The official US figures for apprehensions on the US-Mexico border speak volumes about where the people Trump speaks so disparagingly of hail from. In the first four months of this year, there have been nearly as many — or more, depending on the statistical category you look at — single adults, families and unaccompanied children coming from the three Northern Triangle countries than in all of 2018.
By April, twice as many people had traveled in a family unit from Guatemala and Honduras to the US border then during all of last year. And the numbers from Mexico are dropping, changing the dynamic of the migration phenomenon in Central America.
For many in the region, getting out has understandably become a matter of survival. The nations of the Northern Triangle jostle for the ugly position as the world’s murder capital, both because of the gang violence spawned by the drug trade and because of a lack of solid government. El Salvador’s capital can at times feel like it is dealing with a full-scale armed insurgency with its territorial and community allegiances, and police skulking around areas where they know they can and cannot go.
The Northern Triangle is also one of the foremost and earliest victims of the climate crisis. At least 1.4 million people in Central America and Mexico could be on the move by 2050, the World Bank has estimated, in a place where a third of jobs are dependent on agriculture.
Climate change is the underlying malaise, but the present-day curse is the drug trade.
On the remote Moskitia coast of Honduras, villagers can be found at dawn, scavenging the white sands to supplement their income. When drug traffickers in the area think they might get caught, they throw their cocaine cargo overboard. Each 30-kilo packet, attached to a flotation device, can net a fishing community $150,000 — a life-changing sum of money that sees locals scouring the coast for hours.
In El Salvador, 37-year-old President Nayib Bukele took office nearly a fortnight ago, facing a murder rate of about 50 per 100,000 — around 10 times that of the United States. The former mayor of San Salvador has to navigate a way for his coalition with some right-wing parties to open talks that appear to be being offered by MS-13, the powerful gang behind much of El Salvador’s violence — a political accommodation which could possibly lead to a reduction in the daily violence.
It is a staggering cocktail of collapse, too readily labeled by the White House as the product of the personal economic ambitions of migrants, or simply corrupt narco-barons. But the simple truth is that every crisis feeds off the other: the climate crisis means bad harvests for farmers, which means more migrants, and more business for smugglers, which tightens the grip of cartels on society, where the economy is suffering because of intense corruption and labor leaving for the United States.
None of this has an easy fix. The threat of tariffs might have persuaded Mexico to try to stem the flow in the short term, but it won’t address the foundations of a tide of people that represent the future of where our warmer, more crowded, world is going. People are on the move out of personal necessity, plagued by factors they cannot influence, and knocking desperately on the doors of a better life.