Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Central America's Northern Triangle: A Time for Turmoil and Transitions

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Central America's Northern Triangle: A Time for Turmoil and Transitions

Article excerpt

Over the past decade the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) has earned the unenviable position as one of the world's most violent and lawless regions.

The growing importance of the region as a multifaceted transshipment corridor for transnational organized crime (TOC) groups-primarily Mexican drug trafficking syndicates-has brought a new and dangerous alignment in the region's power structures. The result has been that the three governments have moved beyond being weak, somewhat corrupt and unresponsive to almost non-functional in much of their national territories.

While none of the issues driving the collapse are new, they now appear to have driven the governments past a tipping point in the correlation of forces between the state and TOC organizations. Flush with increasing resources, political protection and access to law enforcement entities, the criminal organizations are ascendant.

The states, with shrinking resources and hollowed out structures, are in retreat and positive state presence1 is ever less accessible to the citizens. The states are currently incapable of solving most of the serious national issues in ways that strengthen the democratic process, rule of law and citizen security. With the benefit of hindsight these tipping points are identifiable.

This shift has significant though little studied consequences for the United States. It heralds the real possibility that a region in close proximity to the porous southern border of the United States and abutting Mexico will be increasingly under the sway of hostile TOC groups, some of whom are closely aligned with state actors such as Venezuela and Iran that are overtly antagonistic to U.S. interests and goals. U.S. policy makers have fewer and fewer viable, trusted interlocutors in the law enforcement, intelligence and political communities. Significant funding to these governments in recognition of their importance in counter narcotics, trade and immigration is not achieving the stated goals of strengthening democracy, the rule of law, economic growth and enhanced interdiction.

The U.S. government estimates that approximately 95 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States moves through the Mexico and Central America corridor. Of this, an increasing amount - nearly 80 percent - stops first in a Central American country before onward shipment to Mexico.2

This fact alone is a major contributor to the growing chaos in Central America and the Northern Triangle and is largely blamed for the historically high rates of homicide, kidnapping, extortion and government dysfunctionality. It is also a major reason why the United States, despite resource constraints, continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the region.

Yet regional problems are far more complex and dangerous than just the expansion of TOC groups in new and more violent ways, and the U.S. policy response appears to be rooted in unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished through existing, traditional aid and trade platforms. A profound rethinking of policy priorities and the allocation of resources is required in light of the current power alignment.

The Rise of TOC Power

With each of the relatively small countries playing a specific role as a node for different types of illicit activities,3 the Northern Triangle is emerging as a region where the state is often no longer the main power center or has become so entwined with a complex and inter-related web of illicit activities and actors that the state itself at times becomes a part of the criminal enterprise.4 There are virtually no "ungoverned spaces" in the region. Some power group exercises real political and military control in almost every corner of every country. What has changed is that the authority is less and less often the state.

Cooptation, corruption and intimidation by TOC actors, many controlled by the Mexican drug trafficking organizations establishing expanding beach heads in the region, have left the debilitated governments facing a crisis of authority, legitimacy and democratic governance while undermining the fragile licit economies. …

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