Investing In the NTCA

Photo: Warren Richardson/UNHCR

Photo: Warren Richardson/UNHCR

Written by Noah Bullock.

Rates of violent death in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are some of the highest in the world and comparable with those of other armed conflicts internationally. The optics of death and destruction in the region differ from those of traditional armed conflicts, yet the humanitarian consequence are acute; people are tortured, raped, disappeared, killed; families torn apart, livelihoods and property are destroyed.  

According to a recent national survey conducted by the human rights organization, Cristosal, and the University of Central America, 5.8% of Salvadorans were displaced internally because of violence and 12% reported that someone in their family abandoned the country because of violence in 2018. This “exodus” is driven directly by violence and the failure of Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) states to protect its citizens, and indirectly by the NTCA´s reinforcement of the perception that citizens at risk will be unable to safeguard their lives and resolve their most basic needs independently.

While homicide reduction in the NTCA is a well-established U.S. foreign policy objective that is share broadly across the international donor community, strangely, the humanitarian consequences of violence in Central America have received no policy response in Washington and NTCA capitals. In a recent opinion piece, the New York Times editorial board highlighted the importance of fixing Central America’s “broken countries” and addressing “the sources of desperation propelling these people north.” An effective and relatively low-cost building project (compared to the wall) would be to build protection systems that provide recourse and reparations for victims of violence in the one of the most violent regions in the world.  

In your recent editorial you note that “it is Central American leaders who must carry out reforms.”  In August, El Salvador’s highest judicial authority, the constitutional wing of the Supreme Court, did precisely that. In a landmark ruling, the court declared that the State’s failure to protect citizens constitutes a systematic violation of the constitutional rights of all Salvadorans. The magistrates ordered the Government and Legislative Assembly to formally recognize internal displacement due to violence, reform the legislative and policy framework to create systems to prevent displacement and assist victims, and prioritize funding for such programs in the national budget.

The Supreme Court’s ruling charts a path for building a policy response to humanitarian crisis in the countries of origin that merits international attention and support. In the months following the ruling, political and public support for its implementation has grown. In October, the Salvadoran legislature admitted a proposal for a national law to establish protection and assistance programs for citizens internally displacement by violence. In the same 2018 national survey, 93% of Salvadorans supported official recognition of internal displacement due to violence and 83% approved of the creation of a special law addressing internal displacement. A similar law is being considered in Honduras, and in light of atrocious abuse and death in the child protection system in Guatemala, there is growing demand in Guatemala for reform of its protection system more broadly.

What if the United States truly prioritized helping these nations build protections systems? Supreme Court rulings and internal displacement laws in Central America may seem too removed for Washington policy makers. These local processes, however, offer practical ways to address the “sources of desperation” in the NTCA through locally driven structural changes in law, policy and budgets.  And, without a doubt, Central American leaders will be more apt to carry them out with international support.

Paulina P