BOGOTA — Nicaragua is facing its most violent crisis since the 1980s, when President Daniel Ortega first led the country. Between 295 and 448 people have been killed after more than three months of protests and violent crackdown by security forces, according to various rights groups. Ortega himself put the number last week at 195, and went so far as to blame ISIS for the chaotic situation.
But while Nicaragua may be garnering the most media attention right now, it is by no means the only problem-spot in Central America. Democratic political systems were established in the region starting in the 1990s, following a period of authoritarian governments. In Nicaragua, the Somoza family dynasty held power for more than 40 years (1937-1979). El Salvador was under the thumb of army dictatorships for nearly half a century (1931-1979). And in Guatemala, military governments — with help from the United States — ran the country from 1954 to 1982. All of that resulted in revolutionary movements and civil wars that continue to have repercussions today.
In addition, these countries all have high levels of poverty, inequality and marginalization that have led to serious problems with violent crime, displacement, migration and drug trafficking. The Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) in particular struggle with an alarming mix of violence, insecurity and corruption.
Disputed elections in Honduras
The recent history of Honduras has seen a breakdown of key institutions and a series of political crises. The current leader, Juan Orlando Hernández, began his second presidential term on Jan. 27, following controversial elections that were marred by fraud allegations.
Hernández owes his new term to a Supreme Court decision that lifted a Constitutional ban on reelection. The country's vote-tallying system was also hit by a supposed "electrical failure" and the election results were delayed by several weeks, prompting observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) to recommend an election do-over.
Citizens took to the streets to protest the apparent electoral fraud. The government responded with military repression. It declared a curfew and a 45-day state of emergency. At least 34 people were killed during that time, according to the Honduran rights group Casa Alianza.
As if that weren't enough, in 2015, during Hernández's first term, evidence surfaced of a $335 million embezzlement scam involving the public health system. The president reacted by asking the OAS to supply a Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
Later, the MACCIH uncovered another scandal, this time involving legislators who allegedly took nearly $12 million in public funds earmarked for non-profit humanitarian projects and invested the money in electoral campaigns. Evidence from the Pandora case, as it's known, implicates lawmakers, public officials, private individuals and political organizations (including Hernandez's National Party) on both the left and the right.
The situation in Honduras hasn't improved since then. Recently, anti-corruption prosecutor Luis Santos called for passage of a so-called "whistle-blower" law to reward people for supplying authorities with the information needed to break up corruption networks. The law has been collecting dust in Congress since early 2017.
"We're uncovering some corruption networks, but it's impossible to find out who's running things at the top without offering some kind of benefit to the people who have already come forward trying to provide the necessary information," he said.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for its part, has visited Honduras to evaluate the country's humanitarian situation, especially in light of the post-election political crisis that, according to the United Nations, saw at last 22 protestors killed as a direct result of government repression. That's on top of the alarming levels of everyday violence and insecurity in Honduras, which has a per-capita homicide rate of 43 per 100,000 inhabitants — four times what international organizations classify as an "epidemic."
Murder and migration in El Salvador
The homicide numbers are even higher in El Salvador, where they are attributed in large part to the "maras," as the country's street gangs are known. And they pose a huge challenge to the Salvadoran government, led by Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The maras are international crime organizations that first arose on the streets of Los Angeles, in the United States, where thousands of Central Americans migrated to escape the civil wars of the 1980s. Once there, they joined already existing Latino gangs, only to be deported later on — and en masse — to their countries of origin. Upon returning, the gangs decided to replicate their model in Central America.
Nowadays, the maras have an estimated 70,000 members in El Salvador. The two largest are the Mara Salvatrucha (M-13) and Barrio 18 gangs. They are involved primarily in extortion rackets and drugs trafficking, and move large sums of money.
The pressure they exert has led to the forced displacement of regular Salvadoran citizens, both internally and, in large part, to the United States. Emigrating to the United States, however, has now become even more difficult due to the immigration policies of President Donald Trump, who also announced recently that the U.S. government will end its Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. TPS benefits more than 400,000 people, including an estimated 195,000 Salvadorans who will have to return to the violence from which they fled.
Salvadoran authorities have consistently failed to rein in the maras, despite implementing a series of "mano dura" (iron fist) policies that have only increased the levels of violence. A gang truce that Sánchez Cerén's predecessor, Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), helped broker in 2012 by offering improved prison conditions for jailed gang members, was an exception.
After taking office in 2014, Sánchez Cerén turned his back on the truce, and in 2015 the Supreme Court officially classified the gangs as "terrorists." Since then there's been a spike in the number of deadly shootouts between police and suspected gang members.
Santiago, a Barrio 18 member since he was 15, addressed the "terrorism" label in an interview with the New York Times. "The only parallel I see with terrorism is that we represent a certain community, a segment of society that has been marginalized. But our violence is not ideological and certainly not religious," he said.
"The question isn't what services we provide," he added. "The question is more fundamental: What does our existence say about the government and the services it fails to provide? We exist because there is nothing else."
This, then, is the backdrop as El Salvador gears up for its next presidential elections, in February 2019. The most pressing question is what the next administration can do to tackle a problem that has proved impervious to a "mano dura" approach and seems to get worse by the day.
Fighting impunity in Guatemala
Guatemala is on shaky ground as well, and not just because of the deadly volcanic eruption on June 3 that killed scores and directly impacted some 1.7 million people. There's also the constant struggle between organized corruption and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed investigative and prosecutorial body set up nearly a dozen years ago.
The person who has led the CICIG for the past five years is Iván Velásquez, a law expert from Colombia. But in August 2017, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales declared Velásquez a persona non grata and ordered that he be expelled from the country. At issue was a CICIQ embezzlement inquiry involving Morales's brother and one of his four sons.
Velásquez had already played a key role in other corruption probes, including one that landed former President Otto Pérez (2012-2015) in jail. And recently, he exposed possible campaign financing irregularities linked to Morales's electoral campaign and political party, the National Convergence Front (FCN). Investigators with the CICIG found that while the FCN reported $14,000 in campaign spending, it may actually have spent around $960,000, according to the investigative news portal InSight Crime.
The president's decision to expel Velásquez was blocked by the Supreme Court. And it cost him both politically and in terms of important international aid money. Several ministers and deputy ministers resigned, and thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets to protest.
More recently, in June, Guatemalan authorities withdrew half of the police assigned to protect members of the CICIG. In an interview with AFP, the country's human rights ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, responded by calling it "yet another blow by the government which, instead of supporting the CICIG, is eroding its ability to function."
Despite the CICIG's accomplishments, its mandate ends in just a few weeks, on Sept. 3. And for the first time, there's no guarantee it will survive. That's because the only person who can formally request that the mandate be extended is the president — the same person who wants Velásquez gone.