-Executive Summary-

The growing mass migration of people from the Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—to the United States is overwhelming U.S. border security and immigration systems. For example, the United States apprehended 86,705 Northern Triangle nationals at the southern border in 2012, but this number rose dramatically—to 237,860—in 2014.[1] When this total exceeded 511,000 in 2019, the sudden spike in migrants prompted the White House to label the situation a national emergency and humanitarian crisis.[2] Many sources identify poor economic conditions and violence as the main factors driving the Northern Triangle nations’ citizens to leave their countries.[3] For example, the American Council on Immigration suggests that being a victim of violent crime usually precedes emigration from the Northern Triangle.[4] The United States has instituted initiatives to help the Northern Triangle countries improve governance, economic prosperity, and security for some time.

These initiatives were intended to reduce irregular migration from Central America through improvements in governance, prosperity, and security, but after well over a decade of activity, the region has steadily increased overall in poverty, insecurity, corruption, and poor governance, leading to an all-time high of forced migration from the Northern Triangle.[5] These three countries are currently some of the most violent in the world, and this is driving a decrease in its citizens’ standard of living, civil liberties, and trust in their government institutions.[6]

  1. RESEARCH QUESTION

This thesis examines how U.S. initiatives for the Northern Triangle could be enhanced, expanded, or changed to help stem the flow of migration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to the United States. The three initiatives enacted to mitigate the instability in Northern Triangle countries include the Mérida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), and the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America (hereafter, Strategy for Engagement). The Bush administration enacted the 2008 Mérida Initiative with a predominant focus on crime, anti-narcotics, and security.[7] In 2010, President Obama enacted CARSI also with a focus on the citizens’ security, and with the surge of migration in 2014, he enacted the Strategy for Engagement, which focused more broadly on economic prosperity, security, and better governance.[8] When President Trump took office, he continued with the ongoing Strategy for Engagement but also made U.S. border security and illegal immigration a priority. He also attempted to control illegal migration and improve border security by building a wall along the southwest border and threatening to cut financial aid to the Northern Triangle if the host countries did not control their own borders to prevent the migrant flow.[9] In light of the all-time high irregular migration flow in 2019 from the Northern Triangle to the United States and the fact that these three initiatives have been in place for more than a decade, the United States should consider making changes to these initiatives to experience more positive results.

  • RESEARCH METHOD

This thesis provides policy recommendations aimed at improving the effectiveness of the initiatives devised by the United States to help stabilize the Northern Triangle.[10] In this connection, this thesis conducts a gap analysis of each existing U.S. initiative aimed at stabilizing the Northern Triangle: the Mérida Initiative, CARSI, and the Strategy for Engagement.[11] The primary source literature included studies, policy documents, reports, hearings, and expert testimony, which were analyzed to determine the effectiveness of these initiatives. Such secondary academic sources as peer-reviewed academic articles, research from experts, books, and media coverage, also figured in this process. This thesis proposes that an effective policy must result in a more stable Central American region, which in turn must result in fewer migrants from this region over time—hence, effectively combating the threats to U.S. homeland security posed by mass migration from the region.

  • FINDINGS

Northern Triangle crime and violence remain at unacceptable levels, with more than half the region’s residents living in poverty, unemployment rates for young adults at 33 percent, and “some of the highest murder rates in the world,” according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.[12] U.S. efforts have also failed to mitigate narcotics trafficking effectively in the region, with 53 percent of all South American cocaine being trafficked through the Northern Triangle and into the United States in 2020.[13] The failure to achieve results in irregular immigration, crime, violence, and narcotics trafficking suggests that the current initiative, the Strategy for Engagement, has not been successful at stabilizing the region and enabling security, governance, and prosperity. Data collection and evaluation, however, have been a tremendous success for the initiative and will be for future initiatives by clearly highlighting what works and what does not.

The Strategy for Engagement did work—beginning in 2014 and culminating at a program high in 2016—until 2017, when the Trump administration pulled back and redirected funding to U.S. border security, narcotics trafficking, and immigration.[14] Decreasing funds correlated with increasing destabilization in the Northern Triangle, which led to an increase in migrants at the U.S. border until 2019, eclipsing the previous 2014 border surge high.[15] From Mérida and CARSI to the Strategy for Engagement, administrators have seen a flip in funding priorities—from two-thirds toward security and one-third toward prosperity and governance to two-thirds toward prosperity and governance and just one-third toward security.[16] With the latter ratio, the Strategy for Engagement saw success until funding was pulled back and redirected toward the U.S. border.[17] These trends make manifest the need to address the issues of border security at the source, in the Northern Triangle, and not just at the U.S. border.[18] Additionally, they highlight the need for a long-term, bipartisan plan like the Strategy for Engagement when it was devised in 2014.[19] Future initiatives should shift focus to the decentralized, grassroots level, addressing the need for prosperity and governance, with funding levels that are adequate and consistent to affect the drivers of forced migration. Although the most effort should be directed toward prosperity, security is needed, and it should be effectively coordinated among all agencies involved.

The United States has invested approximately 12 years in the Northern Triangle through Mérida, CARSI, and the Strategy for Engagement. During this time, these initiatives have seen constant change in overall strategy, fluctuating funding levels, and a lack of effective coordination, monitoring, and evaluation, according to many sources.[20] Mérida’s security and anti-narcotics programs were not coordinated, nor did they constitute a coordinated strategy, so the initiative was not effective at stabilizing the region. CARSI expanded the funding and scope of regional programs to include important social and political factors but was also hindered by a lack of strategic coordination and consistent funding.[21] Finally, the Strategy for Engagement made a radical shift to promote prosperity and better governance in addition to security.[22] It has also failed because of the same issues with focus, funding, and strategic coordination, but the U.S. agencies managing this initiative an regional experts have recommended initiating monitoring, data collection, evaluation, and reporting mechanisms to reinvigorate the program.[23]


[1] Peter J. Meyer, U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America: Policy Issues for Congress, CRS Report No. R44812 [updated July 24, 2019] (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2019), 1, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R44812/11.

[2] Meyer, 1.

[3] Amelia Cheatham and Diana Roy, “Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 22, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-turbulent-northern-triangle.

[4] Mike LaSusa, “Crime, Violence Driving Migration from Central America: Reports,” InSight Crime, March 2, 2016, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/crime-and-violence-drive-migration-from-central-america-reports/.

[5] Peter J. Meyer, U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America: An Overview, CRS Report No. IF10371 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2020), 1–2, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/‌IF10371.pdf.

[6] Meyer, U.S. Strategy for Engagement: An Overview, 1–2.

[7] Cheatham and Roy, “Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle.”

[8] Jennifer Grover, U.S. Assistance to Central America: Department of State Should Establish a Comprehensive Plan to Assess Progress toward Prosperity, Governance, and Security, GAO-19-590 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2019), https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-19-590.

[9] Janet Seiz and Eliza Willis, “Troubled Countries Can’t Keep People from Leaving,” Atlantic, April 9, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/central-american-governments-cant-stop-migration/586726/.

[10] Eugene Bardach and Eric M. Patashnik, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving, 5th ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2016).

[11] Tom Wright, “How to Perform a Gap Analysis: 5-Step Process,” Cascade (blog), June 23, 2022, https://www.cascade.app/blog/gap-analysis. A gap analysis involves determining the current performance of the policy, identifying the desired policy outcomes, and determining actions to achieve the desired result.

[12] U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “U.S. Assistance to Central America Promotes Security, Economic Development, and Rule of Law” (Washington, DC: U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, April 2021), 1, https://www.usglc.org/faq-violence-migration-and-u-s-assistance-to-central-america/.

[13] Meyer, U.S. Strategy for Engagement: An Overview, 1.

[14] Mark P. Sullivan et al., Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues in the 115th Congress, CRS Report No. R45120 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2019), 9, https://crsreports.congress.gov/‌product/pdf/R/R45120/31.

[15] Meyer, U.S. Strategy for Engagement: Policy, 1.

[16] Meyer, 13–14.

[17] Peter J. Meyer et al., Unaccompanied Children from Central America: Foreign Policy Considerations, CRS Report No. R43702 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016), 1, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R43702.pdf.

[18] Jeff Ernst et al., US Foreign Aid to the Northern Triangle 2014–2019: Promoting Success by Learning from the Past (Washington, DC: Wilson Center, 2020), 33, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/‌default/files/media/uploads/documents/US%20Foreign%20Aid%20Central%20America.pdf.

[19] Ernst et al., 13.

[20] White House, U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America (Washington, DC: Obama White House Archives, 2016), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/central_‌america_‌strategy.pdf; Cristina Eguizábal et al., Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle: How U.S. Policy Responses Are Helping, Hurting, and Can Be Improved, Report No. 34 (Washington, DC: Wilson Center, 2015), https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/‌documents/publication/‌FINAL%20PDF_CARSI%20REPORT.pdf; David Gagne, “US Continues Shift in Security Priorities with Aid Package to Central America,” InSight Crime, February 4, 2015, https://www.‌insightcrime.org/news/‌brief/us-shift-in-security-priorities-with-aid-package-to-centram/; Daniel F. Runde and Mark L. Schneider, A New Social Contract for the Northern Triangle (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2019), https://www.csis.org/analysis/new-social-contract-northern-triangle.

[21] Florina Cristiana (Cris) Matei and Michelle Cortez, “From Mérida & CARSI to Obama’s New Plan: Any Impact on the Gang Situation in Central America?,” Dialogue, King’s College London Politics Society, no. 11 (Spring 2015): 1–4, http://hdl.handle.net/10945/44736; Peter J. Meyer and Clare Ribando Seelke, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress, CRS Report No. R41731 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2015), 19, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/‌row/‌R41731.pdf.

[22] Meyer, U.S. Strategy for Engagement: Policy.

[23] Ernst et al., US Foreign Aid to the Northern Triangle 2014–2019, 21–35.

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