Central Americans risk the trip north and an unwelcoming reception at the U.S. border to escape rampant gang violence at home. They may also hope for economic opportunity. Both statements are true as far as they go.
Besides building a border wall to keep such would-be immigrants out, President Trump has threatened to cut off aid, declaring that “when countries abuse us by sending their people up — not their best — we’re not going to give any more aid to those countries. Why the hell should we?”
On Thursday, Trump went back at the issue, comparing those arriving at the border to uninvited people you’d order off your lawn.
The analogy invites a question: In a fearful and polarized age, would most Americans — regardless of political persuasion — turn away a desperate stranger in their front yard? Or would they look for a way to help?
Few doubt that countries of Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have created a lot of the problems that cause people to flee. But to answer Trump’s question about government aid, their troubles are partly our mess, too.
Elites — often connected to U.S. political or business interests — have perpetuated gross inequalities in Central America, while U.S. policy priorities can contribute to instability. Sometimes it’s security forces, which may be funded by Washington, that are responsible for the violence.
In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernandez, an ally of the country’s business and military elite, appeared to be losing his bid for re-election last November when the vote counting suddenly stopped. After it resumed, Hernandez was leading, and ultimately he was declared the winner. The U.N. charged that Honduran military police used excessive force putting down ensuing protests, in which more than 20 people died. Despite reservations about the process, Washington backed Hernandez.
Honduras is the “spoiled child of the U.S. in Central America,” according to a diplomat quoted in a report by the International Crisis Group. Hernandez is taking on drug traffickers and gangs, and the government says the murder rate — which hit 85.5 per 100,000 people in 2011, fell to 42.8 last year.
Honduras’ economy is growing, but the World Bank lists the country as the most economically unequal in Latin America. More than 60 percent of its people are poor; in rural areas, one in five lives on less than $1.90 a day. The Organization of American States reported that indigenous people fighting business interests over land rights or mining projects, and union leaders in particular face intimidation and violence, and that such factors “push” migration.
An Associated Press report in January cited Honduran government documents (which the government dismissed as fake) that said the new national police chief helped a cartel leader deliver nearly a ton of cocaine in 2013. Critics charge Hernandez is becoming one more right-wing Central American strongman. Citing the example of a 2009 coup, the International Crisis Group says instability caused by the election dispute could hamper Honduras’ fight against crime.
Meanwhile, El Salvador, led by a former leftist rebel from the bitter civil war of the 1980s, isn’t growing as fast as Honduras. But the World Bank gives it credit for reducing inequality, and improving access to health care, education and clean water.
While it still is one of the most violent places in the world, the murder rate in El Salvador is dropping, too, from about 80 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 60 a year later. Trump rails regularly about Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, but the gang started on U.S. streets among Salvadorans displaced by the civil war. It was exported to El Salvador — not the other way around.
Authorities have tried to have it both ways with MS-13. Jose Miguel Cruz of Florida International University reports that Salvadoran prosecutors allege both main political parties — right- and left-wing — paid MS-13 to turn out some voters and suppress others in 2014 presidential elections. A recent CNN story says the U.S. government has provided millions of dollars to elite police and military forces that are accused of illegally executing gang members — which could backfire by making gang resistance more fierce, or by turning dead gang members into local folk heroes.
Guatemala elected a comedian, Jimmy Morales, to take on corruption and impunity, poverty and violence in 2015, just as the previous president, vice president and other officials were going to jail.
The World Bank says that Guatemala’s poverty, malnutrition and maternal-child mortality rates are among the worst in the region, and that more than half of the country’s poor are indigenous people. U.S. development aid under a program launched in the Obama years has been weighted toward infrastructure projects that may harm indigenous communities, according to this report.
Morales now has his own corruption problems, and has tried to expel the head of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission.
According to Arturo Matute of the International Crisis Group, cleaning up the country means confronting an old guard linked to organized crime and involved in activities such as people smuggling and drug trafficking, which hurt Guatemala’s many poor.
People will always be tempted to move for a chance at a better life. As long as there are drugs, guns and poverty, these will be violent countries. Some aid money will get swallowed up by corruption. Understand that, be clear about who’s responsible for what, and you might make progress.