Causes of Instability in the Central American Northern Triangle

8243 words (33 pages) Dissertation

16th Dec 2019 Dissertation Reference this

Tags: International Relations

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work produced by our Dissertation Writing Service. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of



This thesis addresses the root causes of instability in the Central American Northern Triangle.  Specifically, this thesis argues that Special Operations Forces (SOF) have the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to implement grassroots solutions to the problems plaguing the region.  In an area where governance becomes the single most important component for preventing social decay, the State is threatened by a myriad of socioeconomic challenges that contribute to instability.  To fortify the social contract between society and the State in the Northern Triangle region, it is necessary to develop small and scalable initiatives for social development.  By leveraging each of the three SOF components appropriately, the United States can mitigate the continuous deterioration of society in the area.  Scalable zones for social development led by SOF units is a force multiplier to additional US and host nation efforts in the region, comprehensively tackling the criminal element, poverty, and the lack of human capital in the most difficult neighborhoods within the Northern Triangle countries.

Issues like the migration of unaccompanied minors during 2014, narcotrafficking, and increased MS-13 gang activity in US cities, are examples that demonstrate the transnational implications of violence and instability in the Northern Triangle.  In the region, the State is a critical partner for US foreign policy objectives that range from countering the narcotics trade to countering terrorist organizations.  Instability and violence is perpetrated by capable criminals that undermine State influence and erode the foundations of prosperous and democratic societies.  The situation in the region can hinder US and host nation efforts to strengthen democracy.  Therefore, addressing the root causes of instability is not only important for the future of the Northern Triangle countries, but necessary for the security of the US homeland.

In this thesis, the author utilizes a mix methods research approach considering quantitate as well as qualitative data from academic and peer reviewed journals, government websites, newspapers, and books.  In chapter 2, the author exposes the core literary work that contributed to this research project.  Chapter 3 explains the historical, political, and current socioeconomic conditions that planted the roots of instability in the region of the Northern Triangle.  In chapter 4, with the help of the Foreign Assistance database maintained by the US government, the author conducts a quantitative study of how the United States spends foreign aid in the Northern Triangle countries to develop a common picture capable of explaining the potential of using foreign aid appropriately.  Chapter 5 exposes case study examples to identify the factors that lead to success or failure of using Village Stability Operations (VSO) in the past, with the intent to formulate a better and capable program for use in the Northern Triangle region.  Chapter 6 explains how Special Operations Forces can mitigate conflict and address the root causes of instability and violence in the Northern Triangle.  This chapter includes the role that each of the three SOF units will play in the implementation of grassroots initiatives.  The final chapter, chapter 7, provides appropriate recommendations and conclusions with regards to this research and the future of the Northern Tringle countries.

Key Terms and Definitions


Research Boundaries


The Central American countries that compose the Northern Triangle share national boundaries.  Additionally, these countries share language and cultures, but more importantly, these nations share a set of socioeconomic issues that make the region a single unified problem for the United States.  Therefore, this research is limited to the factors contributing to instability in the Northern Triangle region alone, and does not consider the situation or any other programs taking place in neighboring nations.

The problems that affect the Northern Triangle countries are complex, and more importantly, these problems are the result of centuries of socioeconomic exploitation.  However, the scope of this research is not to provide a historical account of all the issues that contributed to today’s problems, but to present the major and more relevant factors that fueled instability in the Northern Triangle.  Therefore, the author only seeks to inform on the major criminal organizations operating in the region, the omission of other groups is not intended to deny their existence.  Additionally, this research does not consider all the activities and programs conducted by the US in the Northern Triangle.  However, with data from the Foreign Assistance database, the author analyzes most of the funds spent in the region, and the activities of the Agency for International Development (USAID), which is the lead for foreign aid expenditures in the Northern Triangle countries.























The issues that today afflict the region of the Northern Triangle have roots that go back for centuries.  John Booth (2008) shows how factors of luck and distance contributed to the higher degree of exploitation experienced by people living in the Northern Triangle countries when compared to other natives living further away from the hub of Spanish colonization, which at the time was in Guatemala City.  As explained by Booth, Costa Rica, because of its distance from the Spanish presence, was mostly left alone and could develop into a better society.

During and after colonization, land ownership became a source of instability in what is known today as the Northern Triangle.  To that extent, Josef Kunz (1946) provides proof of how foreign entities contributed to land disputes between European nations, the United States, and the Northern Triangle countries starting in the 17th century.  Additionally, supplementing the history of foreign intervention in the area, George Clark (2014) exposes the long track of US led military interventions in the Northern Triangle countries.  Economic interests influenced by US corporations led a period of military intervention in these countries that planted the seeds for anti-American sentiment in Central America.

Amongst the many reasons why the Northern Triangle countries face the socioeconomic issues they face today lays the implications of violent conflict.  Jeffrey Dixon and Meredith Sarkees (2015) provide a historical account of the intrastate wars that took place in the region during the Cold War period.  The authors expose detailed accounts on casualties, perpetrators, ideological underpinnings, supporters, and length of the conflicts.  Understating the civil wars that occurred in El Salvador and Guatemala provide the necessary foundation for understanding what it takes to create stable and peaceful societies in the Northern Triangle, to this extent the authors provide critical data.

Civil wars in the Northern Triangle left a footprint of socioeconomic underdevelopment in the entire region.  Today, societies continue to ask questions related to their future, and how much longer will injustices and poverty remain a factor of everyday life.  Anna and Brandt Peterson (2008) write about the history of sacrifice in El Salvador during that country’s civil war, and how people remain victims of the very same problems that led to conflict during the 1980s.  These issues that continue to go unaddressed by governments fuel social instability, and as the authors demonstrate, could eventually cause another eruption of popular revolts and conflict if left unchecked.

Linking the issues of foreign intervention and armed conflict, Marcelo Bucheli (2008) and George Herring (2008) expose how American corporations shared a substantial amount of the responsibility behind civil unrest in Central America.  In a sense, these corporations supported authoritarian governments that oppressed the people because it was economically convenient.  The influence of companies like United Fruit led to the exacerbation of social grievances that contributed to armed conflict in these countries.  Furthermore, and with a more modern relevancy than the civil wars, the influence of non-state actors like criminal organizations contribute to instability in the region.  Related to criminalization, Ioan Grillo (2016) writes a complete analysis of the criminal footprint in the Northern Triangle countries.  The author exposes the relationship between drug traffickers, street gangs, and the State, in a manner that helps one comprehend how violence came to be in the region.

The historically oppressive role of the State and the myriad of grievances experienced by citizens throughout the years contributed to the erosion of the Northern Triangle societies.  Mauricio Garcia Villegas (2015) explores how these societies have refused to comply with governance, and how people prefer to establish their own rules and laws instead of accepting the norms placed by the State.  The societies in the Northern Triangle have lost faith in their governments, and the State does little to gain it back.  As the author explains, norms and laws take a symbolic role and seldom develop into social practice.  As a result, societies in the Northern Triangle adopt a culture of compliance and establish their own systems of alternative governance.

Government institutions in the Northern Triangle region sometimes become ineffective and contribute to the cycle of instability.  Orlando Perez (2015) explains how, coupled with high levels of corruption, the highest government offices in the area create the conditions that lead to corruption and society’s discontent with the government.  To this end, the author explores the relationship between the military forces and society within the Northern triangle, demonstrating that such organizations still enjoy incredible levels of autonomy that could one day lead to a repeat of oppressive activities like those explored during the Cold War period.

























The socioeconomic issues plaguing the Northern Triangle region have deep roots dating back to the Spanish colonization of the region we today know as Central America.  After the Spaniards, similar governments controlled by wealthy Spanish descendants ruled the nations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  The Cold War period also contributed to the deterioration of these countries, installing dictatorships and leading to the emergence of armed conflict that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in two of the three Northern Triangle countries (Dixon and Sarkees 2015).  In the Northern Triangle, the State has been historically incapable of protecting society and establishing the conditions for social development.  Additionally, State weakness enables the emergence of criminal organizations that further erodes State legitimacy and erases opportunities for social and economic development in the region.

The Colonial Legacy

The Spanish colonists that arrived in Central America during the 15th century enslaved the native population in the region.  From that moment on, the indigenous people in the area that today we know as the Northern Triangle region became second class citizens to the Spaniards.  The Spanish mercantilist economic system planted the roots of injustice, and all wealth was extracted from the region to benefit Spain.  Additionally, the State was an instrument for Spanish oppression used against natives, and governments became a mechanism to secure the control of the minority over the overwhelming majority.  The native people of the Northern Triangle became slaves at the service of the Spaniards.

Independence for the Northern Triangle countries came in 1821.  However, while Spain was now out of the picture, those who stayed and ruled these nations were not different.  The Spanish descendants, also known as Criollos, continued to oppress and abuse the indigenous population working on their plantations and living under dire conditions (Grillo 2016, 188).  In the Northern Triangle, rights were reserved for the elites and the wealthy.  These years saw popular revolts erupt sporadically, mostly unsuccessful, and entirely thwarted by the State.

Independence was also unable to end the presence of foreign entities, either in the form of countries or corporations.  In what is considered one of the first tests to the Monroe Doctrine, British settlers from Belize decide to venture into Guatemala and Honduras, causing discomfort in the United States political arena (Kunz 1946, 384).  Additionally, the United Fruit Company, a US corporation with tremendous influence in the United States government, began acquiring interests in the Northern triangle countries.  United Fruit eventually exercised a monopoly over the banana industry, and the countries in the Northern Triangle increasingly became dependent on one single cash crop.  The United States, interested in maintaining the influence of the United Fruit Company, engaged in a series of interventions to secure or advance the corporation’s interests in the region (Clark 2014, 100-101).  During all these developments, the State remained an instrument used by the wealthy, the elites, and the US corporations.

The Cold War Period  

The 20th century brought new problems to the region with the emergence of conflict between capitalism and socialism.  The end of WWII left a bipolar system where only the United States and the Soviets were seemed as equally capable international actors.  Decades of conflict followed in the Northern Triangle starting in the early 1960s.  The Americans exclusively supported the State, and the Soviets sided with the people representing the proletariat.  Two of the three countries that form the Northern Triangle experienced a civil war during this period, Honduras being the exemption.

The election of Jacobo Arbenz to the Guatemalan presidency in 1951 caused troubles to the wealthy elites.  Arbenz supported several social and land reforms to benefit the poor population in Guatemala, and that was a threat to plantation owners and foreign corporations.  The Guatemalan government expropriated lands from the United Fruit Company and gave it to thousands of families that were landless (Bucheli 2008, 444).  The move was not well received by United Fruit, and the company exercised its influence in Washington.  Subsequently, the United States found ways to tie the Guatemalan case to the communist threat.  As a result, in 1954, Arbenz was overthrown by a military coup supported by the CIA, and influenced by the United Fruit Company (Herring 2008, 684).  These events exacerbated the negative feelings of the populace against the United States, the United Fruit Company, and the Guatemalan State, planting the seeds for civil war.

Armed conflict in Guatemala erupted in 1962, and it lasted until 1996.  The recent success of the Cuban revolution in 1959 influenced the emergence of communist guerrillas in Guatemala.  The Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) was the umbrella organization for the myriad of guerrillas that took part in the Guatemalan civil war (CEH n.d., 20).  The United States support for the Guatemalan government led to high numbers of human rights abuses and civilian casualties during the war.  The Soviets and Cubans supported the losing side, and in the end, the Guatemalan State remain unchecked.

The second civil war that took place in the region during the Cold War period was in El Salvador.  The armed conflict officially started in 1980 and concluded in 1992.  Just as in Guatemala, the Salvadoran conflict was between the State and left-wing guerrillas supported by Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other socialist leaning nations (CIA 1982, 12).  The grievances that led to conflict in El Salvador were all too common for the region, destitute populations fighting for equality and rights long overdue.  A myriad of organizations emerged under the influence of socialism, to include the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN).

The confrontation between the United States and the Soviets had enormous repercussions in the region.  Decades of conflict led to economic decline and further distrust between the State and its citizens.  Both wars in the Northern Triangle were won by the State, only in El Salvador was the insurgency able to become a political party.  Nevertheless, around 300,000 people died in these two conflicts, and most of the casualties are often attributed to the US-backed paramilitary forces in Guatemala and El Salvador (CEH n.d., 20; Peterson and Peterson 2008, 511).  The results of decades of conflict are experienced today throughout the region and even in the United States.  Additionally, other countries in Central America experienced civil wars and had fewer casualties (Dixon and Sarkees 2015).  Therefore, the United States’ involvement is then the variable that leads to higher number of civilian deaths.  In Nicaragua, which was the only other country in Central America besides Guatemala and El Salvador to witness the emergence of a left-wing guerrilla, the US involvement came only after the Sandinistas were already in power.  Even then, it led to more than 60,000 casualties as the Ragan administration supported the Nicaraguan Contras.

In Honduras and Costa Rica, the number of people killed was minimal when compared to the other nations.  The explanation for why a full-blown civil war did not impact Honduras resides on the US military presence in that country.  The Americans used Honduras as a base of operations from where to launch expeditions to support Cold War operations.  Costa Rica was another case that shows a small number of casualties, but here the explanation is in Costa Rica’s relationship with Spain during the colonial period.  Costa Rica was never fully exploited by the Spaniards who preferred to base their capital in Guatemala, which was very far from Costa Rica and made the latter almost unreachable.  This geographic obstacle allowed Costa Rica to develop into a more inclusive and just society (Booth 2008, 718).  Moreover, instability in Costa Rica took place before the emergence of the Cold War and US intervention in that country was nonexistent.

The State

As previously explained, the State has represented a sign of oppression in the Northern Triangle region.  The colonial roots and the legacy of the Cold War period have implanted a widespread feeling of distrust within society towards the governments in these countries.  The State has been unable to fully honor the social contract it has with its people.  As a result, the people in the region result to alternative ways of governance and fuel a culture of noncompliance that erodes the foundations for social advancement (Garcia Villegas 2015, 63).  The lack of State presence in the Northern Triangle gives way to illicit actors that seek to fill that void left by the government, and society often receives them with open arms.  In the area, society lives under competing systems of governance, the licit system established by the State, and the illicit system introduced by criminals.

Even today, the State remains a symbol of corruption in the Northern Triangle.  Decades of poor governance and military dictatorships have influenced the development of highly corrupt governments whose sole purpose is to maintain the status quo.  For example, in Honduras, it becomes almost impossible to impeach a President without violating the country’s constitution (Perez 2015, 47).  The State sets the conditions that lead to government corruption, and the people become pawns in a political game where the players seek perpetual power.

One example that demonstrates the lack of State effectiveness is criminal prosecution.  In El Salvador during 2013, more than 90 percent of criminals walked free without prosecution (Seelke 2013, 63).  The criminal justice system in Guatemala and Honduras works quite similarly, and penitentiaries are nothing but a place to continue business and recruit future members into the organization.  It does not help that those trusted with enforcing the laws are immensely underpaid.  In Honduras, most police officers make less than 500 per month (Korthuis 2015, 179).  As a result, these officers of the law end doing side jobs for criminal organizations.

The problems with law enforcement further deteriorate the relationship between the State and society in the Northern Triangle.  As a fundamental component of this thesis, providing a better salary to officers of the law is paramount.  Without society’s trust on their government forces, it becomes impossible for anyone to push out the criminal elements plaguing the region.  The conditions that lead to police corruption must be removed if any initiative is to succeed in the Northern triangle countries.

Another example that demonstrates the government inadequacy in the Northern Triangle countries is the murder rate.  When analyzing State fragility or government effectiveness one must consider a series of factors.  However, for this thesis, murder is the single most accurate consideration that clearly shows the quality of life in any given society.  Without a doubt, a high murder rate will portray all kinds of negative stereotypes about a society.  As it happens, the Northern Triangle is the most violent region in Latin America, and one of the most dangeours places in the world outside a combat zone.

In 2016, the country of Honduras saw 59 murders per 100,000 habitants.  In the same year, Guatemala had 27 murders on the same portion of the population, and El Salvador topped the list with 81.  In El Salvador, the murder rate decline from 104 in 2015 (Gagne 2015; 2016; 2017).  To better appreciate the seriousness of these figures one should compare them with that of other countries in the region.  Honduras has the lowest GDP of all the Northern Triangle countries at $20 billion annually (The World Bank 2017).  Nicaragua, with a GDP that is almost half of Honduras’s, saw a murder rate of 7 per 100,000 habitants in 2016.

The case of Nicaragua might lead one to disregard the theory that high GDP leads to less violence and vice versa.  However, analyzing the Nicaraguan case while considering additional factors provides a different insight into the matter.  In the case of Nicaragua, the country has less people in poverty conditions, which means that more of the national GDP reaches society.  Therefore, it is not the total GDP of a country that reduces homicides and other violent crimes, is the individual income that makes a society more equal what contributes to social stability.

Socioeconomic Challenges

The issues plaguing the Northern Triangle do not come from a single source.  Poor governance, government corruption, a history of inequality and oppression, and foreign intervention into the national matters are just some of the principal factors that have created a vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.  One thing leads to another, and in the Northern triangle, poverty leads to criminalization, and criminalization leads to poor social development, which in turn leads to unemployment and eventually more poverty.  Chronic poverty is a condition that keeps people in such stay for extended periods without the possibility for improvement.  Honduras and Guatemala top the chronic poverty list in the Western Hemisphere, and El Salvador owns the fifth place (Vakis, Rigolini, and Lucchetti 2015, 25).  As expected, young adults suffer the most from poverty in the region, a factor that leads to the increased levels of homicides previously discussed.

The only way to come out of poverty is by working and earning more income, one only hopes that is in a legal manner.  In Honduras, official unemployment rates published by the State point out to around seven percent unemployment, which doubled for those between the ages of 15 and 24 (INE-H 2017).  While these unemployment numbers might not be alarming to some, it is worth nothing that official statistics in these countries are anything but reliable, moreover, unemployment rates do not count the underemployed, which in these countries tend to include a larger portion of the population.  Nevertheless, adding to the economic picture is education, and in Honduras only one for every three high schoolers attend school while more than 60 percent of society lives in poverty.

Guatemala shows a better picture in some areas, especially employment.  In Guatemala, the unemployment rate is less than half of Honduras’s, but those between the ages of 15 and 24 see the unemployment rates double and even triple in some areas throughout the country (INE-G 2017).  Only one of every four high schoolers attend school in Guatemala, and close to half of thsoe between 13 and 15 years old are out of school (EPE 2017).  Furthermore, as in Honduras, around 60 percent of the population lives in poverty conditions, while 16 percent lives under extreme poverty, compared to 20 percent in Honduras.

The last country for consideration is El Salvador, and here the unemployment rates, general and for those between the ages of 16 and 24, is a carbon copy of Honduras’s.  However, around 95 percent of young adults over 19 are out school in El Salvador (Osorio 2016).  These figures can explain why the homicide rate in El Salvador is so much higher when compared to other countries in the region.  Youths commit most of the violent crime in the Northern triangle, when they are unemployed and out of school it allows them to get involved in criminal activities.  In El Salvador, poverty is almost half than what it is in Guatemala and Honduras for those living under regular and extreme poverty conditions.

The Criminals

Exacerbating the socioeconomic issues in the region are the criminal organizations operating in the area.  Ironically, the US involvement during the Cold War period created the conditions for the development of illicit systems of governance in the Northern Triangle.  The criminals learned from the guerrillas and paramilitary units, and those experiences passed from generation to generation (Wade 2016, 158).  The practices and activities that some guerilla groups engaged in during the Cold War period are still relevant today, including extortion, taxation, and child recruitment.  Today, criminal organizations exercise considerable influence over portions of the population in the Northern Triangle, further deteriorating State influence and control over its society.

The major criminal players in the region are Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) like the Sinaloa and the Zetas cartels.  Analysts estimate that around 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States is transported via the Northern Triangle countries (Farah 2013, 90).  The same analysts estimated that in 2013 around 610 tons of cocaine traveled throughout the region.  The dollar value for such amount of cocaine is around $16 billion if one considers that in New York City a kilogram of cocaine sells for around $27,000 (Stewart 2016).  Therefore, the total value of the cocaine transited via the Northern Triangle in 2013 exceeds the annual GDP of 15 Latin American nations.  The influence and impact of DTOs is certainly a problem for regional security and stability, especially for the United States as the receiver of such drugs.

For reasons of enforcement and business opportunities, the Sinaloa and the Zetas cartels have expanded their operation outside of Mexico during the last several years.  The Northern Triangle region, especially those areas most separated from the centralized location of the State, fall victims to the DTOs influence.  In many instances, these two organizations fight each other to gain control of territory in the region (Dudley 2010, 75).  With their presence, the DTOs establish alternative forms of governance, provide employment to destitute populations, and influence politicians to work for them (Eguizabal 2015, 61).  As a result, society tends to accept the presence of these organizations as an alternative due to lack of State presence and often out of fear.  In the end, the DTOs and the State compete for legitimacy, and society suffers the consequences of the competition.

In addition to the two major DTOs operating in the region, two more organizations are worth mentioning in this research.  The Mara Salvatrucha 13, also known as the MS-13, and the Barrio 18 or M-18, are the most dangerous and capable transnational street gangs in the area.  The origin of these gangs, like the case of the MS-13, is traced back to the Cold War period and the civil wars that erupted in the region.  Thousands of Central Americans illegally entered the United States during those years seeking refuge, many had no families or employment opportunities.  To cope with the new environment and its threats, many of these immigrants formed groups that eventually turned into what today we know as street gangs like the MS-13.

The M-18 was already operating in Los Angeles, but it started adopting Central Americans into its ranks during the same period (Hampton-Gaines 2012, 20).  After several years, due to the increasing criminality in the Los Angeles area where much of these immigrants settled, the United States deported thousands of Central Americans back into the Northern Triangle countries (Farah 2013, 92).  The deportation of youths and people that had lived in the United States most of their lives resulted in an influx of unprepared population into the region.  Subsequently, these deportees formed groups to protect themselves from rival gangs and criminals.  As a result, the MS-13 and the M-18 became powerful street gangs in the Northern Triangle, engaging in a broad range of crime from murder to prostitution, sex trafficking, and extortion.

Along with the DTOs, the street gangs in the Northern Triangle are held responsible for a considerable amount of the violence.  Some analysts estimate that around 70 percent of murders are committed by street gangs (Vanden 2014, 81).  Additionally, DTOs and gangs often work together, and the former utilizes the latter for the most violent and unscrupulous assignments.  The existence of these organizations contributes to the deterioration of society in the Northern Triangle.  Furthermore, the State becomes incapable of responding to the threats posed by these organizations that are often better equipped and prepared than government forces.  Criminal organizations, along with delegitimizing the State, become a contributor to instability in the region, opening the doors for more illicit actors.

While not a substantial threat now, terrorism is certainly a factor also worth considering when analyzing the series of non-State actors operating in the Northern Triangle.  The region’s proximity to the United States places these countries in the radar of terrorist organizations worldwide.  Additionally, the lack of State presence and the freedom of maneuver already enjoyed by criminal organizations in some areas is also a benefit to terrorists.  Evidence showing the nexus between terrorists and criminals is not entirely absent from the region.  The FARC and the Sinaloa cartel being one example of such cooperation (Marcy 2014, 21-22).  More importantly, some reports even point out to collaboration between Hezbollah and the Zetas cartel in Guatemala (Sullivan and Beittel 2013, 23 and 34).  The crime-terror nexus still unclear, but the if the socioeconomic conditions continue to deteriorate one can expect that such nexus will become more visible and with serious implications to regional security.

The United States has addressed the issues plaguing the Northern Triangle for several years now.  An example of US response is the $750 million approved during President Barrack Obama’s term to support security initiatives in the region (Consolidated Appropriations Act 2016, 1372).  US funds go to agencies like USAID, INL, and CARSI, whose realm of projects range from police training to economic development programs.  Money is certainly important to address the issues in the Northern Triangle, but how the funds are utilized is even more important.  Ensuring that the US is backing the right approaches that target the root causes of instability is paramount.  Investing in the appropriate projects that strengthen the social contract is necessary for the eventual socioeconomic development of the Northern Triangle.





































Today, the Northern Triangle region in Central America is famous for violence, underdevelopment, and corruption.  The issues plaguing the area have attracted much international concern, especially in the United States.  The social problems that harm the Northern Triangle countries have repercussions beyond national and regional boundaries.  The United States, as experienced during the immigration crisis of unaccompanied minors in 2014 and the more recent developments pertaining to the increased presence of MS-13 gang members in US cities, has attempted to address the problems in the region by utilizing foreign assistance that, from 2014 to 2016, totaled $645 million (Foreign Assistance 2017).

It is not the intent of the author to insinuate that more foreign assistance is necessary for the Northern Triangle countries.  However, the intent of this thesis is to expose that foreign aid is not effectively managed and implemented to target the root causes of instability and State fragility in the region.  While foreign assistance, or economic aid, is not on itself the tool that will end the problems in the region, such assistance should improve the dire conditions currently experienced by the poorest people in these societies.  A problem with the way that aid is managed today is that in these countries, economic assistance from the United States is often tied to political conditions that the receiving nation must accept, and such conditions make foreign aid counterproductive (Collier 2007, 108).  When the governments in these countries agree to the political conditions they focus more on meeting such milestones than improving the socioeconomic conditions of their citizens.

Since foreign aid is critical to this research, it then becomes necessary to explore the global extent of this practice briefly.  No other country contributes more money to foreign aid than the United States.  However, the United States spends around 0.19 percent of its income in foreign assistance (Tarnoff and Lawson 2016, 20).  Worldwide, a small portion of US foreign aid funds go towards programs that improve or encourage economic development.  Additionally, the US spent around 0.003 percent of its income in the Northern triangle countries between 2014 and 2016 (Foreign Assistance 2017).

Within the wide range of programs funded by the United States in the Northern Triangle, the author considers five of them to be critical for developing stable societies and improving socioeconomic conditions.  These five areas of economic development include Economic Opportunity (EO) programs, which provide funds to assist individuals and families living under the direst conditions of poverty, especially households led by women.  The second set of programs includes initiatives created to provide Social Services (SS).  Social Services programs make funds available for at risk populations like youths and single mothers (Foreign Assistance 2017).  As previously explained, youths are specially at risk in the Northern Triangle and they become a fundamental component of the instability cycle in the region.  Therefore, such programs that aim to decrease the impacts of crime and poverty on the youth population are critical.

The third type of program funded by the US in the Northern Triangle is Higher Education (HE) initiatives.  As the name implies, these programs seek to make education opportunities available to those that cannot otherwise attain it on their own, especially the young and destitute.  As explained, youths face great rates of unemployment illiteracy in the Northern Triangle region, it only makes sense to support educational programs that increase human capital and target the root causes of instability.  The fourth US funded programs worth considering are programs related to conflict mitigation and resolution (CMR).  These programs address the damaging effects of conflict and violence amongst society.  If one considers the long history of civil wars and violent crime present in the Northern Triangle, it is easy to understand how CMR programs become a necessary tool for improving the social conditions in the Northern Triangle.

The last set of programs are those initiatives that deal with Civil Society (CS).  These programs, just like the ones explained up to this point, provide certain type of assistance to at risk populations in the region.  CS programs empower religious institutions and organizations that promote good governance.  These programs focus on building social structures to help young people by creating organizations that cater to their needs.  In 2016, the United States spent around $6 million in these five types of programs that promote socioeconomic development in the Northern Triangle region (Foreign Assistance 2017).  In contrast, the United States spent around $16 million in administrative costs, program management, and environmental programs that do very little to improve the situation for the poorest in society.

Additionally, in 2016, the US provided $41 million dollars for agricultural programs in the Northern Triangle, programs that are rural in nature, and that given the location of most of the crime, the violence, and the people in the region today, become ineffective at addressing the root causes of instability.  While agricultural programs do provide alternative sources of income, such programs have limited impact and fail to reach at risk populations in urban centers.  Furthermore, EO programs promoting grassroots economic alternatives for the poorest people in Guatemala only accounted for 0.1 percent of the total funds allocated for economic development programs in that country (Foreign Assistance 2017).  Without economic activity at the grassroots level, crime, violence, and instability becomes an impossible problem to deal with.  Only incentives that provide an alternative to crime and violence can target the social problems existent in the societies of the Northern Triangle.

In total, the Northern Triangle region received around $45 million from the United States in 2016 to promote economic development programs.  Of it, about 1 percent, or around $461,000 funded EO initiatives targeting at risk populations and females leading the household (Foreign Assistance 2017).  Additionally, SS and HE programs contribute to the development of human capital.  These programs promote stability, productivity, and education by addressing social issues that affect society and by providing the educational opportunities necessary to develop them.  In the Northern Triangle countries in 2016, the United States spent around $237,000 in SS programs and around $3 million in initiatives promoting higher education (Foreign Assistance 2017).  The US spent almost triple that amount in the environment instead of educating at risk youths that are certainly contributing to the violence and instability in the region.

Along with developing human capital, the Northern Triangle countries need healing, they need social cohesion and resilience.  Taking into consideration the decades of conflict and the current extent of the criminal footprint in the area, one can deduce that programs that aim at addressing social discord and healing society are of extreme importance.  In 2016, CMR programs received zero funding from the United States.  In a region where the wounds of civil war still bleeding and where violent and murderous criminal organizations reign, it becomes difficult to explain why the United States provides no money for mitigating and resolving conflict within society.  Nevertheless, reactive approaches targeting DTOs and their activities did receive around $1.5 million from the US in 2016.

For the last category, CS, the US allocated around $2.5 million in 2016.  Programs funded by CS promote resilient and stable societies.  These programs strengthen the bond between the State and the citizens, which becomes the greatest problem to democracy and stability in the Northern Triangle.  When society does not trust the State, non-state actors step in and fill the void.  This is what one can witness in many places throughout the region, where criminal s become the status quo and the State loses legitimacy.

More than half a century ago, President Truman considered the possibility of countering threats by using foreign aid as the currency behind the Marshall Plan.  In this instance, it was communism the source of poverty, violence, and instability (McVety 2012, 85).  The United States is now facing a different threat that instead of ideological in nature, is entirely an economic problem.  Nevertheless, foreign assistance can have an even greater impact on today’s threats as it did after the end of the second World War.

Utilizing foreign aid to address the issues in the Northern triangle region has its risks.  As Hans Morgenthau wrote, “of the seeming and real innovations which the modern age has introduced into the practice of foreign policy, none has proven more baffling to both understanding and action than foreign aid.” (Morgenthau 1962, 301).  However, one must not let the negative characteristics of foreign aid get on the way of potentially successful programs that could target the roots causes of instability in the Northern Triangle, one must study and remember where foreign aid failed, and never made the same mistake.  To start, the United States must redefine success, and only invest on those programs that show the highest potential for such success.

Throughout history, the United States’ use of foreign aid has been political in nature.  The author does not argue for a totally altruistic use of foreign aid, it is understandable that the US would like to advance its international interests when it gives away money, but it is equally important to known that some conditions on aid are counterproductive and harmful to the long-term interest of the United States in the Western Hemisphere.  The United States must then find ways to separate political conditions from foreign aid expenditures that are aimed at addressing socioeconomic issues, this is the only way to improve the effectiveness of foreign assistance.





































































Dixon, J. S., & Sarkees, M. R. (2015). A guide to intra-state wars: an examination of civil, regional, and intercommunal wars, 1816-2014. Thousand Oaks, California: CQ Press.

Grillo, I. (2016). Gangster warlords: drug dollars, killing fields, and the new politics of Latin America. New York, NY, USA: Bloomsbury Press, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Kunz, J. L. (1946). Guatemala vs. Great Britain: In Re Belice. The American Journal of International Law, (2). 383.

Clark, G. B. (2014). The United States military in Latin America: a history of interventions through 1934. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Bucheli, M. (2008). Multinational corporations, totalitarian regimes and economic nationalism: United Fruit Company in Central America, 1899-1975. Business History, 50(4), 433-454. doi:10.1080/00076790802106315

Herring, G. C. (2008). From colony to superpower: U.S. foreign relations since 1776. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, A. L., & Peterson, B. G. (2008). Martyrdom, Sacrifice, and Political Memory in El Salvador. Social Research, 75(2), 511-542.

Booth, J. A. (2008). Democratic Development in Costa Rica. Democratization, 15(4), 714. doi:10.1080/13510340802191052

Garcia Villegas, M. (2015). Ineffectiveness of the law and the culture of noncompliance in Latin America. In C. A. Rodríguez Garavito (Eds.), law and society in Latin America: a new map (63). New York: Routledge.

Pérez, O. J. (2015). Civil-Military Relations in Post-Conflict Societies: Transforming the Role of the Military in Central America. New York: Routledge.



Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this dissertation and no longer wish to have your work published on the website then please: