Source: Politico Magazine
As the U.S. Congress decides what to do about President Barack Obama’s $3.7 billion funding request to deal with the recent influx of unaccompanied children from Central America, the presidents of the three countries sending the most kids across the border will witness firsthand the intense passions and panic the crisis has ignited in Washington. The leaders of the so-called Northern Triangle nations visiting this week—Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador—will get a loud and clear message: Help us by sharply stemming the flow of children to the United States and by graciously accepting the return of many of those here; in return, we will help you deal with security and development problems.
The proposed quid pro quo will not, however, be easy for the three presidents to swallow—not least because they won’t get much out of that $3.7 billion package, if it even passes. The vast bulk of the proposed emergency funds will be directed to the U.S. side of the border, and a mere $300 million will be allotted to help the beleaguered countries. That imbalance of funding reflects the political realities in Washington, where the situation is viewed chiefly as a law enforcement problem. U.S. domestic politics is what matters—even more so just a few months before crucial midterm elections.
And from the perspective of the visiting leaders, the United States deserves much of the blame for the dire conditions—both Honduras’ Hernandez and Guatemala’s Pérez Molina have advanced the familiar argument that America’s drug-consumption habits are driving much of the violence that, along with deep-seated poverty and corruption, has contributed to huge waves of unaccompanied minors being sent across the border by their families in hopes of finding refuge in the United States. The three countries have among the highest homicide rates in the world, with Honduras leading the global ranking. Pérez Molina has urged an alternative approach to drug policy, including consideration of legalization, but it has not gotten much traction beyond a few countries in the region.
For the leftist Sánchez Ceren of El Salvador, the tradeoff he will be asked to accept in Washington will go down particularly hard. The Salvadoran president, who took office less than two months ago, is a former commander of the guerrilla group Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which fought against the U.S.-backed government in the 1980s. The U.S. intervention was viewed by the rebels as responsible for prolonging the country’s bloody civil war, which produced the first wave of migration to the United States. One legacy of that migration was the violent gangs or so-called maras that are today wreaking such murderous havoc in El Salvador after first emerging on the streets of Los Angeles.
But all three Central American presidents will have a tough time selling Washington’s proposed bargain at home. Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans in general want their children to rejoin relatives living in the United States—and certainly the immigrants already settled in this country want them to succeed. The governments lack the resources and institutional capacity to assist the returning children in any meaningful way. For these political reasons, as a tradeoff, the three presidents will pursue significantly higher levels of U.S. development aid, as well as some additional support on trade and energy—but they may not get much.
In theory, the visiting leaders possess at least some political leverage in Washington. Far more than they have in a long time, U.S. politicians are paying attention to Central America now, thanks entirely to the kids at the border. Much of the finger-pointing on Capitol Hill may be opportunistic and highly politicized, but at least Central America’s woes are getting a hearing.
And there is ample blame to go around for this crisis, not least of all bad luck. Central America, as its name implies, is strategically located between coca-producing South American countries and the highly lucrative market in the United States. Greater government capacity and more resources in Colombia, to the south, and Mexico, to the north, have only shifted a sizable slice of the drug trade and international criminal networks to countries like Honduras and Guatemala. Nearly 85 percent of the cocaine that comes to the United States passes through Central America, and most flights bringing drugs from South America to Mexico use Honduras as a transit point. As the border crisis reveals, the effects have been devastating.
Still, Central American leaders are hardly blameless. The Obama administration is right to urge them to more seriously tackle domestic challenges, including corruption, which is pervasive and shows few signs of abating. Central Americans in positions of power have not done nearly enough to advance the rule of law, promote economic opportunities and help construct a decent life for their poorest citizens. Guatemala’s notably low tax burden, at just over 11 percent, is often cited to illustrate the failure of the country’s most well-to-do to assume their responsibility to finance basic public services. Some voices in the private sector are calling for higher income taxes, but progress has been disappointing and resistance remains enormous. With few exceptions, political figures and public officials have stood in the way of dealing with the spreading criminality, proliferation of gangs and penetration of organized crime in all institutions. Gangs are more common in El Salvador and Honduras; corruption stemming from the drug trade paralyzes Honduras and Guatemala. Since 2012, more than 200 police officers in Guatemala have been purged and are awaiting trial for their collusion with criminal organizations.
The government, private sector, church groups, political parties and unions have to do better at coming together to build these countries. For these societies to have a viable foundation for sustained growth and compete in the global economy, for example, it will be critical for the private sector, working together with the national government, to help improve the dismal quality of primary and secondary education. High dropout rates are a major contributing factor to youth violence and the refugee outflow it engenders. Indifference to investing in poor children is widespread.
It would of course make sense for Central American countries to work in concert and present a common front in Washington. Collective efforts would be the best way to maximize leverage and address shared problems, including security and energy—which is of great concern throughout the isthmus. Yet stubbornly high levels of mistrust and political differences have hurt cooperation. The best one can reasonably hope for is that—if only to resolve the immediate crisis of what to do with all these underage refugees—Washington will be more generous in its support and more engaged diplomatically than it has been. Passing comprehensive immigration reform would go a long way toward building greater trust, and better cooperation, between Central America and the United States. But that would hardly be enough to turn things around.
For that to happen, the Northern Triangle countries themselves will need to focus more than they have to date on building institutions that work and asserting the authority of the state. Justice systems that meet minimal standards are crucial, as are honest and competent police forces. The 2011 murder in Honduras of two university students—one the son of the rector—dramatized the extent of corruption and violence in the very institutions charged with protecting citizens. The young men were victims not of the gangs or drug traffickers, but of four police officers.
In recent days the flows of child migrants to the United States has reportedly diminished. But the underlying problems that sent them across the border in the first place remain. The main measure of any bargain struck between Washington and the three Central American nations will be whether the people in charge begin to treat these children with decency at home as well as on this side of the border.