Central American Youth Migrants Show Signs of PTSD and Stress

By Daniel Jenks and Ernesto Castañeda*

Central American migrants/ Peter Haden/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The trauma experienced by Central American minors before, during, and after their unaccompanied journeys to the United States puts them at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems, creating further obstacles to their success in school and broader integration into U.S. society. New research into results from the CLALS Pilot Project Household Contexts and School Integration of Resettled Migrant Youth, which included interviews and qualitative surveys (including a validated PHQ-9 Modified for Teens and the Child PTSD Symptom Scale, CPSS), revealed that about one-third of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala show symptoms of moderate to severe PTSD — significantly higher than the general population.

  • The study team interviewed or administered surveys to more than 100 subjects, including youths who arrived in Maryland before 2017, their parents, and social service providers, teachers, and local officials. At least 20 percent of the youth respondents exhibited symptoms of mild or moderate depression, and 38 percent said that they felt sad or depressed most days during the last year.

Many of the youths suffered deeply from separation from parents who preceded them in traveling to the United States, sometimes blaming them for problems and abuses they suffered back home, but they generally fared better than those whose parents had not emigrated. Those most deeply harmed were forced from their homes by gang violence, police corruption, and other symptoms of low state capacity, and suffered trauma along the journey to the United States. They were able to come to the U.S. and escape those problems because they had family in the United States.

  • Carlos, who migrated when he was 15 years old, left El Salvador because he was facing death threats from local gangs because he refused to join. He was scared to go to home and school. Other youths experienced pre-migration trauma that included natural disasters, war, gang violence, victimization, witnessing a crime, physical and sexual abuse, or attacks based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Other studies document the particular abuses faced by girls and young women.)
  • Migrating from Honduras at 13 years old, Samantha was on a bus near the Guatemala-Mexico border when gangs barricaded its door and threatened to set it on fire if they were not given a hefty fee. For the rest of the trip through Mexico, the coyotes gave her and others enough to eat only once a day. Indeed, the increased risk of undernutrition, dehydration, assault, kidnapping, and other forms of violence was common for unaccompanied youths.

Inside the United States, many face the stresses of family reunification and issues of acculturation, although our research indicates that the resulting anxiety is less severe than from the in-country and en-route traumas they experience. One mitigating factor is having access and feeling welcome to use supportive social services, education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

  • Resentment toward parents who “abandoned” them in Central America — even those parents who were loving, reliable providers — is often deep. School challenges, language struggles, and stress related to their own legal status or that of their family further tax mental health. Complex, intimidating legal proceedings, threats of deportation, and prolonged forced separation from family get many youths off to a stressful start. Many also experience discrimination and hate crimes, becoming more aware of them as they learn English. Real or perceived lack of access to social services exacerbates stresses, and fear of dealing with authorities means that many problems go unreported.
  • Some learn to prosper. Diana, a 16-year-old from El Salvador, was scared and apprehensive when she started school in Maryland, but she found friends whom she could trust and could help her in school, and her mood improved drastically for the better.

We found that the psychological distress and disorders experienced by Central American youths in a troubling number of cases can exacerbate existing obstacles to integration, family reunification, and success in school. These obstacles, in turn, can create new stressors that exacerbate PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

  • Dealing with the traumas that plague youths in Central America is a massive undertaking that, rhetorically at least, the United States and Central American governments are addressing. Inside the United States, successful cases show that the cycle of further trauma exposure, depression, and PTSD can be overcome by making migrant processing more humane, increasing access to mental health services and education, and providing guarantees of protection to those who seek help – reforms that will be very challenging. The underlying problems are deep-rooted, and even when the Executive or Legislative branch pushes particular elements of reform, change will be hard to implement because of institutional and cultural barriers.

August 26, 2021

* Ernesto Castañeda directs the Immigration Lab and teaches sociology at American University, and Daniel Jenks is the Lab’s deputy director. This article is adapted from their full study published in Trauma Care journal.

Will U.S. Aid Address the “Root Causes” of the Crisis in the Northern Triangle?

By Fulton Armstrong*

Women carry home their monthly food aid rations through a USAID-funded program in Guatemala/ USAID/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s statements this month on the need to address the “root causes” – including government corruption – of the ongoing surge of migrants fleeing the Northern Triangle of Central America reflects the strong agreement among analysts that lasting solutions will require deep reform within the region, but the Administration’s kid-gloves treatment of those governments risks repeating the errors of the past. Harris and Ricardo Zúñiga, the U.S. envoy coordinating policy toward the area, have emphasized the difficult task of real reform while also addressing the immediate challenge of the humanitarian crises contributing to migrants’ desperation.

  • While recommitting to a campaign promise to spend $4 billion in the Northern Triangle, the Administration last week announced an additional $310 million in emergency assistance to mitigate suffering from recurrent droughts, food shortages, COVID‑19, and back-to-back hurricanes last November. Even before those calamities, 60 percent of Hondurans lived in extreme poverty, and malnourishment stunted the growth of 23 percent of children nationwide. The World Food Program in June 2020 reported that 2.3 million Guatemalans (14 percent) were suffering from food insecurity, and another 800,000 would soon follow. Malnutrition among Guatemalan children under five has skyrocketed.

Addressing “root causes” will be much tougher than sending aid. Zúñiga argues that success will depend on drastically reducing the corruption that robs citizens of state resources and fuels other crime and violence, particularly senior political and military officials’ cooperation with narcotraffickers. Harris has supposedly mentioned this in several virtual meetings with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and will stress it during a visit to the region in June. The Administration is also creating an “anti-corruption task force” to enforce the policy, and Zúñiga offered $2 million to El Salvador if it pursues a hybrid anti-corruption effort called CICIES. Corruption is an endemic problem in all three countries, but the Harris initiative seems most sorely tested in Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernández has emerged as the poster child of what a U.S. District Judge last month called “state-sponsored” trafficking.

  • The U.S. drug convictions of Hernández’s brother, Tony, in 2019 and of trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez last month both featured apparently credible testimony about the President’s personal role in protecting the flow of narcotics through Honduras to the United States. These allegations come on the heels of waves of evidence of other corruption, human rights violations, and electoral fraud he has engaged in.
  • Nonetheless, the White House has publicly stated that “we are going to work with [Hernández’s] government and … seek areas of common interest.” While U.S. officials have severely criticized Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – whose migrant flow is a fraction of Honduras’s – for anti-democratic digressions, they have been relatively silent on Hernández. His efforts to portray himself as an indispensable ally appear to have earned him that latitude. Last year, after U.S. concern about trafficking rose, he won brownie points for supporting legislation deterring private jets from entering the country. Recently, he has mobilized the military several times to stop migrant caravans from leaving the country.

This is not the first U.S. Administration to try to cajole corrupt Central American incumbents to become allies in eliminating their own corruption. The humanitarian crisis requires the Harris team to send aid quickly and to collaborate with the same governments that have aggravated, and sometimes caused, people’s suffering. But the Biden Administration hasn’t given an indication yet that it can avoid being taken to the cleaners as previous administrations have, including President Obama and Vice President Biden when they teamed up with the Inter-American Development Bank for the Alianza para la Prosperidad. That initiative cost hundreds of millions but, as the current migration surge indicates, the “push” factors behind it continue to grow. Obama/Biden also made significant efforts – for example, helping CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras begin important processes – but local officials and their elite allies managed to get out from under both.

  • It’s a long shot that, without threats of sanctions similar to those levied against leaders who are not U.S. “allies,” Washington can get these governments to undertake major reforms that would threaten leaders’ wealth and power. But if the United States and others can break the vicious cycle of corruption, bad governance, poverty, and flight in the Northern Triangle, they will be laying the groundwork for breakthroughs far beyond the migration crisis on the U.S. border.

April 30, 2021

Mexico and Central America: Taking Aim at Corruption in Pharmaceutical Procurement

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Secretary of Health Headquarters, Mexico City, Mexico / Diego Delso / Wikipedia, Not Modified / Creative Commons License

Under pressure to reduce the cost of medications and medical supplies, the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras have resorted to an international facilitator to combat inefficiencies and a lack of transparency in medical procurement while attempting to build their own capacity to manage purchases and reduce related corruption in the future.

  • The Mexican government has been trying to obtain lower prices from manufacturers and distributors of patented or single-sourced medications and medical devices since at least 2008, when it created a Coordinating Commission to Negotiate the Prices of Medications and Other Health Inputs. A pooled procurement mechanism overseen by the country’s Social Security Institute (IMSS) was established in 2013 to purchase pharmaceutical products and medical supplies on behalf of various federal and state agencies. When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office at the end of 2018, he labelled the Coordinating Commission as ineffectual and IMSS’ pooled procurement process as hopelessly corrupt – and terminated both. He consolidated purchasing authority for Mexico’s public health sector in the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit, which also proved incapable of handling the task. To address widespread shortages throughout the country that were putting lives at risk, the Secretariat was signing contracts at exorbitant prices.
  • Last July, the AMLO administration executed an agreement with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), a not-for-profit agency based in Copenhagen better known for implementing humanitarian and development projects. For 2021, the Mexican government is expected to spend some $4 billion to procure medications through UNOPS on behalf of federal entities and 26 of Mexico’s 32 states. UNOPS will reportedly net a 1.25 percent commission for what will be its largest single procurement project to date. In 2022, UNOPS will set up an electronic reverse auction system to conduct the bidding process with international suppliers.

Guatemala and Honduras reached out to UNOPS, with good results, years ago.

  • In 2014, UNOPS began assisting the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) and Ministry of Health to establish a more effective and transparent procurement system for purchasing medications and medical supplies. After a year, UNOPS was able to procure medications at costs at 40 percent or more lower than what had previously been paid. Government funding remains a problem, but allegations of corruption in medical purchases have dropped sharply.
  • Following major corruption scandals at Guatemala’s Social Security Institute (IGSS), the Guatemalan government signed a contract with UNOPS in 2016 that involved both procurement and technical assistance to the IGSS to enhance transparency and strengthen its procurement processes. As a result, the Guatemalan government estimates the IGSS achieved an estimated 57 percent reduction in the prices of procured medicines and a 34 percent savings in surgical medical supplies and cochlear implants. The IGSS claims it was able to utilize these savings to, among other things, build new hospitals and extend health insurance coverage to more Guatemalans.
  • These experiences build on Guatemala and Honduras’ participation since 2010 in a mechanism overseen by the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA) to jointly negotiate the prices of medications and medical devices for subsequent purchase by the public health sector in their countries.

Ensuring efficiency and reducing corruption in medical purchases will ultimately depend on the governments’ ability to reform their own systems, not on developing a permanent dependency on UNOPS or other international entities. UNOPS is scheduled to hand the entire procurement system over to the Mexican government in 2024. The recently created Mexican Institute of Health for Well-Being (NSABI) will initially oversee distribution within Mexico, but the AMLO administration has indicated that this function will eventually be taken over by a more specialized agency that will also have warehousing capabilities (including cold storage facilities).

  • AMLO signed an executive decree at the end of October that recognizes the health safety certificates issued by regulatory authorities in other countries as being equivalent to those issued by the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (COFEPRIS) in Mexico. The decree also simplifies the process for COFEPRIS to issue certifications for the sale and consumption of all imported medications in Mexico. These moves are intended to undermine the ability of unscrupulous pharmaceutical firms to “capture” the regulatory approval process and thereby hinder competition.
  • The positive experiences in Guatemala and Honduras with UNOPS may encourage reformers in other Latin American countries, as just happened in Mexico, to look to the self- financing UN agency for assistance in clamping down on corruption, ensuring better management of the public health care sector, and implementing modern procurement systems to address the longstanding challenge of getting essential medical supplies to citizens who need them. The COVID 19 pandemic has made health a global priority and exposed serious deficiencies that no longer can be ignored. Without robust and equitable public health care systems, there is no sustainable economy.

December 21, 2020

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is president of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and lecturer with the International Relations Program at Stanford University.

U.S. Fails to Consider “Best Interests” of Child Migrants

By Eric Hershberg*

Child sitting down on a grass field

The lack of a “best interests” standard in the U.S. Government’s handling of child migrants subjects the children to enduring harm and skews their chances of fair adjudication of their immigration cases. Its absence is aggravated by recent U.S. policies under which a majority of children and families are unable to present protection claims which they are legally entitled to make.

  • The best interests principle is nearly universally accepted. It is enshrined in a vast body of domestic law, such as when determining the home in which to place a child, and in various international human rights instruments. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which has the force of law in the 196 countries that have ratified it, states that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

The United States is the sole country not to ratify the CRC, but – as a signatory – it pledged not to act in a manner that undermines the best interests principle. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Government has, on the whole, allowed practices incorporating best interests principles to gain considerable momentum – until the Administration of President Donald Trump brought such efforts to an abrupt halt. Soon after taking office in 2017, the Administration began stripping away the limited safeguards that leaders of both political parties had, albeit sometimes reluctantly, allowed to emerge over the previous two decades.

  • Trump Administration policies have aimed to deter child and family migrants by forcing them either to suffer confinement in increasingly inhumane conditions in detention facilities or await their case outcomes in Mexico. The Administration has steadily sought to erode the baseline protections in the 1997 “Flores Settlement,” which set standards for the detention, release, and treatment of minors. It has ignored the Flores provisions that detained children be held only in “safe and sanitary” facilities and within strict time limits. (U.S. courts having stymied the Administration’s efforts to detain children and families indefinitely.) Other policies have limited the number of migrants allowed to enter the United States each day and have forced families to wait out the immigration process in Mexico rather than be released into local communities.
  • For those children and families undeterred by these obstacles, another set of policies has stacked on requirements that effectively zero out their ability to prevail on their claims for protection. The effort began as a narrowing of the substantive criteria for asylum but, over the last year, has become a de facto ban on asylum for Central American children. Though courts again have played a critical role in thwarting many Administration’s efforts, one failed policy is quickly replaced with another even more drastic attempt to shut off all avenues for relief.

While the Trump Administration has taken rejection of the best interests principle to an extreme, no U.S. President has been willing or able to provide strong leadership in guaranteeing the protections to migrant children that U.S. domestic law affords citizens and residents. Widespread perceptions fed by the Administration that migrants are gaming the system make serious discussion of solutions extremely difficult. Policymakers and immigration officials often claim that embracing the best interests principle would create an open border. But respect for children’s best interests can co-exist with a full and fair adjudicative process. It simply guarantees children’s protection, family integrity, and wellbeing during and after a just determination process – even in the face of rejection of their petitions. Rather than updating the U.S. immigration infrastructure and building regional cooperation ensuring children’s well-being, the Trump Administration has further widened the divide between international and domestic child protection laws and U.S. immigration policy.

  • With the underlying drivers of migration remaining strong and likely to spike as the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hits Central America, the gap between principle and policy will have ever greater consequences for children, whose best interests are increasingly trampled. The repercussions are enormous, according to numerous studies. For children who are already vulnerable, ongoing family separations are traumatic experiences with potentially long-term implications for their physical and mental health. Unsanitary conditions in detention centers were dangerous even before the pandemic. Inadequate access to food, drinking water, clean clothing, and daily necessities – soap, toothbrushes, and towels – has been well documented. Psychologists fear that these children will struggle throughout their lives, be it in the United States or in their native countries.

July 6, 2020

* Eric Hershberg is the Director of CLALS. The report In Children’s Best Interests: Charting a Child-Sensitive Approach to U.S. Immigration Policy (click here for the full report), based on a joint symposium held in February with over 300 participants. The full program and video recordings are here.

Central America and the Pandemic: Different Priorities and Risky Bets

By Alexander Segovia*

Presidents of Central America participate on a SICA virtual meeting

Reunión Extraordinaria de Presidentes del Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA)/Flickr/Creative Commons

In most Central American countries, the social dimension of the COVID‑19 emergency has competed with economic priorities, and in some it hasn’t even been a top priority. Governments have responded independently of one another, showing little regional coordination aside from a $1.9 billion Regional Contingency Plan approved by the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA) and funded by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), to support national-level efforts.

El Salvador has designed a response strategy that prioritizes the health dimension of the crisis, not the need for economic recovery. The rigorous implementation of stay-at-home and social isolation measures has caused a number of problems, including essentially shutting down the economy, with enormous political costs. The Legislative Assembly authorized the government to issue coupons worth $3 billion to help families get by, causing a significant increase in the country’s external debt and fiscal deficit.

  • The Salvadoran response has been well-received by the population so far, but this could change quickly in the face of the high economic and social pain it has caused. Moreover, the authoritarian and militarist way the confinement regulations have been enforced, and the government’s lack of respect for the Constitution and the separation of powers, have also troubled many.

Nicaragua is the opposite case of El Salvador. The government has refused to adopt social isolation measures and has encouraged people to take to the streets and participate in large events. The Ortega Administration’s concern is about the economy, which has been in a deep crisis since the social protests in 2018 and the government’s repressive reaction to them. This priority partly explains the government’s resistance to implementing shelter-in-place and social-distancing regulations.

  • The government is playing with fire. If the health crisis spins out of control, it will cause both a great loss of human lives and a profound socio-economic crisis – which sooner rather than later will spark a social and political crisis of massive proportions.

Costa Rica, with its good universal health care system and the region’s most developed state infrastructure, is best prepared. Its initial response to the health emergency was slow and permissive, reflecting a government decision to confront the crisis in a manner that causes the least damage possible to the economy. It has since acted more decisively and has suffered only 10 deaths from COVID‑19.

  • Costa Rica is the only country in the region trying to finance the additional costs by reducing non-priority public expenditures and by introducing a temporary solidarity tax on capital gains and on the salaries of higher-paid managers in government and the private sector, who have economic security and safe jobs.

Guatemala is implementing a response in which the health emergency is competing with leaders’ desire for economic recovery. This reflects the enormous influence over the government and Congress enjoyed by the economic elites, who hold sway over public policies and have a veto over any that affect their interests.

  • By putting the social and economic challenges on an equal plane, the elites have demonstrated, in what they see as a politically correct way, their ability to equate human life with the accumulation of capital.

Honduras has implemented a strategy that gives insufficient attention to the health crisis by assigning higher priority to containing the economic impact. Its response has been fragmented and confusing; it combines emergency measures with economic recovery actions that will take effect only in the second half of the year. In addition, policymaking processes have been opaque, and there are no guarantees that public funds will be used transparently.

  • Concerns that the crisis has also given rise to greater militarization of the country and an increase in human rights violations by security forces are also mounting.

The best way for Central America to confront the COVID emergency is through energetic responses focused on containing the health crisis – with effective stay-at-home and social-distancing measures – and strengthening of social protection systems and programs, including direct financial payments to households. These policies should be backed up with broad political and social agreements and sustained with absolute respect for democracy and human rights.

  • Preliminary evidence indicates that, while addressing the health crisis has high costs in the short term, delaying that investment increases the number of deaths and leads to a deeper and longer economic crisis. Central American governments and economic elites have a clear choice: pay a smaller price now combatting the virus, or pursue short-term benefits and pay a much higher price in the long run.

May 20, 2020

* Alexander Segovia is a Salvadoran economist. This blog article is based on and updated from an analysis originally published here by Análisis Carolina in Madrid.

Lessons Learned from Last Century’s Climate Change Migration

By Elizabeth Keyes*

Then and Now

Left: Migrant Workers in California, 1935/ Dorothea Lange/ U.S. Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)// Right: Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico/ Peter Haden/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States are not the first victims of government policies that discourage migration, send law enforcement to turn them away at a border, ban them from receiving public benefits, and pass laws seeking their immediate repatriation: the Dust Bowl migrants, almost 100 years ago, faced the same fate. Their story is more complex than that of John Steinbeck’s Joad family turning to labor in California’s “factories in the field.”

  • Drought came to Oklahoma and other Dust Bowl states after decades of agricultural practices that prioritized heavy production at the expense of land management and conservation. Corporate farmers favored practices maximizing short-term yield over long-term sustainability. The New Deal bought up farmland, displacing tenant farmers. Relief at the peak of the Dust Bowl in 1934 was mismanaged, and it did not help people stay.
  • Affected residents headed to California, which during a previous economic boom had sought out “migrant” labor from elsewhere in the United States. Many had a relative or friend already in California who could provide a migration pathway, just as happens with migration in 2020. Those with friends or family in the cities fared relatively well, but those who ended up in the labor camps of California’s valleys fared extremely poorly.

As the state’s boom ended in the Great Depression, California made efforts to discourage the migrants, erecting billboards along Route 66 warning would-be migrants that California was no longer an ideal destination. The state criminalized the act of helping indigents migrate, and the Los Angeles Police Department set up “bum blockades” to refuse them entry.

  • California’s responses looked a lot like current efforts to stop migrants seeking to enter along the U.S. border with Mexico: criminalization and walls. Internally displaced persons in the 1930s faced the same kinds of xenophobia that the migrants from outside the United States do today, defining “Okies” as a problematic “other” as if from a foreign country. Although they were, indeed, “fellow Americans” and driven from the land by environmental disaster, it took almost a decade for the U.S. Supreme Court – in Edwards v. California – to clarify that states could not bar migration from other states, and to affirm an ethic of sharing hardships across state lines.
  • The Dust Bowl migrants entered a labor market with strong racial and class inequities. As the United States deported roughly a million Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers between 1929 and 1936 (with an estimated 60 percent of those being U.S. citizens wrongfully deported), the new migrants took over those jobs.

State and international borders differ legally, of course, in critical ways, but the experience of Dust Bowl migrants nonetheless sheds light on the possibilities for Central American and Mexican migrants today. Climate change is again increasing the drivers of environmental displacement, both internal and international, both slow-onset and acute. Just as a focus on environmental justice and sustainable agriculture would have reduced the need for migration out of the Plains in the 1930s, work done now to mitigate and adapt to climate change would help Central American and Mexican farmers stay in place. And in the communities receiving migrants, we see that California adapted and accommodated them once the Supreme Court refused to endorse California’s deterrent strategies. The Court recognized in the strongest terms that California was enduring great upheaval but determined that it could not use its state border to limit that upheaval.

The same Court also routinely upheld the federal government’s right to use the national border to inoculate the country “from difficulties common to all.” International immigration is legally, if not dynamically, morally or philosophically, different from internal migration.

  • Nonetheless, the Edwards decision provides a wonderful exercise in “what if” thinking. Because of the decision, those suffering in Oklahoma and Kansas had a place to go and could build new lives in California, changing the state but not ending it. Indeed, the state has the largest economy of all 50 states and by one measure is the “14th happiest” in the nation. California is an example of state resilience to migration, even dramatic levels of migration.
  • Perhaps the pain of the Dust Bowl – the forces that sent people migrating and the realities they faced in their new homes – offer us important lessons for international migrations caused by climate. There is no international-style Edwards approach, and refugee law offers no good answers. But the full, complicated Dust Bowl history encourages us to move beyond fear and xenophobia to face the challenges forthrightly, knowing that we do have a remarkable capacity for adaptation.

April 15, 2020

* Elizabeth Keyes teaches law and directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Challenges to “Safe Country” Strategy in Central America Mounting

By Fulton Armstrong

San Ysidro

Processing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry/ U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr/ U.S. Government Works

Challenges to the U.S. government’s “Asylum Cooperation Agreements” (ACAs) with Central American countries – under which asylum seekers approaching the U.S. border are sent to camps in the Northern Triangle – are mounting fast, but the administration of President Donald Trump does not appear likely to budge significantly from its current approach. Under the threat of loss of $143 million in aid to the three Central American countries, Guatemala signed its agreement under former President Jimmy Morales last August; a similar accord with Honduras is to “come online any day,” according to U.S. officials; and El Salvador is also deep in negotiations. (Aid has been restored.) The ACAs stipulate that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the “first safe country” they enter after fleeing their own. As a result, the United States has sent about 800 persons of various nationalities to Guatemala.

  • Immigration and human rights advocates have condemned the agreements. They report that Guatemala – where most asylum seekers have been sent so far – lacks the ability to process them. Human Rights Watch recently reported, moreover, that individuals repatriated to El Salvador since 2013 – as envisioned by the ACAs – have been assassinated at an alarming rate. The group has confirmed 138 cases of individuals killed after deportation and another 70 beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted, or tortured.
  • The chairs of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and relevant subcommittees (all Democrats) have called the ACAs “illegal, dangerous, and antithetical to U.S. values.” In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, they said that U.S. law requires that asylum seekers have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum” – which the Guatemalan facilities lack. The Congressmen assert, moreover, that U.S. law requires adherence to international law on non-refoulement, which mandates that asylum seekers cannot be sent to a country in which they will face further persecution.
  • The workers’ union representing 700 U.S. asylum and refugee officers has declared that the agreements and the administration’s implementation of them are a “violation” of international treaty obligations. These are the career specialists on the front line charged with carrying out the policies. The Guatemalan government has raised its own concerns, citing its “very limited capacity” to process asylum-seekers sent there. Newly inaugurated President Alejandro Giammattei has never appeared comfortable with the ACA and has asked Washington for “clarifications” of his country’s obligations under it.

U.S. reaction so far has been to deny anything is wrong. Senior officials say that very few asylum seekers deported to Guatemala are applying for asylum there, with the vast majority instead choosing to return to their home countries. Citing experts, the U.S. congressmen say that less than 4 percent have “been able to seek protection through Guatemala’s overburdened system.” Others report that victims of violence in their home countries face similar prejudices in Guatemala.

  • Apparently to encourage potential asylum seekers to apply for U.S. visas, the administration on March 5 announced it is increasing H2‑B visas for non-agricultural workers this year, with 10,000 reserved for applicants from the Northern Triangle. But if H2‑B visas are issued along the same guidelines as other visas, U.S. consular officers will be required to deny them to applicants they have reason to suspect will try to remain in the United States – as all ACA cases have tried.

The ACAs are a key element of the Trump administration’s efforts to move the “wall” blocking asylum seekers as far off the U.S. border as possible, shifting the burden to the same Central American countries whose poverty, violence, and corruption are driving citizens to flee. However compelling the Foreign Affairs Committee’s arguments that the administration is violating U.S. law and values, the letter’s impact has been blunted by widespread perceptions that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is further proof that the United States needs to keep outsiders from entering the country. The Administration is also not swayed by the fact that the U.S. State Department’s own repeated warnings that U.S. citizens limit travel to Northern Triangle countries – because of widespread “violent crime … rape, and narcotics and human trafficking – contradict the assertion that the ACA partners are “safe countries.”

  • Guatemala’s call for “clarification” of implementation guidelines and talks on the final details of Honduras and El Salvador’s arrangements give the administration a chance to make cosmetic adjustments and, perhaps, promise more resources to the designated “safe countries.” But it has given no sign of reconsidering its overall approach. The Trump administration remains as committed as ever to addressing the migration problem by closing the U.S.’ door rather than addressing the underlying conditions in the region driving people to risk their lives to get to the United States. Central American analysts are already deeply concerned that the economic impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic (including 1 percent growth or less), coupled with USAID’s own budget cuts, spell reduced aid and a worsening of the vicious cycle of poverty that drives emigration and empowers illicit actors.

March 17, 2020

Central America: Hybrid Anti-Corruption Commissions Can Work

By Chuck Call*

Map of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with Guatemala and Honduras territory being covered by photos of well-known politicians being arrested.

Prospects for an International Commission against Impunity and Corruption in El Salvador: Lessons from Neighboring Countries in Central America logo / CLALS / https://www.american.edu/centers/latin-american-latino-studies/Prospects-for-an-International-Commission-against-Impunity-and-Corruption-in-El-Salvador-Lessons-from-Neighboring-Countries-in-Central-America.cfm

If newly inaugurated Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele pursues his campaign calls for the creation of a hybrid international commission to fight corruption and strengthen judicial institutions, he will face tough challenges from entrenched interests. However, the experiences of Guatemala’s CICIG and Honduras’s MACCIH show that a strong investigative mandate, close partnership with vetted national prosecutors, strong international backing, and transparent accountability will increase the chances of success of any such mission. (Full text of the study is here and aquí.) CICIG and MACCIH were born of political crises, but they were given different authorities, faced different expectations, and delivered different results.

  • Both missions have had historic investigative and prosecutorial achievements – bringing former and current senior officials to account as never before and putting powerful elites on notice that impunity will not be tolerated. CICIG has dismantled corrupt networks, exposing their reach into the Congress and the Cabinet, indicting hundreds. MACCIH has helped indict dozens of legislators and a former First Lady. Working with special units of prosecutors, they have also contributed to local institutional capacity to root out corruption.

Both CICIG and MACCIH have struggled against the pressure tactics of the many corrupt officials, legislators, and economic interests who most feel threatened by them. In contrast to Guatemala, where CICIG was key to the adoption of several laws that served as a foundation for effective investigation of organized crime, the Honduran Congress has refused to pass such laws. Legislatures in both countries have changed laws specifically to vitiate prosecutions (including of themselves) advanced by the missions. Corruption among judges, especially in Honduras, has made winning convictions extremely difficult. After CICIG shifted its sights beyond politicians to powerful businessmen a few years ago, Guatemalan elites launched a campaign to smear CICIG as an incursion on sovereignty and a socialist plot. Both missions have confronted constitutional challenges.

Key lessons from CICIG and MACCIH’s experience include:

  • Realistic expectations are important. The legal and diplomatic negotiations and logistics necessary to set up “hybrid” units combining domestic and international investigators slowed both entities’ starts. It took over two years for CICIG to secure its first convictions, and MACCIH’s investigations have led to only 12 cases, although these are major corrupt networks. The focus of many Hondurans on ousting President Juan Orlando Hernández has obscured some of the important cases advanced by the mission and its Honduran partners.
  • Anti-impunity missions can threaten systems of political and economic power in ways that go beyond judicial processes. Despite the technical and juridical character of both the missions, they have exposed in detail how criminal enterprises interact with political parties, elected, and appointed officials, and current and former security officials. The missions have also detailed how legislators receive illicit campaign funds and how they fraudulently spend public monies, forcing changes to these decades-old corrupt practices. In Guatemala, the prosecutions have dismantled corrupt networks involving cabinet ministers, generals, top business leaders and the former president and vice president, altering the political profile of parties and undermining the ability of prominent and corrupt elite structures of power to operate.
  • Strong partnerships with national prosecutorial units and with civil society are crucial for success and sustainability. CICIG and MACCIH could not have achieved what they did without close cooperation with carefully selected and vetted prosecutorial units. Those units, especially the UFECIC in Honduras, carried out much of the investigation and led the prosecution in both countries. The legacy of the hybrid missions rests in the future of these empowered professionals and society’s raised expectations of clean behavior from their public officials. Both missions have generated a greater sense that high-level politicians, officials and elites can be imprisoned for corruption and organized crime. Yet these missions have not heeded or informed civil society as much as they might have. Moreover, these experiences and the likely end to both missions in the coming months show that civil society is vital to educating society on the importance and possibility of accountable governance, and for demanding it from politicians and the justice system.
  • International sponsorship brings both advantages and challenges. The association with the UN (for CICIG) and the OAS (for MACCIH) has brought valuable political legitimacy, professional capacity, and needed resources. But it has also brought complications. In the case of MACCIH, slow and politicized appointments, questionable allocation of resources, and excessive day-to-day oversight from Washington, not to mention personal spats and undue interference by specific member states, have undermined performance and credibility. CICIG’s status as a non-UN body gave its commissioner the independence needed to take on tough cases and ignore political considerations. However, that lack of accountability is seen as having contributed to the alienation of many sectors in ways that left it politically vulnerable. Wavering U.S. support for CICIG since 2017 has emboldened the missions’ critics.

The experiences of CICIG and MACCIH show that, despite ups and downs, hybrid international-national missions can help a society fight corruption. In Guatemala and Honduras, these commissions achieved more than most observers originally predicted by dint of the vision and discipline of their leaders and sponsors as well as the work of courageous national officials and civil society groups often risking their livelihoods and lives. Their performance also shows that getting the mission right and sustainable takes time, communication, and strong partnership with national prosecutors. The main challenge now is that corrupt officials and businesses have become proficient at blocking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

  • Creating an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) may be harder now than before CICIG and MACCIH scored their victories. However, President Bukele may have a historic opportunity to press the country’s two main (but weakened) parties, ARENA and the FMLN, to approve a strong mandate that fits the country’s particular needs. Experts advising then-President Mauricio Funes (himself ironically now on the lam for alleged corruption) concluded in 2010 that the country’s Constitution provides the basis for an international mission with a sufficiently strong investigative powers to have impact. The Guatemalan and Honduran missions show that a strong mandate and significant national and international backing could improve help El Salvador’s justice system reduce corruption and impunity. Such efforts may also have comparable impact in exposing in dirty detail, and perhaps reforming, unaccountable and exclusionary systems of political representation.

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, where he directs a Center for Latin American & Latino Studies project analyzing MACCIH and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.

Guatemala: Mortal Doubt and Transnational Gangs

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite (Guatemala, 2005) / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Central America’s maras, or transnational gangs, are symptoms of societies suffering from legacies of Cold War-fueled atrocities and authoritarian rule, misguided law enforcement policies, and long-term entanglement with U.S. culture and foreign policy. Feuds between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18, the region’s most powerful gangs, have helped make the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) the deadliest non-combat zone in the world. My fieldwork in prisons, police precincts, and urban slums in Guatemala City and other cities since 2010 for Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City has mapped their dystopian evolution. The gangs are not the problem, and the problem does not begin or end with them. But they are important symbolic figures for societies struggling with out-of-control insecurity that have obscured the complex structural factors driving the countries’ extreme peacetime violence.

When they first took root in Central America in the 1990s, the maras were little more than disorganized groups of kids imitating Latino gangs in Los Angeles, vying for turf in cities struggling to recover from decades of authoritarian rule and extreme inequality. Over the years, they became brutal organizations engaged in extortion, contract killings, and the drug trade.

  • The gangs’ evolution was driven by histories of mass incarceration in both the United States and Central America, making them a symptom of these societies’ predilection to punish. In Guatemala, through the early 2000s, the gangs fought to survive behind bars against cadres of ex-military officers, the most powerful of which was led by Byron Lima, a U.S.-trained special forces Army captain convicted of a 1998 assassination of a Catholic bishop who had catalogued military human rights abuses in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The violence and deprivations of prison life, alongside the unprecedented coordination between gang leaders that being locked up together made possible, drove the gangs to become far more brutal and organized in their street operations.
  • Mara extortion rackets, among the most feared and despised criminal enterprises, are also emblematic of the symbiotic relationships between the state, law-abiding society, and the underworld in Guatemala. While maras are responsible for much of the extortion, they have in fact become a mask and a model for others profiting from it. Bus companies, private security corporations, corrupt police, and even Guatemala’s biggest banks play key roles in the extortion commodity chain.

Perhaps the most painful truth about the maras is that their rank and file are very young – primarily 10-18 years old – and the average age of recruitment is dropping. Youths are killing each other. A young man named Andy had killed and tortured for MS-13 since he was eight, when the gang adopted him after liquidating his family, who were members of a rival gang. In interviews, Andy struggled to make sense of the violence of which he was both victim and perpetrator by seamlessly folding fantasy and reality – swinging between made-in-Hollywood montages, mara myths circulated in newspapers, and actual acts of murder and torture. MS-13 found and executed Andy, who was in a witness protection program, less than six weeks after his last interview. Very real suffering is powerfully intertwined with bloody fantasy, and the dichotomies dividing innocent from guilty, good from evil, are often false. These are key lessons for understanding the maras and for effectively confronting the crisis of criminal violence in Central America that they have come to represent in such spectacular fashion.

May 23, 2019

* Anthony W. Fontes teaches international studies at American University. Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City was published by University of California Press. The book was winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2017–2018.

U.S.-Central America: Suspending Aid Won’t Help

By Joseph Wiltberger*

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reuni%C3%B3n_Tri%C3%A1ngulo_Norte_con_Vicepresidente_Biden2.jpg / Creative Commons

President Trump’s recent announcement to cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – intended to pressure those governments to stop migrant caravans headed for the U.S.-Mexico border – would suspend and divert an estimated $700 million dollars in funds directed mainly to regional security and economic programs with mixed impacts on migration. A comprehensive impact evaluation of recent U.S. aid to the region has not yet been conducted, so the consequences of this move are open to debate. While some of the aid may help those vulnerable to migration, other allocations to the three countries may be counterproductive to slowing migration.

The three countries have received around $2 billion in aid since 2015, when former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden initially committed Washington’s contribution to the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (A4P) in response to a surge in the migration of Central American families and unaccompanied minors. The A4P, a document drawn up by the Inter-American Development Bank and the three nations’ governments, has guided most of the U.S.’s strategic aid allocations to the region. The U.S. Congress allocated about $750 million in assistance in fiscal year 2016, $655 million in 2017, and $450 million in 2018. About a third of those funds have been aimed at improving citizen security through support for police, the judicial sector, and violence prevention programs. Roughly another third has been geared toward promoting economic development, and the remainder has been split mainly between anti-corruption efforts and support for military personnel through training and arms to fight drug trafficking and human smuggling.

  • NGOs working with communities susceptible to migration complain that the A4P was drafted by Central American leaders without their input, and that its framework – also reflected in U.S. aid priorities – favors elite business and political interests. It gives tax incentives to foreign investors and, opponents say, makes way for resource extraction, maquilas, and other transnational industries dependent on cheap labor and known to contribute to displacement. It directs hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to military and police forces notorious for human rights violations that are rarely prosecuted, a problem that human rights advocates warn endangers citizens and can force more migration.
  • Some of the programs aligned with the A4P, however, grasp the underlying causes of migration from these nations and show how aid can help if properly channeled. They aim to combat corruption and reduce violent crime by improving judicial systems and government transparency, and with community-based violence prevention programs. Many projects – such as initiatives to create economic, extracurricular, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth, and grassroots endeavors such as cooperatives of women and small farmers – are led by local organizations with a long-standing track record of effective local work on the ground in marginalized areas. One of the more rigorous impact evaluations to date found that USAID-funded community-based gang violence prevention programs were effective.

President Trump’s announcement to cut aid did not reflect an assessment of its effectiveness but instead appears to be a political maneuver to counter domestic political opponents who support aid and to punish the governments he believes have “set up” migrant caravans and should do more to stop them. Ending assistance doesn’t help. U.S. aid to Central America should be focused on proven ways to improve security and economic conditions and to combat corruption and guard against human rights violations – problems that drive the region’s emigration today. Cutting off aid will not stop caravans and runs contradictory to the A4P’s stated goal of addressing the root causes of migration. It is counterproductive to the current administration’s interests. Aid strategies would benefit from setting U.S. political and business interests aside to instead focus more on measures that effectively fight corruption, protect human rights, and provide support for trusted organizations proven to be effectively creating opportunities and safer communities for those most vulnerable to migration.

April 29, 2019

* Joseph Wiltberger is a cultural anthropologist. He holds appointments as Assistant Professor of Central American Studies at California State University, Northridge and as Visiting Scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.