Report Highlights Northern Triangle’s Struggle to Secure its Porous Borders

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A new report on border security in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras suggests that for all its ills, organized crime has brought some economic benefits to impoverished communities, who may take a hostile view of any state-led security surge. 

The report, “Border Insecurity in Central America’s Northern Triangle,” (pdf.), was released on November 8 and is a joint study by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin America Program and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). It provides a comprehensive overview of the history of insecurity in the Northern Triangle, with a focus on its lawless border regions and their increasing importance to organized crime in the hemisphere.

Among the report’s key findings is that government attempts to implement new border security strategies have failed due to a combination of a lack of funding, weak and corrupt government institutions, and the absence of fixed, long-term policy approaches. As a result, the borders of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras remain “unmarked and largely unrecognized across most of their length.” Official border crossings are few and far between, and those that exist lack the equipment and personnel necessary to be a reasonable deterrent against the illicit smuggling of drugs, arms, and people. Guatemala’s 600-mile long border with Mexico, for instance, has only eight official border checkpoints, and of these, only half are consistently manned.

The problem is compounded by the absence of the rule of law in border areas. National police or military personnel are rarely stationed away from major highways. In the small towns that are fortunate enough to have a local police force, their effectiveness is limited by the fact that courts, judges, and jails are often miles away, and can only be reached by a journey of several hours. As such, vigilante and criminal groups frequently become the de facto authority in these communities.

Because of the complex relationships between illicit trafficking and border communities, the report concludes that the current emphasis on professionalizing security forces and monitoring frontier regions more effectively is not enough. The authors assert that “ultimately, a focus on borders per se is misleading,” and that the real task lies in increasing state presence in these areas, both in terms of security forces as well as institutions of basic governance. Doing so will require long-term cooperation with local officials, as well as a deeper understanding of the distinctions between illicit trafficking, organized crime, and violence, according to the report.

InSight Crime Analysis

Over the past decade, Mexican cartels have developed distribution chains throughout the Northern Triangle with the help of local smuggling networks, known as “transportistas,” who facilitate drug shipments through the region. This has brought violence, displacement, and increased drug consumption to frontier areas. 

However, the report argues that in contrast to federal authorities, border communities have some reason to see the rise in illicit trafficking in a more positive light. Thanks to the increase in drug trafficking through Central America that has occurred over the past several decades, many impoverished border towns have gained access to previously inconceivable financial flows. This has had a tremendous effect on economic development, with communities seeing significant increases in average incomes. According to the Wilson Center/MPI report, Guatemala’s border regions and border towns are now home to the country’s fastest-growing economies and populations.

Considering this, as well as longstanding tensions that exist throughout the region between rural residents and members of the security forces, local residents may not view security surges in their communities in a favorable light. This underscores the importance of adding economic development initiatives and infrastructure projects to any border security plan in the region, in order to better incorporate these communities into the formal economy and lessen their dependence on illicit trafficking.

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