Addressing the U.S. Border Emergency: Building a “Plan Colombia” for Central America

The current surge of child migrants entering the United States is a crisis that requires a rapid federal response, addressing urgent humanitarian needs and weaknesses at the U.S. border. More than 52,000 children have crossed the border alone since October. However, this crisis is only a symptom of much larger issues in the northern triangle of Central America, or Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Over the past five years, violence is up, sense of security is down, and children and families are fleeing nations where state authorities are often untrustworthy and gangs are taking over many aspects of daily lives. Let’s be clear: parents would not send children unaccompanied on a life-threatening journey if the situation at home were not dire. But beyond this crisis at our border, the challenges facing Central America touch core U.S. interests. While we must address the immediate humanitarian and security emergency, the United States should prepare to take long-term action that will address the root causes of the Central American crisis and support governments that can successfully push back against transnational threats, including drug trafficking and terrorism. Just as the United States responded to Colombia’s crisis with Plan Colombia, the current crisis requires a multi-decade U.S. commitment to fostering peace and prosperity through development, security, economic, and diplomatic instruments.

Though the countries central to this crisis have had democratically elected governments since the 1980s, Honduras (1981), El Salvador (1984), and Guatemala (1984) have struggled to build many institutions central to stable democracy, hindering their abilities to govern peacefully today. Furthermore, these countries have degraded significantly from even a few years ago. Cartels now have greater reach and are engaging in more violence against children. People are killed and kidnapped daily, and in several neighborhoods in Guatemala, people are not allowed to leave without permission from gangs. These three countries 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 under five in the United States. In 2012, Honduras saw 7,172 murders, compared to 246 Americans killed in action in Afghanistan that same year. While homicide numbers soar, the region also suffers from common street crime, assault, kidnapping, sexual violence, and extortion.

Corruption has also become pervasive in national governments and at local levels due to the influence of organized crime. Honduras, the most violent country in the region, is ranked 140 out of 177 nations on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, and budget openness is seen as “scant to none.” These factors create an extremely low level of trust between governments and their citizenry, and the lack of social compact manifests itself in extremely low tax participation. As a result, the Central American region has extremely low tax revenue as measured by percentage of gross national income (GNI), creating a cycle of weakened, corrupt states that struggle to garner sufficient political will for large-scale reform efforts. Much of this corruption can be blamed on increased drug trafficking, largely driven by U.S. demand, which has shifted from Colombia to Central America as the Colombian government undertakes reforms to drive out illicit activity.

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, promote good governance, and improve the basics of education, policing, and health care. A critical component will be restoring a sense of confidence in and strengthening police and judicial systems so as to reduce violence and increase accountability for crimes. The U.S. government must cooperate with Central American governments, their neighbors, the private sector, and others to work toward long-term solutions.

Of course, a new program for Central America would follow a long history of U.S. engagement in the region, often with mixed results. Significant achievements have been made, including the successful macroeconomic reforms in El Salvador that led to 6 percent annual growth in the 1990s. In spite of successes, one must acknowledge a history of sporadic attention paid to the region, based largely on security crises or most recently, surrounding targeted packages, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation compacts with El Salvador and Honduras. Since the Reagan administration, U.S. experts have called for renewed, strategic engagement in Central America, but the United States continues to provide piecemeal security and development assistance. The situation has worsened under the current administration and President Obama must work across the aisle to build a comprehensive engagement plan.

Meanwhile, the United States can now see the payoff of foreign assistance and partnership efforts in Colombia. In 2013, Colombia’s unemployment reached a record low of 9.6 percent, it experienced 4.1 percent economic growth, and the number of FARC fighters in the field declined 75 percent from 2003 to 2012. As a result of around $7 billion of U.S. assistance over the last 15 years, we can see light at the end of the tunnel: if we remain steadfast in Colombia over the next three to five years, Colombia will see peace, require significantly less foreign assistance, and serve as a credible partner for the United States to support regional security. This is only possible due to a bipartisan consensus and commitment to building Colombia’s future.

While the spillover problems of mass migration in Central America are driven by similar challenges that prompted the United States to adopt Plan Colombia, one must keep in mind that the realities on the ground differ in a number of ways. In general, these countries have smaller middle classes, smaller national budgets, and weaker democratic systems than Colombia had in the 1990s. Colombians contributed around half of the funds for Plan Colombia, but these Central American nations may initially be limited in their abilities to partner with the United States and cofinance development initiatives. The United States must adjust its programming and expectations so as to build realistic engagement strategies for each nation.

Though the domestic politics intertwined in these issues are extremely complex, the United States must make supporting stabilization in Central America a foreign policy priority. This cycle of poverty and violence can and should be addressed through a comprehensive assistance and security strategy that targets the “push” factors for migration and creates domestic opportunities that encourage Central Americans to build a future in Central America. That being said, this strategy will only succeed if Central American leadership is put at the forefront and plans are based on mobilizing political will for reforms and centered on national priorities. As Honduran president Juan Hernandez stated, the United States made effective commitments to Colombia and Mexico, and we now have to muster the same degree of bipartisan, long-term support for Central America. Comprehensive development cooperation in Central America will help alleviate the factors generating the current crisis at our border and, more importantly, support long-term security and prosperity for Central America and the United States.

Daniel F. Runde is director of the Project on Prosperity and Development and holds the Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development