The limitless flow of people towards the US-Mexico border begins with the tortured descent of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador into the abyss. The Northern Triangle, as the countries are known, is burdened with a myriad of issues, the top of which is the multi-billion dollar drug trade. And it is this very place that the Trump administration has announced it will cut aid to, rather than boosting it to fight these problems.
The official US figures for apprehensions on the US-Mexico border speak volumes about where the people Trump speaks so disparagingly of hail from. In the first four months of this year, there have been nearly as many — or more, depending on the statistical category you look at — single adults, families and unaccompanied children coming from the three Northern Triangle countries than in all of 2018.
By April, twice as many people had traveled in a family unit from Guatemala and Honduras to the US border then during all of last year. And the numbers from Mexico are dropping, changing the dynamic of the migration phenomenon in Central America.
For many in the region, getting out has understandably become a matter of survival. The nations of the Northern Triangle jostle for the ugly position as the world’s murder capital, both because of the gang violence spawned by the drug trade and because of a lack of solid government. El Salvador’s capital can at times feel like it is dealing with a full-scale armed insurgency with its territorial and community allegiances, and police skulking around areas where they know they can and cannot go.
The Northern Triangle is also one of the foremost and earliest victims of the climate crisis. At least 1.4 million people in Central America and Mexico could be on the move by 2050, the World Bank has estimated, in a place where a third of jobs are dependent on agriculture.
Studies have suggested rainfall may get sparser in Honduras, yet it will see flooding increase in some places by 60%, the Guardian reported. El Salvador could lose up to 28% of its coastline by the end of the century. Drought could spread in Guatemala, and this has damaged the coffee crops in the past. Temperatures have risen 0.5C since 1950 and could rise up to 2C by 2050. Communities will see the life that they know now change immeasurably.
Climate change is the underlying malaise, but the present-day curse is the drug trade.
On the remote Moskitia coast of Honduras, villagers can be found at dawn, scavenging the white sands to supplement their income. When drug traffickers in the area think they might get caught, they throw their cocaine cargo overboard. Each 30-kilo packet, attached to a flotation device, can net a fishing community $150,000 — a life-changing sum of money that sees locals scouring the coast for hours.
It can feel like nearly every part of Central American life is caught some way or another in feeding drugs north to US markets. The sums of money involved, one official told CNN, are so utterly ridiculous that few other forms of economic activity make sense. And until the main market, the United States, stops taking in so much cocaine — a record thousand metric tons of export-grade coke being made in the main supplier of Colombia in 2017, the DEA estimated — the money will always be there.
To say that the political class is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges is a biting understatement. News emerged last month that the DEA opened an investigation into the President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, in 2013. Documents released by the Southern District of New York revealed he was among a number of Honduran high-profile figures allegedly involved in “large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities relating to the importation of cocaine into the United States.”
His brother, Antonio Hernandez Alvarado, was arrested in November 2018 by US investigators in Miami, accused of being a “large-scale drug trafficker.” He has denied the charges. The Honduran presidency released a statement in which they said the US DoJ had “found no evidence to sustain the accusations against the president and his collaborators.” They highlighted Honduran cooperation with the US over fighting drug trafficking.
In Guatemala, a candidate for the presidential election, Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana, was recently indicted by the DEA for allegedly conspiring with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. The plan, according to the DEA, was breathtaking: Estrada would place Sinaloa cartel members in the cabinet to turn Guatemala into (more of) a highway for drugs into the United States, in exchange for their funding of his campaign. To boot, they even allegedly discussed what weapons they would give hitmen to assassinate Estrada’s political rivals. Estrada was arrested in Miami in April. He was a longshot for the presidency; one of the the frontrunners, Thelma Aldana, a former prosecutor, was hounded out of the country on corruption charges that she denies. The election is June 16th.
In El Salvador, 37-year-old President Nayib Bukele took office nearly a fortnight ago, facing a murder rate of about 50 per 100,000 — around 10 times that of the United States. The former mayor of San Salvador has to navigate a way for his coalition with some right-wing parties to open talks that appear to be being offered by MS-13, the powerful gang behind much of El Salvador’s violence — a political accommodation which could possibly lead to a reduction in the daily violence.
It is a staggering cocktail of collapse, too readily labeled by the White House as the product of the personal economic ambitions of migrants, or simply corrupt narco-barons. But the simple truth is that every crisis feeds off the other: the climate crisis means bad harvests for farmers, which means more migrants, and more business for smugglers, which tightens the grip of cartels on society, where the economy is suffering because of intense corruption and labor leaving for the United States.
None of this has an easy fix. The threat of tariffs might have persuaded Mexico to try to stem the flow in the short term, but it won’t address the foundations of a tide of people that represent the future of where our warmer, more crowded, world is going. People are on the move out of personal necessity, plagued by factors they cannot influence, and knocking desperately on the doors of a better life.