U.S. Foreign Assistance to the Northern Triangle


WASHINGTON — The current strategy guiding U.S. foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) follows a long tradition of bipartisanship and utilization of regional expertise. Despite this long tradition, the Trump administration recently proposed cutting the $500 million in aid appropriated by Congress. The programs supported by these funds are critical for the continued social, political and economic development of the Northern Triangle. Furthermore, this assistance addresses the root causes of migration to the U.S.

Here are a select few examples of the programs funded by U.S. foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle.


Guatemala has experienced healthy GDP growth, from $130.4 billion in 2015 to $138.1 billion in 2017. However, the nation continues to suffer from a host of societal problems stemming from economic inequality and poor governance. In 2015, then ­president Otto Pérez Molina was imprisoned for corruption. His successor, President Jimmy Morales, attempted to expel the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN anti-corruption commission, due to its investigation of Morales’s campaign funding. Although his attempt was blocked by Guatemala’s highest court, corruption in Guatemala continues to affect government and society, and 59.3 percent of Guatemala’s population now lives below the poverty line.

USAID strategy is designed to combat high poverty levels and target communities in areas most likely to migrate to the U.S. From 2015 to 2016, USAID’s agricultural programming helped to increase rural farmers’ sales in the Western Highlands of Guatemala by 51 percent, creating more than 20,000 jobs in the agriculture sector.

This outcome has been achieved in part through programs like Feed the Future Guatemala, providing training in agricultural management practices and assisting to diversify production chains. Feed the Future also leveraged an estimated $4.4 million in private sector investment, multiplying its impact on the regional economy.

These economic development projects complement numerous governance-based programs, such as the Urban Municipal Governance project. This project operates in 30 communities in municipalities between Guatemala City and the country’s western border, providing municipal governments with better technologies and assistance to achieve transparent and participatory planning, financial management and effective service delivery implementation. The aim of this program is to support citizens living in high crime areas by improving services and involving them in government decision making.


Honduras suffers from a similar range of problems to Guatemala, however, it is most notorious for its high homicide rate. In 2016, the homicide rate in Honduras was 56.52 per 100,000 population, second only to El Salvador.

Honduras ranks lowest out of the three countries on GDP per capita, ranked 170th worldwide in 2017.

Consequently, combating crime is a priority of USAID’s strategy in Honduras. For example, several USAID programs target family intervention and risk-rehabilitation services, aimed at strengthening community networks and identifying at-risk youth. Violence-prevention initiatives like these have resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the number of homicides in San Pedro Sula’s most dangerous neighborhood, Rivera Hernandez, and reduced the overall homicide rate in the city by more than half since 2013.

In addition, USAID’s program Governance in Ecosystems, Livelihoods and Water Activity (GEMA) is operating in western Honduras to improve natural conservation policies and help nurture an environmentally friendly economy. By investing in income diversification and conservation-related businesses like ecotourism, certified coffee farming and beekeeping, USAID’s efforts will create 3,000 new jobs and increase net sales by $10 million. A sustainability-informed population is particularly important in Honduras due to its proximity to tropical hurricanes. Furthermore, these programs allow USAID to address the root causes of migration to the U.S. as natural disasters increase the likelihood of migration.

El Salvador

While El Salvador is labeled a ‘Free’ country by the Freedom House Index, corruption and extortion are dominant factors of everyday life.

The country had its most recent elections in February 2019, with the outgoing president leaving a legacy of slow economic growth, weakened government institutions and a surge in violence, homicides and drug trafficking.

Similar to Honduras, community-led crime prevention is a central component of USAID’s El Salvador strategy. In El Salvador, USAID sponsors youth centers. The centers are a safe space where children and adolescents can study and receive tutoring; learn computer and other vocational skills; take music, dance and art lessons and meet friends. USAID has funded 119 hubs across Honduras providing services for 25,000 youth. Between 2015 and 2017, in the municipalities in which USAID operates, the homicide rate decreased by 61 percent.

As widespread extortion is often identified as a key driver in migration from the country, the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) also operates in El Salvador. INL helps to reduce drug trafficking and criminal activities, and its Business Crimes Task Force is credited in successfully dismantling four extortion networks organized by the transnational MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs in San Salvador. Moreover, U.S. and El Salvadorian authorities coordinated the target of MS-13 cells across both the Northern Triangle and the U.S., resulting in the arrest of more than 1,800 gang members in El Salvador alone. As a result of efforts to make these communities safer, despite cumulative migration numbers remaining high, the numbers of El Salvadorian unaccompanied children and family units arriving at U.S. borders are the lowest they have been in five years.

In the recent hearing about the proposed cuts to U.S. foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle, the former U.S. Commissioner to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol stressed that “protecting a community is a long-term investment.” The programs discussed above both improve the lives of the citizens in the Northern Triangle and reduce the number of entries on the U.S. southern border. This assistance is therefore a vital component of U.S. foreign policy.

In order to promote both stability in the Northern Triangle and U.S. national security, The Borgen Project is working to oppose the proposed cuts to U.S. foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle. Please email your congressional leaders and protect these crucial programs.

– Holly Barsham
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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