Six Months On: Changes in U.S. Policy toward the Northern Triangle

On July 1, the Biden administration submitted its congressionally mandated “Engel List” of alleged corrupt actors from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). This came just two weeks after a visit by Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala, a week after a visit from U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Samantha Power to El Salvador and Guatemala, and a day after another visit to El Salvador and Guatemala from a high-level U.S. government delegation.

A quarter century has passed in Central America since the last Cold War–inspired civil conflict ended in Guatemala and reports of the massacres of Indigenous villagers by Guatemala’s U.S.-supported security forces emerged. However, the residue of war and the failure to alter the power structure in each country, a change promised in the peace accords alongside democratic electoral participation, are evident to any diplomat, journalist, and researcher who cares to look. The incomplete postwar reconstruction and transformation in in the Northern Triangle has led to inequality, poverty, violence, corruption, and weak governance, along with new waves of migrants and refugees appearing at the U.S. southwest border.

While the Obama administration response in 2014 to a peak in unaccompanied children migrating north was a renewed development cooperation plan with governments and private sector partners in all three countries, it did not address the corruption underpinning elite domination of inequitable economies and state structures. Furthermore, the Trump administration sought to cut aid to the region, ignored corruption when governments in Guatemala and Honduras ousted UN and Organization of American States (OAS) anti-impunity commissions, and expressed apathy in White House tweets and actions.

Within days of taking office, the Biden administration sent a different message. On February 2, it issued an executive order requiring a national strategy with specific focus on attacking corruption to address the root causes of migration and named a well-regarded State Department career officer sidelined under the Trump administration as special envoy for the Northern Triangle. It also directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies to restore U.S. humanitarian asylum policy, ending a strategy highlighted by walls at the U.S. southwest border.  

Vice President Harris’s leadership in addressing these root causes has led to an impressive coalition of U.S. corporate, nongovernmental organization, and foundation leaders announcing plans for significant investments aimed at vulnerable populations—such as Indigenous groups living in the Western Highlands of Guatemala and impoverished rural and urban communities in all three countries. The goals are set for a decade, rather than a single administration, and include the following:

  • Increase GDP per capita to more than $8,000

  • Create more than three million jobs

  • Reduce the poverty rate by 15 percentage points

Equally important, these actions were created within the context that they will only succeed concurrent with the transformation in governance called for during the peace accords. That change requires making corruption a high-risk endeavor for those who make or accept bribes and those who exclude women, Indigenous people, and gender minorities from the benefits of inclusive development.

As part of the administration’s designation of corruption as a national security priority, Vice President Harris also announced a joint task force on anti-corruption during her trip to Guatemala. The task force is designed to support investigation, prosecution, and conviction of corrupt actors in the region using financial intelligence and other forensic methodologies.

The Engel List was a far more extensive listing of corrupt officials than many had expected, signaling that actions, not just rhetoric, to confront corruption may characterize this administration. For starters, the 14 officials from El Salvador include the former chief of cabinet to President Bukele; six current or former ministers and vice ministers; a former president and a current magistrate of the Supreme Electoral Council; and current and former members of Congress. In Guatemala, the 20 named individuals include a former president; two current and two former Supreme Court judges; legislators charged with bribery, coercion, and influence peddling; several former or current ministers and vice ministers; and the Foundation Against Terrorism—a spurious private organization that sought to undermine criminal proceedings against former abusive military. In Honduras, a former president, his wife, and 13 current and several former members of Congress were among the 22 cited.

The vice president’s partnership states it is looking to harness businesses willing to focus on bringing excluded populations into the mainstream of social and economic development. USAID actions have redirected funding to activist civil society groups committed to democratic governance and those engaged in community-based social services. Announced commitments from members of the partnership are impressive and could have significant positive impact if they come to pass:     

  • Microsoft: Bring broadband coverage to three million rural inhabitants of the region and expand digital community access centers to 20 communities to help address the digital inclusion gender gap. Train ~450,000 underserved people in digital skills and ready 115,000 people for economic opportunities in three years.

  • Mastercard: Provide financial services to five million people and digitize one million micro and small businesses.

  • Chobani and ProMujer: Provide access to finance, healthcare services, entrepreneurship support, and digital inclusion for three million people.     

The House Appropriations subcommittee bill covering Central America released this month demonstrates again the bipartisan support for effective cooperation for the Northern Triangle by approving the full administration request of $866 million as a first installment on its $4 billion four-year pledge. It also recognizes the fundamental linkage between good governance and social and economic development, which is required to address root causes of migration. Beyond the policy statements, 75 percent of any funding to central governments is dependent on certification that they are meeting tougher anti-corruption, transparency, and democracy requirements. The bill thus reflects the same focus defined by the Biden administration and reinforced in a recent speech by the vice president: “And then there are the longstanding issues—the root causes—and I’m thinking of corruption, violence, and poverty; the lack of economic opportunity; the lack of climate adaptation and climate resilience; the lack of good governance.”

The coming months will show whether the commitments and promises of governments, private sectors, and societies are actually fulfilled. In Central America, the metrics will be visible through the perception of reduced corruption, job and education opportunities for the most vulnerable, and greater confidence in justice and respect for the rule of law. In the United States, they will be visible through increased legal channels for migration and significantly fewer undocumented migrants risking their lives in a trek toward U.S. borders. Vamos a ver.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a former USAID Latin America assistant administrator, former State Department deputy assistant secretary for human rights, and senior vice president for the International Crisis Group. He also has informally advised the Vice President’s Partnership for Central America.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative