Northern Central America is a beautiful and complex region mired by corruption, poverty, and violence. Seattle International Foundation’s Adriana Beltrán and Eric Olson discuss how, in this moment when trustworthy government allies are limited, investment and support for organized civil society offers a way forward.
After days of travel by foot and bus north from southern Honduras, Dolores was forced to stop. Her daughter Andrea was running a high fever and needed medical attention, Dolores explained to volunteers at La 72, a shelter near the Mexico-Guatemala border named for 72 migrants presumed murdered by the Los Zetas drug cartel in Tamaulipas, Mexico, in 2010. Could La 72 help her?
They could. La 72 was brimming with other Hondurans fleeing their homeland, and Dolores’s experience that day in August 2019 was tragically familiar to shelter staff.
The story of Central Americans risking their lives to flee poverty, hunger, soaring homicides, and gang violence for a better future in the U.S. is common. Andrea and Dolores were just two of the nearly 800,000 people from Northern Central America seeking refuge or asylum in 2020. Since 2019, more than 350,000 children, some as young as 10 years old, arrived at the U.S. border as “unaccompanied minors,” or without a responsible adult. The majority of migrants are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and have overwhelmed U.S. border crossings in search of protection and a better future. They are faced with increasingly restrictive U.S. migration policies, like Title 42, which has been used to block migrants from applying for asylum during the COVID-19 public health emergency, violating U.S. obligations under international agreements such as the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
Initially, Dolores’s account fell into a predictable pattern of motivations for migration. She came from one of the lowest-income states in Honduras — Choluteca — which is classified as a “crisis” state for acute food insecurity. Food insecurity has been chronic in this area for decades, made worse by long-term drought and environmental distress, exposure to natural disasters, and low economic activity.
On top of food insecurity, Dolores also spoke of the physical danger she and Andrea fled in Choluteca. Youth gangs control many neighborhoods in Honduras, and law enforcement is either weak, subservient, or absent altogether. Gangs set curfews, demarcate territories, and impose order at gunpoint. They extort almost all economic activity in poor neighborhoods for their own profit, and they recruit girls and boys as young as 9 and 10 into their ranks.
Beyond gang-related violence, Central American women are particularly at risk for gender-based violence. For women and girls like Dolores and Andrea, violence can begin at home where domestic abuse, intrafamilial violence, and sexual violence can compel women and girls to flee their homes. In 2021, authorities in Honduras reported 107,466 emergency calls related to domestic or intrafamily violence. That’s one call every five minutes. And, this number only reflects those who opt to call the police — most cases of domestic violence are not reported to or prosecuted by judicial authorities in Honduras. The same is true for cases of rape. In 2020, authorities received 2,219 reports of rape — one case every four hours. Homicides of women on account of their gender, often referred to as “femicides,” are also a serious and growing problem in the region. Honduras’ Center for Women’s Rights reported 342 femicides in 2021 — one case every 25 hours.
Violence and food insecurity alone, however, do not explain why Central Americans risk their lives each year to migrate to the U.S. Corruption and lack of trust in government are powerful and often-overlooked drivers of migration and were influential in Dolores and Andrea’s decision to migrate.
“I watch the news, and I see that my government is corrupt. The politicians are stealing money from us. They care more about themselves,” said Dolores. “They don’t care about my daughter and our problems. I have no hope that things will get better.”
Evidence of insidious corruption is easy to find in Central America. In Guatemala, investigators, prosecutors, and judges worked with a landmark United Nations commission (the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, also referred to as the CICIG) to hold businesses and politicians as senior as former presidents accountable for corruption. Brave anti-corruption officials are now themselves being targeted for prosecution and incarceration. At least 22 have been forced to flee Guatemala since 2018.
For people like Dolores, corruption has real-life consequences. Tens of thousands of people across Central America were impacted when governments bypassed normal procurement procedures and either overpaid for supplies or made defective purchases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scarce resources were wasted, and money for the pandemic response was reportedly pocketed by unscrupulous officials and contractors according to the findings of an anti-corruption tribunal in Honduras.
In Honduras, two independent investigations showed that the government overpaid for vital medical equipment. It purchased seven mobile hospitals at excessive prices that were not fully delivered, and were not adequate for the COVID-19 response. Such corruption means there are even fewer resources available for a comprehensive response to the pandemic, and people likely died unnecessarily as a consequence. Extensive corruption in education systems, public works, and among public security forces is also common.
Despair and disillusion are not feelings exclusive to migrants like Dolores. Despite the obvious need and geographic proximity of Central America to the U.S., many U.S.-based and international donors have reduced or held back investments in the region for the same reason people are migrating: instability, corruption, and lack of trust. While overall philanthropic giving to all of Latin America grew by 36% from 2006 to 2015, funding for Central America-focused initiatives remained flat, and remains at 1% of total global giving from U.S. donors. The situation has been particularly difficult in Nicaragua, where a law requires recipients of any assistance from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” resulting in the termination of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, university centers, and independent media. Similar policies have been adopted in El Salvador and Guatemala and are already having a deleterious impact on the independent media and civil society organizations.
While there are significant and widespread challenges, progress in Central America is possible and worth fighting for. Institutional funders are particularly well positioned to fund long-term, systems-minded efforts. Unlike government funders, social investors have the flexibility to assume a longer horizon for change and are not constrained by diplomatic tradition and bureaucratic funding structures.
Through our nearly 15 years championing good governance and equity in Central America by strengthening rule of law and civil society, we have developed a few guiding principles for working toward systemic change:
Migrating from Central America to the U.S. is dangerous and often done out of desperation and fear. Even if an individual or family successfully applies for asylum and can establish residency in the U.S., it is a perilous road.
Rebuilding trust in governments that prioritize equity and justice is key to addressing the long-standing systematic challenges that drive people to migrate. Central American governments, however, are increasingly authoritarian. Corruption permeates all aspects of public life. So, consistently supporting and uplifting civil society, independent journalists, and activists working for transparency and accountability is the best way to enable families like Dolores and Andrea to remain in their communities and be part of the movement for building a better Central America.
Andrea and Dolores are pseudonyms used to protect their identities. Their story is true and reflects the experiences of many Central Americans migrating to the U.S. border.