Central America, Explained

One of the most influential overlooked regions in US and international policy, Central America can seem hard to understand. That is why in this article we guide you through the main issues that the region is facing.

Key Vocabulary 

Monroe Doctrine: An early 19th century policy that opposed European colonialism in the Americas arguing that any intervention in the politics of the Americas by foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the United States. 

Remittances:  A transfer of money by a foreign worker to an individual in their home country.

Banana Republic: A small nation, typically in Central America, dependent on one crop or the influx of foreign capital.

US Intervention: How it all Started 

Like most issues in international relations, the issues plaguing Central America have the US written all over them. Understanding US intervention is understanding the region as a whole both in past decades and in 2021. Surprisingly enough, the US has had a presence in Central America for over 2 centuries. As under the Monroe doctrine of 1823, the area fell under the US sphere of influence. However, given that for the next 100 years this particular part of the Americas would unify and separate multiple times, the opportunity for intervention was low. Then it all went Bananas, literally. 

After the Spanish-American war, American companies began to take advantage of cheap, unregulated labor in Latin America for profit. However, in light of multiple uprisings across the Caribbean, these businesses, specifically The American Fruit Company, asked the US government for protection and intervention. And intervene they did. The Theodore Roosevelt administration sent troops to all major Central American countries. Just like that capitalism directly was tied to US Politics in Central America. Over the next few decades, this manifested itself in the Panama Canal, DominicanIndependence, and most importantly Banana Republics. Nations like Honduras had leaders toppled by the US, for the sake of exporting Bananas for cheap. For the next few decades, the US would continue to overthrow elected governments with leftist leaders. All in fear that communism would spread into their sphere of influence. All across the northern triangle, America fueled terrorist movements while profiting from arms sales. Altogether, the US has been involved in over 50 coups within Central America, most recently with Honduras in 2009. 

Central America serves as the often-overlooked victim of US intervention, but even more overlooked is the notion that America has dilapidated these countries’ status with more than military power, and now they are dealing with the consequences.


Perhaps the biggest key to understanding the international implications of the northern triangle is understanding its internal turmoil. Across all three nations of the triangle gangs such as the Maras Salvatruchas or MS-13 have caused a ginormous part of the violence within these nations. Oddly enough the gang actually originated in Los Angeles but were confined to El Salvador in the 1980s as a result of mass deportation. The issue was that El Salvador was dealing with a civil war at the same time. Given the situation within the country, the Salvadoran government was unable to contain the organization. As a result of the American intervention of the late 20th century, all the nations in the region were left with two key issues to deal with: Drug trafficking. The crime groups took advantage of that as soon as they could. 

While most people may know Mexico as the drug capital of the world, the reality is that they really serve as an endpoint for transportation, it all begins in South America. Yet as horrible as the scheme has been to the latter, Central America has served as the bridge for the drug trade, and as such have beared the worst burden of all. Because of their geographical location, the MS-13 gang found a revenue stream that would continue as long as there was a market for drugs, and thus further increased their power and influence. Despite government intervention because of their financial and territorial power, groups like MS-13 and the 18th Street gang became the main authorities in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Yet the local governments haven’t done much beyond constant police raids, which have only fueled anti-government sentiments because riot gear in public neighborhoods doesn’t exactly sit well with the general population. The gangs continue to consolidate power by allying with drug cartels from Mexico to Colombia, making an end to violence highly improbable. 


Immigration is by far the most US-centric issue when it comes to Central America. Yet, ironically it was the US who started mass immigration from the northern triangle, primarily due to the aforementioned issues. For the most part, it has been up to the US to deal with border security and immigration policy, both for people currently crossing the border and currently living within the country. This is mostly because they are the only ones that can do anything about it, the countries of origin are too corrupt and dysfunctional to disincentivize citizens from leaving. As such for over a century, immigration has been seen as a domestic security issue rather than a quagmire in need of international cooperation, seemingly only strengthening the flow of immigrants from Central America. 

Unsurprisingly, it was a plethora of policy reversals that created the immigration crisis we are all familiar with today. Over the 20th century, there were two pieces of legislation that impacted Central American immigration the most. First was the Bracero Agreement, which allowed immigrants to work seasonally in the US and forced employers to pay a wage equal to that paid to the U.S.-born farmworkers, providing transportation and living expenses. Despite the law meant for Mexican migrants, naturally, people from the northern triangle slipped in. The immigration was capped at 200,000 after 1964. It would take another 20 years for meaningful legislation to pass once again. In 1986, the Immigration Reform Act granted a pathway to permanent residency to unauthorized immigrant workers who lived in the U.S. since 1982 or worked in certain agricultural jobs. This increased the number of remittances from Central American Immigrants to their home countries and, most importantly, allowed for the economic progression of this particular demographic. But while the immigration reform has slowed down, the conflicts in Central America have not. From the Honduras coup of 2009 to numerous corruption scandals in El Salvador, there have been hundreds of reasons for increased immigration. 

In recent years, the spotlight has been taken up by migrant caravans. Between 2018 and 2020, over 4,000 people entered the US as part of this group of immigrants. Given the sheer size of these groups, it has clearly become the focus of international immigration policy with the North American continent. Weak immigration systems and underprepared border agents have turned towards a government with no tangible solutions. The prominent caravan, occurring in 2018, exemplifies the issues that the US faces when it comes to Central American immigration. Despite making international headlines, and serving as the epitome of desperation, to this day hundreds of migrants are still waiting in Tijuana, Mexico for their turn at an immigration process. This is further exacerbated by the fact that conditions are quite poor, with numerous people still without adequate shelter or water. Even more worrying is the fact that another caravan looks to be starting back up in Honduras, and with just as much might as the one from 2018. One can only hope that president Biden learns from the mistakes of his predecessor, and handles immigration adequately and efficiently. 


Currently, Central America is in crisis. With issues going back over 50 years and instability that can be traced back to California. The complex, yet cyclical, history of the region exemplifies US foreign policy and serves as a warning for law enforcement agendas. Although it only makes the news cycle once in a blue moon, it is important to remember that the struggles which plague the region occur on a daily basis and its result is just on the other side of the southern border. Regardless of the approach individual actors decide to take to alleviate these problems, it is crucial to take the context into account and learn from the past for the sake of a better future. 

Practice Questions

What changes should the US make when it comes to its foreign policy towards the Northern Triangle?

Has El Salvador’s strategy against drug cartels been successful?

Is Central America finally moving pass the days of US intervention?

Is democracy possible in Honduras?

Should international actors intervene in Guatemala’s fight against MS-13?

What can be done to humanely deal with current migrant caravans?

Should the US be held responsible for violence in Central America?

What is the best way to with MS-13 on a domestic level?

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