Central America (Northern Triangle)


Conflict Summary

The security forces of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are in a standoff with transnational drug cartels trying to control territory to use as transportation routes for drug trafficking. The drugs, mostly cocaine, are produced in South America and smuggled through the three countries, known as the Northern Triangle, to Mexico. Improvements by US and Mexican authorities in their capacity to patrol their coasts and air spaces have made the Northern Triangle a crucial part of the land route for drugs. The trade is often managed by powerful Mexican cartels, particularly the Sinaloa. Following several recent civil wars in the region, many former armed groups and combatants turned to drug trafficking and other criminal activities. Both local gangs and Mexican groups benefit from the region’s weak institutional capacity, dysfunctional judicial system, inadequate policing and insufficient coastal and border patrols. Gangs in the region often adopt a strongly territorial structure, limiting people’s movements and extorting businesses in some urban areas. The three countries register some of the highest homicide rates in the world, according to the United Nations. Civil society groups in El Salvador negotiated a truce between the main organised criminal gangs – the largest of which are the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 – in 2012. The truce resulted in a sharp reduction in homicides, but broke down in 2014 after a gradual rise in criminal violence. Gangs stepped up targeted killings against security forces throughout 2014 and 2015. In Honduras and Guatemala, governments have introduced new security agencies or task forces with a hybrid military–police outlook. Honduras launched a military police force and Guatemala deployed several joint task forces, particularly along the country’s porous jungle borders.