Despite the Northern Triangle’s chronically low levels of “human development”—the bitter fruit of poor governance and a lack of public investment in social services—the end of Cold War–era civil conflicts led to widespread optimism regarding these countries. There was faith that incipient democracies would bring peace and stability, which coupled with economic reforms would spur investment and growth. To complete the virtuous circle, there would not only be more jobs and foreign exchange, but also higher tax receipts to fund long-overdue investments in health and education.
Yet Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador remain poor, with narrow resource bases to support reforms. Not only is poverty high, but so are crime and social disintegration. El Salvador currently has the world’s worst annual rate of 104 “intentional homicides” for every 100,000 residents. This grim record formerly belonged to Honduras, with Guatemala not far behind. Domestic violence is also rampant and unchecked in the three countries, and democracy is weak and marred by political fragmentation, party instability, corruption, and weak state capacity. Low growth persists, as does dependence on the export of commodities both traditional and new—the latter being the unskilled labor of emigrants who send money home.