Given the challenges of a deadly pandemic, President Joe Biden could be forgiven for not having Central America’s security at the top of his agenda on day one, or day 100 for that matter.
Still, he declared it a priority in one of the few foreign policy plans released during his campaign.
Biden knows the terrain. As vice president, he visited the region several times after migrants fleeing the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began to reach the United States’ southern border en masse.
His approach will represent an about-face from that of Donald Trump, whose bullying style on migration often left little capital for other security issues plaguing the region. Rather than shrink from Trump, the presidents of the three countries took advantage of his transactional nature.
The return of broad-based diplomacy will require concessions from them almost immediately. They have few options. Emergencies -- ranging from citizen security to economic instability -- are myriad and being made worse by the pandemic.
Below, InSight Crime highlights three pressing security issues that the Biden administration can’t afford to ignore.
An Exodus from the Northern Triangle
One of Biden’s first security tests will be mass migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
In 2014, tens of thousands of children from the region reached the US border. Biden became the point man for handling what President Barack Obama called a “humanitarian crisis.” He visited with the presidents of the three countries to discuss a massive US aid package. The administration applied pressure on Mexico and Guatemala to tighten security and ramp up the number of checkpoints and raids on routes favored by migrants.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of US-Mexico border
President Donald Trump later made the clampdown on migrants virtually the sole priority of his administration’s relationship with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, forcing asylum seekers to await court dates on the Mexican side of the border and reducing the number of migrants who could seek asylum in the United States. The US government also signed controversial agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that required asylum seekers to seek refuge in the country they travel through first.
The crackdown pushed migrants into smuggling networks, immigration advocates say.
Biden has promised to unwind Trump’s hardline migration policies. It is an approach that will be tested quickly.
The coronavirus has killed more than 10,000 people in the Northern Triangle. It has also brought economic devastation; all three countries are expected to see their economies shrink. Honduras expects a record 8 percent contraction, moving even more people into the ranks of the poor, which comprised two-thirds of the country in 2020, according to Reuters. While crime and violence also push people to leave, poverty and unemployment remain the main driving factors.
Human smuggling has already been on the rise in Mexico amid COVID-19. During the health crisis, Trump took drastic steps to shut down the southern border, including a freeze on asylum processing and rules that allow border officials to swiftly deport migrants who attempt to cross into the country illegally.
Law enforcement officials along the southern border in Arizona say smugglers are employing more dangerous tactics, including the use of stash houses and guiding people through treacherous, desert terrain, according to an Arizona Republic investigation.
But it is no longer principally migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are being smuggled across the border. US Customs and Border Protection reports more than 112,000 Mexican adults have been apprehended between October and December -- nearly half the amount captured during the 2020 fiscal year. Many are being quickly detained and returned to Mexico, only to try again. About 34 percent are repeat offenders, according to the Wall Street Journal.
If COVID-19 restrictions ease and Biden restores the right to seek asylum, the exodus from the Northern Triangle is likely to resume, said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Smugglers will be prepared for the boon, as migrants traveling alone face being raped, extorted, injured or killed. And authorities are now quick to break up US-bound caravans of migrants who travel together for safety in numbers. The latest caravan to leave Honduras was stopped by Guatemalan security forces, who forced them off the highway using batons and tear gas.
“The best way is to pay that smuggler to make it across Mexico in a few days on a bus, being waved through by all the corrupt checkpoint agents who have been paid off,” Isacson said.
The Biden administration should build capacity at the border to process migrants, Isacson said. This way they are not trapped in Mexico, vulnerable to the predations of smugglers and kidnapping gangs, backed by powerful organized crime groups.
Biden says he will take on migration’s root causes with a four-year, $4 billion aid package to Northern Triangle countries. But any mitigating effects this might have on migration won’t come this year. Most migrants will already be on the move by the spring months when the weather is advantageous.
Narco-Politics in Honduras
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is a familiar face to President Biden. The pair met in 2015 and in 2016 amid the migration crisis. By then, Hernández had also emerged as the United States’ frontman in taking on drug trafficking in the region after presiding over a string of extraditions.
“The feeling was (Juan Orlando) could be relied upon to do the right thing,” said Eric Olson, a Latin America specialist with the Woodrow Wilson Center, a DC-based think-tank.
Hernandez’s anti-drug bona fides, however, have been shattered after allegations by US prosecutors that Hernández was a co-conspirator in his brother’s cocaine trafficking ring.
Hernández’s brother, Tony, was first named a “person of interest” in a major US drug case as far back as 2016, when the Obama administration was winding down. Three years later, he was convicted of trafficking tons of cocaine to the United States, using his brother’s political connections. Prosecutors alleged in court documents and during the trial that Tony received million-dollar bribes from a drug trafficking mayor and from Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” to finance Hernandez’s electoral campaigns. A ledger confiscated from another top trafficker showed payments to “JOH,” the president’s initials, “and his associates.”
And this month, prosecutors filed a motion with the explosive allegation that President Hernández said he wanted to shove the “drugs right up the noses of the gringos” and to make the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) “think that Honduras was fighting drug trafficking,” all the while putting his brother in control of drug activities.
Olson said the new administration is likely to take a tougher and more careful approach to Hernández during what should be his last year in office. Presidential elections are scheduled for November, though Hernández was already re-elected in 2017 after having a ban on re-election overturned by the supreme court.
The Biden administration enters with Hernández as a cautionary tale. It will need to make sure that the DEA and officials involved in bilateral relations are not operating in “parallel universes,” Olson said.
Isolating Hernández would also make a good starting point to show the administration’s seriousness on anti-corruption efforts in the region, he said. A strong ambassador is crucial, he said.
“It’s almost easy for them,” Olson said, “because he is so damaged by these cases.”
Anti-Corruption in A Region Beset by Graft
In his plan for Central America, Biden calls corruption a cancer, “eating away” at the Northern Triangle countries. The statement is sure to rankle those countries' presidents, who paid lip-service to anti-corruption efforts while undermining them at every turn – with no consequence.
Under Trump, Guatemala and Honduras both shut down internationally-backed anti-corruption commissions. Without the Trump administration’s support, these units were left open attacks by political and business elites, including the presidents themselves. El Salvador President Nayib Bukele pledged to create a similar anti-corruption body. So far, it has little power.
Meanwhile, Biden promises to breathe new life into efforts to tackle graft in the region, including a new office in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) to investigate corruption in the Northern Triangle and an increase of Justice and Treasury Department officials at US embassies.
The Biden administration is exploring expanding the work of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) in the Northern Triangle, according to two officials with knowledge of these discussions and who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the matter. From El Salvador, the bureau’s investigators would assist in complex cases.
Biden also suggests creating a regional anti-corruption commission, seemingly modeled after the defunct United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala -- CICIG). For more than a decade, the unit strengthened local prosecutors’ investigative abilities and helped send influential businessmen, organized crime figures and politicians to jail, including a president. It mounted one of the most successful drives against corruption in the region.
The Northern Triangle presidents, however, have shown little desire to attack corruption.
President Hernández presided over the demise of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) in January 2020, when negotiators with the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Honduran government failed to reach an agreement to renew the anti-graft body’s mandate. More recently, a Honduras court is dismantling the Pandora case, a vast corruption scheme that saw $12 million in public money embezzled for a political end.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has refused to speak about lawmakers’ attempts to undermine the country’s Constitutional Court after the court blocked the seating of judges involved in an influence-peddling scheme. Giammattei has also stood on the sidelines as the public prosecutor in charge of Guatemala’s anti-impunity body (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI) -- the CICIG’s last vestige -- continues to be pilloried by the country’s attorney general.
And El Salvador’s President Bukele has made every effort to conceal government spending during the pandemic, as investigations of profiteering by administration officials have mounted.
But the winds of US pressure for change are already blowing.
Tucked in the omnibus spending bill signed at the end of the year was a provision by Representative Eliot L. Engel, the outgoing congressman from New York who chaired the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee. It requires the publication of a list of corrupt actors in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Those on the list will be denied entry into the United States.
According to two officials who have been present at meetings with Biden staff, the so-called Engel list could become a useful tool to press Central American governments to support anti-corruption initiatives.