The journey of Central American migrants to the U.S. border — a perilous trip across thousands of miles of mountains and deserts — starts in places like the dry corridor in western Honduras.
Many of the region’s 1 million small farmers still live in adobe huts with no running water and suffer acts of humans and nature. Corrupt Honduran officials have invested too little in stabilizing or modernizing the region, allowing violent gangs to extort families. Recent droughts and hurricanes have created widespread hunger.
“It’s been one crisis after another,” says Conor Walsh, the Honduras representative for Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa, the capital. “Many people have already migrated and others are evaluating whether they can stay on their farms.”
These longstanding problems throughout Central America are driving the current crisis on the southern U.S. border, where more than 170,000 migrants arrived in March in search of jobs and asylum. As the Biden administration grapples with this mounting surge, it’s also proposing a $4 billion long-term plan to attack the root causes of migration — corruption, violence, and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
The initiative is as ambitious as it is familiar. Presidents as far back as John F. Kennedy have pursued similar aims only to come up short. Joe Biden himself ran the troubled Central America initiative during the Obama administration. It encountered the same obstacles that have stymied past U.S. efforts — governmental leaders and business elites who resist good governance and anti-corruption reforms to protect their own interests, according to a study by the Wilson Center, a policy research group in Washington.
‘You Have to Create a System of Accountability’
Consider Honduras, a showcase of government criminality. President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s election in 2017 was tainted by fraud. He is now under investigation by U.S. prosecutors who have brought a string of cocaine smuggling cases against prominent Hondurans. Members of the National Congress in Tegucigalpa have a habit of embezzlement, thereby robbing citizens of funding for health care, education, and jobs.
Nonetheless, U.S.-funded programs have struggled to make a difference in a nation in which government is a big part of the problem. Catholic Relief Services, for one, has helped boost the corn and bean yields and income of thousands of subsistence farmers in the Honduran dry corridor, offering a glimmer of hope. But a lack of roads, electricity, and credit for farmers means that only a sliver of them benefit from the technical aid. As a result, an unprecedented 47 percent of families in the dry corridor that stretches across Central America are moderately to severely food-deprived, according to an alarming 2017 United Nations study.
Now comes Biden’s crack at the region. He’s tweaking the U.S. aid playbook in hopes of a better outcome. The administration says fighting corruption is now the top priority since nothing will change until elected officials stop stealing and the governments become more accountable to citizens. Countries will have to meet stricter conditions, such as adopting governance reforms, before receiving aid, and officials face the threat of financial sanctions and revoked visas. The proposed $4 billion strategy, the biggest ever for the region, gives the administration some added leverage.
Vice President Kamala Harris heads the strategy team, which includes White House aide Juan Gonzalez and Ricardo Zuniga, the special envoy to the region. Zuniga was born in Honduras and both men worked on Western Hemispheric affairs in the Obama White House. In March, they traveled to the region and had “very frank discussions” with leaders about transparency, good governance, and anti-corruption, said one administration official.
The Treasury Department followed up those talks with sanctions in late April against Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, a Guatemalan Congressman, and Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cambara, a former official. They reportedly facilitated payments to lawmakers and judges to try to interfere with the appointment of magistrates and protect against corruption prosecutions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“You have to create a system of accountability that goes after the very corrupt elements within these governments,” added Steven Dudley, co-founder of InSight Crime, which investigates organized crime in Latin America. “The people Biden put in place have the experience and ideas, but the bridge between that and actually doing something is long.”
Failures of the Past
The get-tough diplomacy is already hitting resistance. In early April, Zuniga visited El Salvador to press the case against corruption. But President Nayib Bukele, miffed over criticism from a State Department official about his commitment to the rule of law, refused to meet with the envoy.
The snub would be familiar to a long line of presidents who have stumbled in the region. Since 1960 administrations have strategically deployed about $24 billion in foreign aid to Central America and the Caribbean.
During the Cold War years, aid was meant to reduce poverty to build support against leftist movements in El Salvador and its neighbors. It didn’t work. When the decades-long civil wars in the region finally ended in the 1990s, peace did usher in a long stretch of economic growth and declining poverty rates. In the ensuing decade, as drug trafficking and gang violence soared, the George W. Bush administration took its turn in Central America. It sent assistance to combat crime. But the programs lacked coordination and had a limited impact, according to another Wilson Center report.
The Obama administration had bigger ambitions. It expanded on Bush’s security initiative by adding governance and economic programs. The $2.4 billion “strategy for engagement” for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras began in 2014 and included 370 projects to make local officials more accountable, reduce crime and create jobs. In an op-ed supporting the strategy, Vice President Biden praised the nations’ commitment to reform and even met with President Hernandez at the White House in 2015 — an endorsement that proved too bullish.
After five years, the Government Accounting Office was blunt in its assessment of the projects that were mostly run by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Those reviewed by GAO achieved only 40 percent to 70 percent of their own technical targets, such as the number of police officers trained. Officials didn’t even bother to evaluate most of the projects or whether they helped improve governance, security, and economic opportunity.
When the biggest wave of migrants in more than a decade hit the U.S. border in 2019, the Trump administration pulled the plug on the Obama root cause strategy. USAID, now run by Samantha Power, a former envoy to the U.N. under President Obama, didn’t provide a spokesperson to comment for this story despite several requests.
Honduras: Corruption Juggernaut
Biden, who now has a second chance to get it right, faces his biggest test in Honduras. Its economy, which was once dominated by exports of coffee and bananas to the United States, has produced a number of ultra-wealthy clans resistant to the idea of cleaning up corruption.
Miguel Facusse, whose nephew served as president of Honduras, became rich from palm oil production and consumer products. But his legacy is tainted by accusations from human rights investigations that his security forces were involved in deadly clashes with small farmers over their claim to land in the region where his plantations operate.
As the economy became more service-oriented, former Vice President Jaime Rosenthal made a family fortune estimated in 2015 at $690 million from banking, telecommunications, and other businesses. But before his death two years ago, Rosenthal was indicted by U.S. prosecutors for participating in a money-laundering scheme with Honduran drug traffickers.
Honduras emerged as a cocaine transshipment point between South America and the United States a few decades ago. The 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted President Manuel Zelaya opened the door to more trafficking. Zelaya, a Liberal Party politician, had raised the minimum wage by 60 percent and defended the land rights of small farmers. Even more worrisome to business leaders like Facusse was that Zelaya had become cozy with leftist despots in the region and pushed to amend the constitution in an apparent attempt to extend his own presidency.
Zelaya’s ouster by the military led to a period of internal tumult, forcing the National Police to focus on restoring order, often violently cracking down on protesters. By 2015, 90 percent of cocaine coming to the United States passed through Central America, with Honduras as the major hub. More recently Hondurans have developed labs to produce cocaine, extending its tentacles in the economy, according to a report by InSight Crime.
Harnessing the Experience of Nonprofit Groups
Today, President Hernandez tops a list of Honduran politicians, military, and police officers who are under investigation or have been convicted of operating what seems like a state-sponsored drug cartel, according to the U.S. prosecutors. They say in 2013 Hernandez, who was then in Congress and campaigning for the presidency, got access to millions of dollars in cocaine from a murderous trafficker. In return, the politician allegedly told the trafficker, who was convicted in a U.S. court in March, that the military and attorney general would protect his operation. The president has repeatedly denied any involvement in trafficking.
The president’s brother, former congressman Tony Hernandez, was involved in every aspect of the cocaine trade. The end game was political power. He funneled millions of dollars in profits into National Party campaigns for three presidential elections, including the two his brother won in 2013 and 2017, prosecutors say. Tony Hernandez was handed a life prison sentence in March.
The Biden administration points to the silver linings in the dark clouds of the region’s recent history. In the last five years, an effort to root out political corruption made remarkable progress before it was quashed. In 2016, large street demonstrations over the looting of at least $300 million from the public health care system — a small amount of which found its way into Hernandez’s first presidential campaign — forced the president to set up an anti-corruption commission in partnership with the Organization of American States. The United States embraced the move with funding and political support.
The commission’s quasi-independence — it was led by Peruvian prosecutor Ana Maria Calderon Boy and others from outside Honduras — keyed its initial success. The commission set up a new unit of vetted prosecutors within the national government. It went on to reveal an embezzlement scam that later allegedly implicated more than 350 politicians, including President Hernandez, according to the Wilson report. Amid the scandal, he essentially disbanded the commission last year — a decision that brought condemnation from a bipartisan group of U.S. House leaders.
The Biden administration now aims to set up a new anti-corruption group as its main weapon. This time even more independence will be crucial if it’s to work. Zuniga, the special envoy, had discussions with nonprofits in Central America that want to form a U.S.-backed civil society commission. It would draw on the expertise of these groups in exposing corruption and operate outside the reach of national governments to shut it down. But local prosecutors would still have to pursue the cases.
“Instead of creating another commission that the governments can kick out, the United States can support nonprofits that have years of experience doing this work,” says Kurt Ver Beek, co-founder of the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, who joined the talks with Zuniga. “We will make the corruption cases public and, along with the United States, pressure the governments to bring charges.”
Purging the Police
The U.S.-backed effort to reform the National Police also got off to a promising start five years ago. The police served as a tool for cocaine smugglers, who easily exploited lowly paid officers with payoffs for dirty work. “Officers hijacked cars from citizens, dealt drugs for gangs, and lent out their services as hitmen,” according to a 2016 report by Ver Beek’s ASJ, the Christian nonprofit, which received funding from the State Department.
The revelation in 2016 that top police officials organized the assassination of Honduran’s anti-drug czar finally forced President Hernandez and Congress to set up another commission. Two ASJ leaders joined the group, which moved quickly to purge a remarkable 5,000 tainted and inexperienced beat cops and top officials — including six generals — equaling a third of the entire force.
The purge was a watershed moment showing that Hondurans could topple a fortress of criminality. But four years later drug smugglers are beginning to penetrate the police again, forcing good officers to choose whether to take a bribe or a bullet. “Traffickers tell cops, ‘I’ll kill you if you don’t help me, or take a bunch of money,’” says Ver Beek, a Cornell University-trained sociologist. “So they take the money.”
American agencies funded other projects such as community policing to reduce crime in Honduras, which a decade ago had the highest murder rate in the world. In her congressional confirmation hearing, Power, Biden’s new USAID administrator, pointed to the agency’s record of crime-fighting in the country as a bright spot to build on. “In districts where USAID had programming aimed at curbing violence, there was a drop in homicide rates,” she told senators in March. “That is encouraging.”
However, extortion of businesses by criminal gangs — a major driver of migration — may be getting worse. Gang members approach small businesses, such as barbers, food merchants and taxi drivers, and demand a small monthly payment that keeps going up until the owner can no longer pay it and flees. Hondurans refer to extortion as a “war tax,” which victimizes as many as half of all small businesses, Ver Beek estimates.
Struggling to Create Jobs
While officials pilfer public funds and gangs drive businesses to close, it’s no wonder that half of the Honduran population remains almost locked in poverty. The high rate hasn’t improved much over the last decade and is twice the level of neighboring El Salvador. As the Obama administration learned, foreign aid alone can’t do much to help kids escape this poverty trap.
USAID’s Future Employment program had ambitions in 2016 to train 7,500 at-risk youth in Honduras and place half of them in jobs to lure them away from gangs. The program struggled to find enough recruits in tough neighborhoods and enough employers willing to take a chance and hire them. Then the Trump administration cut off funding for projects across the three countries. By the end of 2019, fewer than 1,000 participants had found some employment, mostly in retail, in the year following training, according to a USAID evaluation.
While they certainly benefited from a job in the short term, their prospects of upward mobility are dim without more support from the Honduran government. For instance, the country has a federal minimum wage law that’s set above the poverty line and could help close the inequality gap. But almost half of employers ignore it and the government does little to enforce it, academic studies show.
“We have not produced the same kind of results that I’ve pointed to when it comes to physical security and crime,” Power said of USAID’s economic programs. “Hopefully we can begin to make a dent.”
Power could start by changing the way her agency runs projects in places like Honduras, nonprofit veterans believe. Aid experts have criticized the agency for hiring U.S. and international contractors to administer most of the program funding. The setup marginalizes local organizations that better understand on-the-ground issues and misses an opportunity to develop local advocates to push for reforms, says Sarah Bermeo, who specializes in foreign aid in Central America at Duke University.
“U.S. contractors are certainly overused compared to their ability to deliver results,” Bermeo says. “There is certainly room to improve outcomes by increasing the involvement of local groups in the design and implementation of AID-financed efforts.”
Meanwhile, migrants from Central America are streaming to the U.S. border. The increase that began a year ago has accelerated under Biden, threatening to top 1 million this year, the highest total in more than a decade. Biden’s root-cause strategy won’t change anything at the border in the short run. Advocates say progress will be incremental at best and measured in decades, not years.
“It’s going to be difficult but not impossible for the administration,” says Ariel Ruiz Soto, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The U.S. investment has to occur over decades for there to be a real change.”