Identifying The “Root Causes” of The Migrant Crisis On The Southern Border: Part III

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The third article in this series examines the “root causes” of migration from Guatemala and El Salvador. So far this fiscal year, the Border Patrol reports having encountered 153,478 people from Guatemala and 49,845 from El Salvador on the southern border (Southwest Land Border Encounters (By Component) | U.S. Customs and Border Protection ( Much like migrants from Mexico and Honduras, the reasons citizens of Guatemala and El Salvador flee their countries are not that difficult to discern.



With a population of 17 million, Guatemala is the most populous country in Latin America. Guatemala is also poor, corrupt, and extremely violent. Guatemala’s per capita distribution of gross domestic product, $8,637, is roughly half the average for Latin America and the Caribbean. The distribution of income within Guatemala is highly unequal with the richest 20% of the population accounting for more than 51% of Guatemala’s overall consumption. More than half of the population, 59.3%, lives below the national poverty line, and 23% of the population lives in extreme poverty. Poverty among indigenous groups, which make up more than 40% of the population, averages 79%, with 40% of the indigenous population living in extreme poverty.

Nearly one-half of Guatemala’s children under age five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.

Guatemala is major transit country for cocaine and heroin; and estimated 1,000 metric tons of cocaine are smuggled through the country each year, primarily destined for the U.S. market. Money laundering is a serious problem in Guatemala, and corruption is a major problem. Guatemala ranks 149th out of 180 countries on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.


Violence and extortion by powerful criminal organizations, which the government has often been unable or unwilling to control, are also serious problems in Guatemala. Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with a homicide rate of 23 per 100,00 in 2018. Guatemala’s alarmingly high murder rate appears driven by narco-trafficking activity, gang-related violence, particularly by the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gangs, a heavily armed population, and a police and judicial system unable to hold criminals accountable. Gang-related violence is an important factor prompting people, including unaccompanied children and young adults, to leave the country.

Sources for Guatemala: “Guatemala” in Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, 2021, Guatemala – The World Factbook (; “Guatemala: Events of 2020,” Human Rights Watch, World Report 2021: Guatemala | Human Rights Watch (; Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index, 2020, 2020 – CPI –; US Department of State, Overseas Advisory Council, Guatemala 2020 Crime and Safety Report, March 31, 2020, Guatemala 2020 Crime & Safety Report (; “Intentional Homicides Per 100,00 People – Guatemala,” World Bank, Intentional Homicides (per 100,000 people) – Guatemala | Data (



The smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, El Salvador is beset by poverty, extreme violence, and corruption. With an estimated per capita distribution of gross domestic product of $8,776, Honduras has an estimated unemployment rate of at least 7% and 22.8% of Hondurans live below the national poverty level. About 20% of Honduras’s 6.5 million people already live outside the country, and remittances from abroad are a substantial source of national income.

El Salvador is a transshipment point for cocaine and narcotics trafficking, organized crime, and street gangs generate high levels of violence. El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates (36 per 100,000), as well as the highest concentration of gang members per capita in Central America. Violent, well-armed street gangs — MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and 18th Street (Barrio 18) being the largest — operate throughout the country. As with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, public corruption is also a serous problem in El Salvador, which ranks 104th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Sources for El Salvador: “El Salvador,” in Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, 2021, El Salvador – The World Factbook (; Congressional Research Service, El Salvador: Background and U.S. Relations, November 20, 2018, El Salvador: Background and U.S. Relations (; Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index, 2020, 2020 – CPI –; US Department of State, Overseas Advisory Council, El Salvador 2020 Crime & Safety Report, March 31, 2020, El Salvador 2020 Crime & Safety Report ( ).


Ed Cochran, a retired U.S. Army officer and a retired senior civilian employee of the U.S. Department of Defense, is a regular contributor to The Prickly Pear on national security issues. He holds an MS in Strategic Intelligence from the Joint Military Intelligence College (now National Intelligence University), and an MA in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. His published work has appeared in The Journal of Strategic Studies, Israel Affairs, Parameters, The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and the International Bulletin of Political Psychology.


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