The Multiple Causes of the Border Crisis

October 13, 2016

Much was written and discussed in the Summer of 2014 about the causes of the migration of thousands of undocumented minors and women with young children from Central America’s Northern Triangle region (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) to the United States.1 Many analysts focused on finding "the culprit", the one single cause that provoked the dramatic increase in the number of children arriving at the border and turning themselves to US authorities. 

The debate ranged from analyzing the so-called “pull factors” in the US to the “push factors” in Northern Triangle countries. Some politicians in the US focused on the immediate pull factors, such as the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) and the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—arguing that they create incentives for young migrants to leave their countries of origin. On the other hand, during a joint visit to Washington DC on July 25, the presidents of the three Northern Triangle countries emphasized the role of organized crime and the shared responsibility of the United States in finding a solution to violence in the region.

Among those who focused on the push factors, many agreed that the high levels of gang-violence in those countries are pushing women and children away, while others noted poverty and lack of opportunity as main determinants of the exodus. Beyond the pull and push factors, some pointed out at the intrusive role of the United States in Central America during the 20th century as a root cause for today’s problems in those countries. Other analysts noted the failed domestic policies of governments in the Northern Triangle and the widespread corruption that impedes social development and the implementation of an effective security strategy, as well as the limited resources of the government apparatus in those countries after the downgrading of the state as a result of the Washington Consensus.

The situation is extremely complex. The aforementioned factors are intertwined and have contributed, in one way or another, to the flight of children and women from the Northern Triangle. The most troubling implication is that appropriate policy options cannot be devised if there is a limited vision of the causes of migration and the links between them. A causal flowchart can provide a comprehensive picture of the multiple variables that may be contributing to the high levels of migration.

At the top of the chart are the antecedent variables, those that precede the current crisis.2 One of the most relevant is the structural inequality (and the consequent social exclusion) that is characteristic of all three countries. Data from the World Bank shows that in 2009, the top 20 percent of the population in the three countries received, on average, over 50 percent of the national income, while on average, the lowest 20 percent only received around 3 percent. Other figures such as the Gini Index and the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index corroborate the high levels of inequality and social exclusion of important segments of the population in the three countries. Natural disasters that devastated the region in the past 16 years have only made things worse. Powerful hurricanes such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Stan in 2005, tropical storms such as Agatha in 2010, and a series of earthquakes and landslides in this period, have caused millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure and have particularly affected vulnerable population that already lived in precarious conditions before the natural disasters hit them. Family disintegration also affects many women and children in the region, particularly in low-income sectors of the population, and represents another reason for emigration.3

A separate set of variables at the bottom of the flowchart are those that can be considered exogenous variables. The more distant one is the US foreign policy throughout most of the 20th century, which supported authoritarian governments that not only violated human rights and constrained political rights, but also blocked structural reforms and reaffirmed the unequal concentration of power and resources in those countries.4

Another exogenous variable is the massive deportation of gang members from the US to the Northern Triangle, where youth gangs spiraled out of control when thousands of youth who returned found themselves in a land where opportunities to improve their lives were nonexistent, and where law enforcement was basically inoperative. A study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicated that after the US Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, nearly 46,000 convicts were deported to Central America—mainly to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras—between 1998 and 2005. Many of the deportees were members of US street gangs, particularly from Los Angeles.5 Since then, gangs have grown exponentially in the region. There are now between 70,000 and 100,000 gang members—and the main gangs have developed links with organized crime, mainly drug traffickers. Moreover, the deportation of gang members from the US continues in full force.

In addition, the illicit trade of drugs and small arms in the region is also connected to the U.S.–the main market for the narcotics that transit through the region, and the main supplier of small arms for illegal groups, including gangs.

Finally, the 2008 TVPRA and the 2012 DACA can be seen as more recent indirect causes of the surge in migration of unaccompanied minors. By distorting the content of the laws, human smugglers have misled parents into believing that children can stay in the United States; because of low levels of education, parents fail to seek reliable information about their actual content. In addition, the lack of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States has become an overarching impediment to family reunification, thus forcing disadvantaged Central Americans to find illegal alternatives.

At the center of the flowchart are the endogenous variables that can be more directly connected to the flight of undocumented minors, not only to the US but also to other neighboring countries. At the core is the weakness of the state in the Northern Triangle countries. Some media outlets have referred to them as failed states, but that is not the case;6 in spite of their shortcomings, these are functioning states in many areas and—even by international measures such as the Fragile States Index (FSI)—are far from ranking with countries like Somalia, Afghanistan or even Haiti.7 That is why a more appropriate term for the Northern Triangle countries is that of weak states. The Northern Triangle countries are no longer authoritarian, but nonetheless struggle with corruption and clientelism, as well as inefficiency and lack of sufficient state resources. It has been pointed out that tax revenue as a percentage of the GDP in those countries is rather low,8often because of resistance from the private sector to pay more taxes, alleging corruption and tax waste, thus creating a vicious cycle that contributes to state weakness.9

In turn, this weakness leads to inadequate social policies and deficient security policies. Although moderate economic growth has occurred in the Northern Triangle countries in recent decades, not everyone has reaped the benefits. World Bank data show that in 2011, 61.9 percent of Hondurans, 53.7 percent of Guatemalans and 40.6 percent of Salvadorans lived under the national poverty line.10 Overall, the per capita social investment is among the lowest in Latin America.11 While social disparity and social exclusion are widespread throughout Latin America, Americas Quarterly’s 2014 Social Inclusion Index clearly shows that the situation is particularly bad in the Northern Triangle countries, which rank among the lowest in the Americas in measures related to social well-being.12

The Northern Triangle countries also have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.13 Crime is rampant in many areas of those countries, where private security firms have rapidly grown in recent years as a result of the inability of the state to curtail crime.14 The performance of many actors in the system, from rank-and-file policemen to high level Supreme Court Justices, is often questionable. In spite of many years of international cooperation and millions of dollars invested in improving the justice system, a weak rule of law persists and impunity and corruption abound. One sign of this is the dismal homicide conviction rate in the Northern Triangle; the average conviction rate between 2011 and 2013 was only 4.68 for every 100 homicides.15 An already weak and inefficient justice system has been incapable of dealing with the huge increase of drug trafficking and gang activity in the past decade.

Ineffective social and security policies end up disproportionally affecting sectors of the population that are poverty-stricken and that cannot afford private schooling or private health care, and do not have the resources to protect themselves from crime as middle and upper-middle class citizens do. The bulk of unaccompanied minors come precisely from those communities slammed by poverty and lack of opportunity on the one hand, and violence and insecurity on the other.

Separating these factors and trying to determine which one is the cause of migration is a futile effort. While there may be some migrants that flee primarily in search of better economic opportunities, it is likely that most of them risk their lives in a dangerous journey through Mexico because of a combination of both poverty and insecurity, which are intrinsically intertwined in the Northern Triangle. 

Some ask why have the numbers of unaccompanied minors surged in 2014, when poverty and violent conditions have existed in the Northern Triangle for years. A plausible explanation is that the recent migration is the result of a process that has been a long time coming. Human smugglers (coyotes) have taken advantage of the accumulation of the multiple unresolved problems shown in the flowchart. This, coupled with families’ desire to reunite after many years of separation, has allowed smugglers to market  false hope  by spreading rumors that children and women with young kids would be granted  “permission” to stay in the US.  

A Comprehensive and Multi-layered Approach   

The previous analysis shows the complexity of the so called "border crisis." As a result, the approach to solving the problem has to be comprehensive and multi-layered. There is no point in playing a blame game that oversimplifies the situation and only offers palliatives without addressing the multiple root causes of migration. That same complexity calls for a collective effort. It is evident that the three Northern Triangle countries will not be able to solve the problems by themselves—and although many international actors will provide them with assistance, the issue is particularly relevant for the United States, where the problems of the Northern Triangle are having clear and present consequences. 

The United States has invested millions of dollars in the past two decades—since the end of the armed conflicts—in Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle. Much of the investment has been in security issues, but important amounts have also been devoted to strengthening the rule of law and local governments, as well as promoting community development programs. However, the current crisis at the border seems to calls for a rethinking of the strategy. Already in the 1980s the Kissinger Commission attempted to present a blueprint for Central America which encompassed political, social and economic measures. But the context was totally different and although democracy did take hold in the region, the gaps in social development persist, and the new challenges presented by the spread of gangs and narcotrafficking make the situation even more complex.

The presidents of the region called for the US to implement an equivalent of “Plan Colombia” for Central America, but their request was met with little enthusiasm by U.S. policymakers. In any case, the solution should go beyond the mere investment of USD millions. At the end of the day no plan can work if key actors within each of those countries —including government leaders, opposition political parties, civil society and business elites— do not come together with determination to fight not only against organized crime and gangs, but also against their own internal disagreements, corruption and inequality.


The author would like to thank Mike Allison, Cynthia Arnson, John Booth, Mary Malone, Rodolfo Azpuru, Carolyn Shaw and Marcela Cuestas for their input.

**A shorter version of this article was originally published by Americas Quarterly Online.


1. Although the surge in the number of unaccompanied minors made the news in the summer of 2014, there have been unaccompanied minors crossing the border for many years. More exact figures became available after the 2008 TVPRA prompted U.S. authorities to differentiate the children by their country of origin. Since 2009, there has been a gradual but significant increase in the number of Central American children found at the border by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, while the number of Mexican children has remained more or less constant.  The official breakdown shows that the percentage of Honduran children found at the border increased from a total of 968 in 2009 to 16,546 in 2014 (as of June 30); the number of Guatemalan children went from 1,115 to 14,086, while the number of Salvadoran children increased from 1,221 to 13,301.

2. Although this article is not based on a statistical model, the use of the names antecedent, endogenous and exogenous (all independent variables) helps clarify the type of relationships between variables. The dependent variable is the surge in migration of Central American children to the United States.

3. Family disintegration is in part derived from the fragmentation of many families in which one or two of the parents migrated illegally to the United States and have not been able to return or to reclaim their children because of strict immigration laws.

4. Timid attempts by the U.S. to encourage economic or social reforms in the midst of the Cold War were thwarted by opposition from local elites. See Smith, Peter. 2012. Talons of the Eagle, 4th Edition (Oxford University Press).

5. United Nations Office for Crime and Drugs (UNOCD), “Crime and Development in Central America”. The same study indicates that some of the deportees were born in the United States.

6. See and

7. Somalia, Afghanistan and Haiti are ranked as the #2, #7 and #8 most fragile states in the world.  Out of 178 countries included in the 2014 FSI, Guatemala is ranked as #66, Honduras as #75 and El Salvador as #100.

8. A table comparing tax revenue as percentage of the GDP in Latin America can be found at:

9. See and

10. Furthermore, almost half of those considered poor live in extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures.

11. According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL), in 2009, public social spending represented only 8.1 percent of the GDP in Guatemala, 12.2 percent in Honduras and 13.0 percent in El Salvador. That contrasts sharply with another Central American country, Costa Rica, where the percentage was 22.4 percent in that same year.

12. See Christopher Sabatini “What’s Really Causing the Border Crisis”, U.S. News and World Report, August 1, 2014Available at:  


13. According to UNOCD, the 2012 homicide rates are: 39.9 per 100,000 in El Salvador, 41.2 in Guatemala and 90.4 in Honduras, which has the highest homicide rate in the world. Homicide rates are an important parameter, but it is important to remember that national-level statistics such as homicide rates, and even surveys that measure other types of crime victimization, do not accurately reflect the appalling situation of gang-ridden neighborhoods in which daily life is ruled by gang members.

14. It is estimated that a high percentage of the GDP in the Northern Triangle countries is devoted to security expenses, including judicial processes (19 percent in Honduras, 14 percent in El Salvador and 9 percent in Guatemala). This includes millions of dollars that private businesses invest in private security.

15. According to a 2014 UNODC study, the average conviction rate in the world was 43 percent, while the average for Latin America was 24 percent. Also see

About Author(s)

dazpuru's picture
Dinorah Azpuru
Associate Professor of Political Science at Wichita State University. Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh. B.A. in Political Science from University Rafael Landivar in Guatemala. Areas of research: democratization and public opinion in Latin America. U.S.-Latin America relations and post-conflict societies in Central America.