, poverty and inequality afflict the population, especially indigenous communities. A corrupt political class has re-exerted itself after shutting down a U.N.-backed anti-impunity commission that had in 12 years indicted over 400 politicians, businesspeople, and ex-military officers implicated in illicit networks. Backers of that commission became afraid to speak out against corruption, and judges known for courageous decisions received death threats. The backlash against the successful international body illustrated the entrenched power of elites and the challenges to fostering accountability.
Popular dissatisfaction erupted this past November. Thousands of people streamed into the streets outraged that, in the aftermath of the damaging two hurricanes, the national congress increased its own members’ expense accounts while cutting budgets for COVID-19 patients, nutrition programs, human rights offices, and the judiciary. Protesters broke into the historic national palace, starting a fire and prompting the congress to backtrack on the budget changes. The vice president unsuccessfully called on the president to resign, but the crisis halted the momentum of the “Pact of the Corrupt” group in congress. On top of this, femicides continue to plague all three countries, Guatemala most prominently.
El Salvador presents a slightly different challenge. The country has less presence of drug trafficking but a more serious problem of gang power over many neighborhoods and towns. A populist 37-year-old, Nayib Bukele, was elected president in 2019 running against the two dominant political parties he branded as corrupt and incompetent.
Early on, Bukele adopted a harsh approach to COVID-19, using the army and police against people breaking curfew to confine them in quarantine centers. His efforts were boosted by MS-13 members who wielded baseball bats and threats to enforce the curfew that banned most everyone from circulating. Even as these notorious gangs exerted their power, their violence diminished under Bukele. El Salvador’s homicide rate — the highest in the world in 2015 — dropped dramatically, and in the first five months of 2020 dropped an additional 61% from 2019, on track to be the lowest number of homicides in the country since the 1992 peace accords ended civil war. Speculation that the president had cut a deal with the gang leaders to refrain from killings gained support when documents of such a deal surfaced last September.
Bukele belittled the reporting in a manner consistent with the most troubling turn of his presidency — a decided shift toward authoritarianism. Since assuming office, he has berated journalists and human rights defenders, questioning their commitment to democracy and putting them in jeopardy. He has ridiculed the Supreme Court and defied its decisions. Yet his approval ratings have, remarkably, never dipped below 89%. His supporters routinely join Bukele in using social media to attack anyone who questions him. His party is likely to win legislative elections in February and initiate constitutional changes to extend and bolster his power. Last February, Bukele’s frustration with the legislative assembly led him to order army troops into their chamber, something unprecedented in modern times. Finally, his government has now been implicated in the very corrupt behavior he campaigned against.
Recommendations for U.S. policy
President Biden understands the challenges of Central America. As vice president, he was the Obama administration’s point-man in advancing the $750 million Alliance for Prosperity strategy in 2014 to dissuade unaccompanied minors from fleeing their home countries. That plan helped reduce migration in the short term but failed to have a lasting impact on poor and corrupt governance. A recent Wilson Center review of U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle from 2014-19 found that successes were limited to well-planned, community-focused security initiatives where multiple sectors (mayors, national authorities, the private sector, churches, nongovernmental organizations) worked together. Nor did it transform economies or stem violence adequately to create labor markets necessary to create sustainable livelihoods.
It is unrealistic to expect that even a well-managed $4 billion investment would transform the economies of the region sufficiently to stem incentives to migrate within a few years. However, these could have an impact on the territorial control of gangs, their extortion and violence, on the judiciary, and on the rule of law. It could also lay the groundwork for subsequent economic transformation.
The most important challenges will not be solved by huge amounts of money. Those are corruption and poor governance.
But the most important challenges will not be solved by huge amounts of money. Those are corruption and poor governance. This was the key finding of the Wilson Center review. The $2.6 billion spent then had some positive effects, but only minimally addressed the targeted problems. Much of the aid was diverted by corrupt officials, went to the pockets of U.S. contractors, or led to little reform because “technical” approaches failed to tackle decades-old political problems.
The Biden administration has emphasized the rule of law and corruption, but it will need to use serious carrots and sticks and prioritize these efforts over others if the $4 billion package from the U.S. is to have a significant effect on average people. Poor governance is what underlies violence, impunity, insecurity, and lack of economic investment. And all the region’s governments either abet or embody corruption.
The United States and other countries largely failed to tackle corruption when pouring billions of dollars into places like Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala enjoyed remarkable success in its time, due largely to its international experts and investigative mandate. Unfortunately, conditions are not ripe for resurrecting it.
However, a regional commission could be worth instigating if the Biden administration can team with civil society organizations of the region in association with a multilateral political or finance entity like the OAS or the Inter-American Development Bank. Such a regional commission would likely face resistance from the region’s heads of state, but might yet be workable, especially if international financial institutions bring their leverage to ensure billions of dollars aren’t squandered. One alternative to an official commission is a regional non-governmental commission to help investigate malfeasance in support of the region’s attorneys general, similar to the successful work of Honduras’ National Anti-Corruption Council.
Ultimately, the Biden administration’s aspirations will confront more difficult conditions in its efforts to resolve the region’s violence, corruption and impunity than did the Obama administration. It will require more than the usual diplomatic niceties and aid programs to foster sustained improvement in governance and prosperity.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.