Central America’s Triangle of Despair

SAN JOSÉ – During the past five years, some 100,000 unaccompanied migrant children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been apprehended at the southern border of the United States. They are a particularly tragic subset of the approximately three million migrants from Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle who have reached the US in the past two decades.

The roots of this exodus are a tangle of structural problems. Weak, fiscally challenged governments, endemic corruption, struggling economics, and high levels of crime have made these three small countries difficult places to live. And changing that will likely require assistance from the US. While the challenges of the Northern Triangle cannot be addressed through foreign assistance alone, they are unlikely to be overcome without it.

The feebleness of the region’s governments is a key problem. The Northern Triangle has among the lowest tax burdens in the world, at just below 16% of GDP, which severely limits the ability of its governments to mitigate the impact of their countries’ high levels of poverty and inequality.

This fiscal weakness is compounded by endemic corruption, especially in Guatemala and Honduras. Relative to economic size, the fraud recently uncovered in Honduras’ social security system dwarfs the massive bribery scandal at Brazil’s Petrobras by a factor of 20. Throughout the Northern Triangle, political interference in judicial processes and regulatory bodies is rife.