The most important thing about the “safe third country” agreement the Trump administration signed with Guatemala last week isn’t the pact itself, but how it got signed in the first place.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales initially didn’t want to sign the pact, which will force migrants passing through Guatemala en route to the United States to seek asylum first in Guatemala. But he agreed to it after the Trump administration threatened to impose tariffs, a travel ban, and taxes on remittances sent from the United States.
If that seems heavy-handed on Trump’s part, it is. But it shows that the Trump administration has real leverage over Central American elites who run what are essentially failed states, and that putting pressure on them can get them to do things they don’t want to do.
The pact, for what it’s worth, stipulates that Hondurans and Salvadorans, as well as migrants from other countries, have to apply for asylum in Guatemala, and be denied, before being eligible to apply for asylum in the United States. Such agreements are not uncommon—the United States has one with Canada, for example. But Guatemala, like Honduras and El Salvador, is plagued by high levels of violence and corruption, and isn’t really a safe third country for migrants. It’s also unclear whether the agreement is even valid under Guatemalan law.
But if we’re serious about solving the border crisis, safe third country pacts aren’t nearly as important as forcing Central American elites to tackle corruption, organized crime, and drug cartels. Corruption affects almost every area of society in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and helps fuel the violence and poverty that migrants say is driving them to seek protection in the United States. It’s long past time to stop pretending that the leaders of these countries aren’t at least partly culpable for this state of affairs, or that nothing can be done to put pressure on them.
Honduras, For Example, Is More Or Less a Failed State
Consider a recent article in The New York Times that chronicles the stupefying levels of corruption in Honduras, where organized crime has infiltrated the highest levels of government.
Reporter Sonia Nazario spent a month in the country earlier this year, and gives a harrowing glimpse into conditions that are driving the crisis on the U.S.’s southwest border. “There are two main ways to get rich illegally in Honduras. One is to take money from drug cartels to help them move Colombian cocaine to the United States,” she writes. “The other way is to steal from the public coffers.”
Honduran officials have been endlessly creative at stealing from public coffers. As Nazario explains, this often takes the form of nonprofits that get no-bid government contracts and do the work at inflated prices or don’t do anything and still get paid. Two nonprofits linked to the family of President Juan Orlando Hernández pocketed $87 million in such contracts between 2014 and 2017.
Hernández’s family exemplifies the problem. His sister, Hilda, controlled two nonprofits that received $12 million in no-bid contracts from the Ministry of Agriculture between 2011 and 2013 to teach cultivation and irrigation techniques to farmers affected by climate change, but no training sessions ever occurred. Some of that money went to fund Hernández’s 2013 campaign, but Hilda, who died in a helicopter crash in 2017, also used it to buy land, cattle, and apartments in Miami.
The president’s brother, Tony, took a more direct approach to wealth accumulation. He was arrested last November in Miami on drug trafficking charges, accused of shipping huge amounts of cocaine stamped with his own initials. As it happens, Tony was protected by the same presidential guard as his brother.
Clearly, corruption reaches the very highest levels of the Honduran government, but it also affects nearly every other aspect of life in Honduras. Bus and taxi drivers are forced to pay as much as 40 percent of their earnings to gangs. Teachers collect paychecks but never show up to school. Government officials routinely siphon off hundreds of millions of tax dollars in brazen scams.
One of them involved the head of the Institute of Social Security, who organized a criminal ring to defraud the nation’s medical system of some $300 million. Basic medicines, writes Nazario, “were vastly diluted, containing 5 percent of the active ingredient. Some were chalk dust—fakes. Others were contaminated: IV drips contained fecal matter.” Between 2010 and 2014, thousands of people died because of this. A former U.S. ambassador to Honduras told Nazario, “It’s not that the criminals were subverting the system; this was the system.”
Same goes for the police. A 2016 purge—prompted by pressure from the United States—resulted in the firing of more than a third of the nation’s 13,500 police officers, including all 40 of the highest-ranking officers, “dismissed because they were suspected of being criminals, didn’t pass a polygraph or were incapable of doing the job.” Gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street Gang are sending some of their members to school to become doctors and lawyers, others to the police academy to become officers. They routinely pay off legislators, judges, and mayors.
We Can Use Our Leverage
So that’s just Honduras. Things are much the same in Guatemala, El Salvador, and even in parts of Mexico. But notice that even in a place as corrupt as Honduras, pressure from the United States can get someone as compromised as President Hernández to act. What else might U.S. pressure accomplish? What if Central American elites suddenly didn’t have access to U.S. properties and banks? What if they couldn’t send their children to American universities?
The fact is, the border crisis is being fueled above all by poverty and corruption in Central America, and as long as those things persist, Central American families will have a powerful incentive to head north and seek a better life in the United States—by any means necessary.
Yes, we should reform our asylum laws. Yes, we should try to secure our southwest border. But those things alone won’t bring about a long-term solution to the crisis if the countries to our south remain mired in chaos and ruled by a corrupt elite. As the Trump administration demonstrated last week, the United States has enormous leverage in Central America. It’s time to use it.