Central America’s most troubled region is at a turning point. Throughout the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, successful challenges to endemic corruption, violence and impunity are gaining force. A courageous generation of citizens, politicians and jurists is saying “enough.”
But as the three countries remain gripped by staggering rates of violence and lagging social inclusion, the fate of the Northern Triangle is far from certain.
Which future lies ahead?
It is a question that Americas Quarterly asked on the cover of its special issue on Central America, which officially launched last week in Guatemala City. At a panel event held in partnership with the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala (FUNDESA) to mark the occasion, leaders from the public and private sectors and civil society gathered to identify strategies for making recent advances in the region irreversible.
Indeed, signs of change are evident. In Guatemala, effective public institutions and a robust expression of citizen dissatisfaction forced out a sitting president and vice president last year. In El Salvador, new Attorney General Douglas Meléndez promised not to back down from bold calls for the arrest of figures implicated in crimes related to a failed 2012 gang truce. And in Honduras, government officials have partnered with the Organization of American States to establish an anti-corruption body the country hopes will mirror the UN-backed CICIG in Guatemala, which was instrumental in bringing down former President Otto Pérez Molina.
These advances have been possible thanks to stronger democratic institutions and greater freedom of expression, according to Richard Lapper, a veteran reporter who spent three weeks in the region to write AQ’s feature story in the issue. At the launch event in Guatemala City, Lapper discussed the differences he saw from when he first visited the Northern Triangle more than thirty years ago.
“I’ve returned to the Northern Triangle various times since I first came in 1979, and it has changed considerably,” Lapper said. “Protests (in Guatemala) are now a daily occurrence. They are accepted and have become part of the political fabric in this country—this is a great accomplishment.”
Salvador Paiz, Vice President of FUNDESA and Co-Chairman of Grupo PDC and a panelist at the launch event, noted that the region’s recent accomplishments present private sector leaders with a “historic responsibility” to collaborate with various state actors, particularly when it comes to providing resources for public institutions.
“We have to reject the behavior of corruption that we have historically accepted as a country,” Paiz said. “We need the private sector to be one more actor that is contributing to these changes.”
But tough challenges remain, threatening the country’s steps forward. Panelists and speakers agreed that tackling youth unemployment must be high on the region’s long to-do list.
For Guatemala’s Economy Minister Rubén Morales Monroy, the challenge of transforming his country’s economy and society goes beyond his professional mandate. Morales stressed the plight of the region’s “NiNi” youths that neither work nor study, a demographic which in Guatemala constitutes a quarter of young people between 15 and 24. Morales told the event’s attendees that while the country needed to grow economically, that growth needed to be inclusive by providing these young people opportunities to prevent them from migrating or joining gangs.
“Young people in our country are our greatest potential or our biggest risk,” Morales told attendees.
Raquel Zelaya Rosales, president of the board of directors at Guatemala’s Association for Research and Social Studies (ASIES) said that as the country’s political culture changes, young people must be encouraged to embrace their role as leaders in the process, rather than reject it.
There was also agreement that part of creating systemic change meant recognizing the parts of the system that work. For Paiz, that means recognizing public servants who do their job and do it well. One of these figures, Rootman Pérez, secretary of criminal policy at the Public Ministry of Guatemala, was on hand to discuss the instrumental work the ministry is doing to build on the momentum of the past 12 months in fighting corruption.
While the task of transforming the Northern Triangle seems daunting, the type of leadership displayed in Guatemala City will prove decisive in future efforts. There is certainly reason for hope.
O’Boyle is an editor for AQ.