To Stop the Surge of Migrants, Central America Needs a ‘Plan Colombia’

The crisis of more than 70,000 children surging toward the United States has been partially caused by the “pull” of porous U.S. borders and signals from the United States that are close to “amnesty on arrival.” But it has also been fueled by the major “push” of increasingly serious problems in three Central American countries …

The crisis of more than 70,000 children surging toward the United States has been partially caused by the “pull” of porous U.S. borders and signals from the United States that are close to “amnesty on arrival.” But it has also been fueled by the major “push” of increasingly serious problems in three Central American countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — that the United States must confront. To do so effectively, it needs to deploy a sustained, large, and long-term assistance and security program modeled on Plan Colombia.

For my day job at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, I recently wrote a report that digs into this in some detail. Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, has also weighed in, as has a former president of the World Bank, Bob Zoellick. The first time I saw this idea in print, however, it was written by my friends Ambassador Roger Noriega and José Cárdenas (both well known to Shadow Government readers).

The increasing frequency with which I’ve been seeing this discussed says to me that Republicans in Congress and Republicans running for president in 2016 will need to have a plan for confronting the deep-rooted problems in the region. With the Obama administration offering at best a limited response to the border crisis, Republicans in Congress should propose a major package of at least $1 billion over five years to confront weak security, fight gangs, fight corruption, provide alternative youth employment options, and confront growing food-security challenges. All these problems, on top of weak and corrupted states, encourage people to leave or put their children in terrible danger by making the long and dangerous journey.

I have heard some conservatives on talk radio deny that there are serious problems in the region — they are wrong. These countries have degraded significantly over the last five years — on President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s watch. Cartels now have greater reach and are engaging in more violence against children. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been described as the most violent nations in the world that are not currently at war. Honduras has a murder rate of around 90 per 100,000 inhabitants, as compared to 20 in Mexico, and less than five in the United States. While homicide numbers soar, the region also suffers from common street crime, assault, kidnapping, sexual violence, and extortion.

Corruption is at an all-time high in these three countries. Honduras, the most violent country in the region, is ranked 140 out of 177 nations on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, which described its budget openness as “scant to none.” These factors create an extremely low level of trust between governments and their citizenry, therefore creating low tax participation. As a result, the three countries have extremely low tax revenue as measured by percentage of gross national income (GNI), creating a cycle of weakened, corrupt states.

Given the complexity of issues in the region, the U.S. response will require significant new commitments to restore basic security, encourage legitimate private enterprise, fight corruption, and improve the basics of education, policing, and health care. A critical component will be strengthening and restoring a sense of confidence in police and judicial systems so as to reduce violence and increase accountability for crimes. The U.S. government must cooperate with allies such as Spain and Canada, and work closely with the Inter-American Development Bank, Central American governments, neighbors such as Mexico that are allowing the passage of migrants through their country, and the private sector.

In the case of Colombia we had a functioning set of institutions, sophisticated government and business leadership, Colombian political will and financial resources, and a cooperative partner. In the case of Central America we have a smaller and weaker business and political class, uncertain political will, smaller and at first more limited financial resources, and varied levels of possible cooperation from our partners on the ground.

At the same time, when Plan Colombia was started, the feeling was that the FARC were “unbeatable” and that Colombia was on its way to being a failed state. There was a strong sense of defeatism. After almost 15 years of engagement and a bipartisan consensus, Colombia has seen a 75 percent demobilization of the FARC and the revolutionary group driven to the negotiating table by Colombian military victories supported by the United States. Colombia has also been able to confront serious social and development challenges with the help of the United States and other allies.

We need to stay involved in Colombia, as peace is within our grasp (as I write about here).

The United States has a history of engaging in Central America until a crisis passes. We have had this sort of whiplash engagement for over 30 years. We have made some strong contributions to Central America, including stopping communism, supporting the birth of democracy and economic major reforms, and signing the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement under President George W Bush.

If we make a major effort to turn around Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras we can move them in the direction of Colombia. This won’t happen overnight, but it is absolutely possible. There are the examples of their neighbors Costa Rica and Panama — both graduates and beneficiaries of decades of U.S. assistance. Only 25 years ago, the United States invaded Panama and arrested its strongman, Manuel Noreiga. Today Panama is a flourishing democracy and a strong ally of the United States. Costa Rica is investment grade and is a model of a middle-income country. Panamanian and Costa Rican children are not the ones flooding to the U.S. border. If we make a long-term commitment to the Northern Triangle we can turn the situation around. Their problems touch core U.S. security interests. We need to respond the way we have responded in Colombia.

Costa Rica graduated from foreign aid 20 years ago and is an attractive country for investment and a model many countries follow for development. Change in the other Central American countries is absolutely possible but will require a long-term commitment over several administrations and will require sustained bipartisan congressional support.

article published in on August 18, 2014.

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