On Thursday, June 28th, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen will meet with President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras and President Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador to discuss immigration from these countries to the United States. The meeting with leaders of Northern Triangle nations takes place following the massive public outcry against the U.S. policy of separating children from their families at the border, and a subsequent court decision ordering the policy suspended. But Vice President Pence has maintained the administration’s hardline approach. Just prior the visit, he issued a public warning to the people of Central America not to risk their lives or the lives of their children by making the dangerous journey to the United States.
During their upcoming visit to Guatemala, Vice President Pence and Secretary Nielsen need to recognize that many families in Central America are making the desperate decision to migrate because they face greater dangers by staying home than by leaving.
Curbing migration from the countries of the Northern Triangle will require more than warnings and demands that the leaders of each country tighten control of their borders or crack down on smugglers.
To address irregular migration from this region, the United States will require a strong commitment from Central American governments to address the endemic levels of violence, corruption, impunity, and weak institutions that are depleting the state’s ability to provide security and basic services for their citizens, thus driving people to migrate.
Although there have been important reductions in the overall murder rates in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in the last several years, they continue to rank among the most violent countries in the hemisphere and the world. In 2017, El Salvador registered a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000 people, or 3,947 murders. Neighboring Guatemala and Honduras reported rates of 26.1 and 42.8 respectively. In comparison, the United States had a homicide rate of 4.8 that same year. Much of this violence can be attributed to organized crime, gang activity, and the inability of police and justice systems to protect communities.
Endemic corruption and institutional weaknesses are enormous obstacles in the struggle to reduce violence and insecurity in the Northern Triangle. Corruption has jeopardized the ability of governments in this region to provide adequate public safety, health, education, and other basic services. It has allowed criminal networks to thrive and co-opt the state, while depleting public trust in institutions. Last year, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras ranked 112, 143, and 135 respectively, out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index.
Corruption is one of the key factors that has made the criminal justice institutions in this region weak, ineffective, and incapable of responding to the insecurity and violence impacting many women, children, and families from marginalized communities. Impunity rates throughout the Northern Triangle are extremely high; few are ever caught, prosecuted, or convicted for committing a crime. In El Salvador’s case, for example, the impunity rate for homicides is around 95 percent. This means that of the 3,947 murders committed in 2017, only 197 ended with court convictions for those responsible. This level of insecurity has forced many families to flee their homes.
Recently, Vice President Pence himself recognized that addressing corruption is a critical issue.
During a meeting at the Organization of American States (OAS), last month, he said, “Of all the security threats facing our region, one is more insidious than all the rest, and that’s, ultimately, the cancer of corruption…. Corruption emboldens vicious criminals; endangers public safety. Corruption corrodes the foundations of democracy; it undermines trust in government. And as corruption grows, freedom and prosperity wither.”
Since FY2016, the United States has allocated a little over $2 billion dollars in a bipartisan strategy that seeks to tackle violence, enhance economic development, combat corruption, and strengthen institutions in Central America. This aid has included support for anti-corruption mechanisms in Guatemala and Honduras and support for strengthening the rule of law in all three countries, yielding positive results. In Guatemala, these efforts have resulted in several massive investigations of political corruption and have bolstered the investigative capacity of the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office. And in Honduras and El Salvador, investigations against government officials on corruption charges are progressing. Not surprisingly, those under investigation for corruption and their allies have sought to undermine the anti-corruption gains in an attempt to ensure impunity for their crimes.
Given the long-term nature of these challenges, they require an unwavering commitment from Central American governments and sustained pressure by the United States for tangible results. Given the urgency of the humanitarian crisis at the border, Vice President Pence and Secretary Nielsen ought to focus on the root causes of migration, including the violence and the corruption that undermines the prospects for people to live safely at home. They should see this meeting as an opportunity to reaffirm U.S. support for anti-corruption initiatives. Most importantly, they need to underscore that the lack of willingness on behalf of these nations to tackle corruption, impunity, and violence is what is causing their citizens to flee their borders.
Correction: An earlier version of this analysis incorrectly stated that Vice President Oscar Ortiz of El Salvador would travel to Guatemala to attend the meeting. Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has confirmed his attendance for the meeting.