The U.S. State Department said Monday it would cut millions of dollars in foreign aid to Central America, because governments in the region haven’t done enough to curb the unprecedented surge of families and unaccompanied minors heading towards the U.S.-Mexico border.
This is a terrible idea that will almost certainly have the opposite of its intended effect. Simply put, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are in varying stages of societal collapse. Asking their governments to do more to end the crisis is like surveying Europe in 2015 and concluding that Syria needs to do more to control its borders.
Although announced by State, this is coming from the White House. President Trump ordered the cuts in late March, and Monday’s announcement revealed that $432 million in aid allocated in fiscal year 2017 would continue but $185 million would be withheld until the governments of the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries take “concrete actions” to reduce the numbers of families and minors now arriving at the southwest border. Future aid in 2019 and 2020, according to a State Department official, would be conditional.
The Northern Triangle Is a Mess
Why is this a bad idea? Because these governments are not capable of taking “concrete actions.” They’re barely functioning. Consider that Guatemala, the country sending by far the most families and minors to the U.S.-Mexico border, is right now embroiled in a political corruption crisis.
The country just held national elections on Sunday, with two candidates heading to a runoff election in August. Both of them, a former first lady of the country and a former prisons director, vehemently oppose the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (or CICIG by its Spanish initials), a United Nations prosecutorial panel that’s been operating in Guatemala since 2007.
Why do they oppose CICIG? Because both have been caught up in the kinds of corruption schemes the panel was meant to stop. The former first lady, Sandra Torres, has been accused of campaign finance violations from her failed 2015 bid for president. The former prison director, Alejandro Giammattei, was charged (although not convicted) along with other high-ranking officials in a string of extrajudicial prison killings.
Not that these sort of things are uncommon in Guatemala. The country’s current president, Jimmy Morales, has been accused of campaign finance violations by CICIG, and in turn has waged a kind of open war against the panel, vowing not to renew its mandate when it expires in September. Indeed, there can be a heavy cost to working with CICIG. Former attorney general Thelda Aldana, who worked closely with the panel to prosecute high-profile politicians, was blocked from running for president by the courts.
Then again, the CICIG itself seems to have been absorbed into Guatemala’s ecosystem of political corruption and become a kind of fifth column in Guatemala. As the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady noted last year, the panel’s “unchecked power has led to abuse,” with reports of witness tampering, illegal negotiations, and prolonged detention.
In one case, CICIG flouted Guatemalan law and a constitutional appeals court to convict a Russian family fleeing persecution. Their crime? Falling victim to a Guatemalan crime syndicate that sold them false identity documents through a law firm, which, oddly enough, was never prosecuted.
As if rampant political corruption weren’t enough, Guatemala is also facing widespread famine in its western highlands, where successive years of drought, failed harvests, and “coffee rust” fungus have devastated coffee farms and forced villagers, many of whom speak neither English nor Spanish, to head north.
We often hear of migrants fleeing violence, but the homicide rate in Guatemala is now at its lowest point since 2000. Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, recently told the Washington Post that “Food insecurity, not violence, seems to be a key push factor informing the decision to travel from Guatemala, where we have seen the largest growth in the migration flow this year.”
Without U.S. Aid and Support, Nothing Will Change
These are just two issues in one of the three Northern Triangle countries. In November, the brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was convicted of narcotics trafficking on a grand scale—according to the indictment, “multi-ton loads of cocaine that arrived in Honduras via planes, go-fast vessels, and on at least one occasion, a submarine.”
Family troubles aside, Hernández, whose popularity plummeted after he changed election rules to allow himself to seek a second term in 2017, is now facing mass riots throughout the country. There was unrest and widespread looting in the capitol city of Tegucigalpa on Wednesday after riot police, who were supposed to be keeping the peace, withdrew to their quarters to pressure the government for better benefits. On Thursday, Hernández deployed the military.
Things are slightly better in El Salvador, where the newly elected president, 37-year-old Nayib Bukele, has vowed to crack down on organized crime and, unlike past governments, has ruled out talks or truces with criminal gangs. However, since last year far fewer migrant families and minors have come from El Salvador than from Honduras and Guatemala, such that even if the country achieved zero emigration, the United States would still have a worsening border crisis on its hands.
The truth is, there’s not much these governments can do without direct help from the United States—and not just in the form of foreign aid. They need active help from U.S. law enforcement and immigration agencies. Some of that is happening, albeit on a very small scale. The Department of Homeland Security recently sent 80 agents and investigators to Guatemala to work with the national police and immigration officials to locate and interdict illegal human smuggling operations.
That’s a good first step, but more is needed—more aid, more advisors and assets, more involvement from the U.S. government, not less. Relying on Central American officialdom is just as naïve and misguided as relying on the Mexican National Guard to secure Mexico’s southern border.
It’s true that these countries need to be prodded and forced into action by U.S. policymakers, but the best way to get results on the U.S.-Mexico border is to step in and help them, not withhold aid in hopes they can gain control of their collapsing countries.