A New Path Forward: Crafting Sustainable and Structural U.S. Security Policy in the Northern Triangle Image courtesy of the US Embassy in Guatemala

A New Path Forward: Crafting Sustainable and Structural U.S. Security Policy in the Northern Triangle

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Poverty, violence, and poor governance in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—the three countries that form the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTC)—have long constituted a security challenge in the Western Hemisphere. The United States’ previous attempts to support socio-economic development and political stability in the region, however, have been reactive and one-dimensional, with little measurable impact. As President Joe Biden works to renew the United States’ commitment to Central America, his administration must pursue a sustained, structural approach to addressing security crises in the NTC.    


The NTC has experienced a complex mix of adverse security and socio-economic conditions. Corruption, poor governance, a lack of economic opportunity (exacerbated by climate change), and organized crime have precipitated the region’s rapid internal decline:

These domestic conditions have had a far-reaching impact. According to estimates from the U.S. government, about 265,000 residents of the NTC left their homes each year between 2014 and 2019. The irregular migration has manifested itself in recent surges in the number of unaccompanied children from the NTC apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Additionally, significant quantities of cocaine bound for the U.S. first pass through the Central American corridor. Drug trafficking sustains U.S.-based criminal networks and often operates alongside human trafficking, weapons smuggling, and extortion.  

U.S. Responses  

The dominant U.S. policy approach in the NTC has espoused “tough-on-crime and pro-development” interventions focused on counter-narcotics and migration. For example, the George W. Bush administration’s Mérida Initiative and the Obama administration’s Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America funded programs in the NTC that trained police forces, provided poverty relief, and fought corruption and drug trafficking, among other things. President Trump suspended aid to the NTC in March 2019, citing the region’s inability to control emigration to the U.S., and worked to bolster security at the southwestern border. 

While these programs yielded some successes (such as fruitful USAID anti-poverty efforts and community-based violence-prevention programs), they suffered from several shortcomings: 

A Renewed U.S. Approach to Security in the NTC: Policy Recommendations  

As the Biden administration engages with the NTC, they must promote policies that address these faults:  

Revise the “Tough-On-Crime” Approach. Instead of focusing on irregular migration and narcotics, the U.S. should tackle structural factors that enable crime and violence in the NTC in the first place.  

Support Sustained Economic Development. Relief funding must remain central to U.S. policy in the NTC, as it lifts households from poverty and supports violence prevention. The U.S. could also back alternate long-term, multilateral strategies to boost economic opportunity in the NTC, such as: