El Salvador: Draft Budget Confirms Structural Problems in Public Finance

By ICEFI and CLALS*

US banknote lot

U.S. Banknote Lot/ Creative Commons/ https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jqchd

The budget that President Nayib Bukele submitted to El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in September increases much-needed social spending appropriate for the country’s current socio-economic context, but it lacks clear objectives and benchmarks — and fails to address ongoing structural problems in public finance.

  • The proposed budget is based on revenues of US$5.466 billion, 92.7 percent of which will come from taxes. In gross terms — without considering tax rebates — that amounts to a tax burden of 18.2 percent of GDP, just below the 18.3 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019. In net terms, the budget claims taxes will reach 18.1 percent of GDP (compared to 17.7 percent in 2019), but that figure is not realistic: it estimates tax refunds of only $16.5 million — compared to $117.4 million for the January-August period of this year. This error threatens to undermine serious Legislative debate.

Spending in the proposed 2020 budget reaches $5.774 billion — equal to 20.8 percent of GDP, compared to 22.3 percent estimated for 2019. Some areas that are already struggling, such as environmental programs, face significant cuts, while others will experience modest decreases and increases.

  • According to the draft, Central Government operating costs will decrease by 1.8 percent of GDP, driven by cuts in contracting of services and purchase of goods as well as in current transfers. Capital expenditures, on the other hand, will increase 0.3 percent over 2019 — that is, about 3.3 percent of GDP.
  • The Central Government’s spending on social development is slated to grow to its highest level in decades — about 10.5 percent of GDP ($2.921 billion), compared to 9.7 percent this year. The main beneficiaries of the increase will be municipal governments, pension systems, trusts for social security, and health care. With some 800,000 children and adolescents lacking schools to attend, the proposed increase in the education budget — from 3.73 percent (in 2019) to 3.75 percent — is minimal.

The budget anticipates a slight increase in the federal deficit. The non-financial public sector, including trusts to cover social security obligations, will experience a deficit of 3.1 percent of GDP (compared to the 2.7 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019) — pushing total public debt to 70 percent of GDP. That’s less than the 70.7 percent estimated for 2019, but ICEFI cautions that the decline could easily evaporate as the government faces growing demands over the course of the year. Either way, debt servicing will remain the most significant item in the 2020 budget, reaching $1.102 billion (4 percent of GDP).

The perennial challenge that El Salvador’s leaders like their counterparts throughout the region  face is how to stimulate economic growth and reduce inequalities to make the state more democratic and effective. But this budget, if implemented as drafted, will achieve neither goal in politically significant ways. The fiscal data underscore that the fundamental structural problems low revenues, inadequate public spending, and high fiscal deficits and public debt remain unaddressed.

  • The increase in capital spending, while positive, is insufficient to have its desired impact of driving economic growth. ICEFI’s analysis indicates that the jump in social spending is certainly warranted by the growing unhappiness in various social sectors, but also falls far short of what’s needed to reverse ongoing negative trends. The cuts in environmental protection from a minuscule 0.07 percent of GDP (2019) to 0.05 percent seem outright foolish for a country that has already shown vulnerabilities, which could aggravate existing economic and social conditions. Rather than taking on the serious challenges El Salvador and its economy face, the 2020 draft budget kicks the can down the road, without credible expectation that the task will be easier in the future.

December 9, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the third in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Ecuador: President Moreno’s Pyrrhic Victory

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

President Lenín Moreno greets an indigenous leader on September 12, 2019.

President Lenín Moreno greets an indigenous leader on September 12, 2019/ Asemblea Nacional del Ecuador/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno’s agreement with opponents to rescind the austerity measures that sparked the recent crisis has restored calm but leaves his government irreparably weakened. The immediate trigger of the crisis was the president’s announcement on October 1 of a package of austerity measures aimed at reducing the fiscal deficit as part of his government’s $4.2 billion credit agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The key measure was elimination of a $1.3 billion gasoline subsidy expected to result in a 25-75 percent increase in the price of gasoline. Transport unions, student groups, and thousands of members of the country’s largest indigenous organization, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), took to the streets, paralyzing roads around the country and demanding Moreno step down.

  • Moreno declared a 60-day state of siege, temporarily suspended the right to freedom of association; and on October 7, flanked by the military high command, said he would not back down against what he called a “destabilization plan” orchestrated by his predecessor, Rafael Correa, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Perhaps cognizant that a combination of social pressure and legislative and military action removed all three of Ecuador’s democratically elected presidents from 1996 to 2006, Moreno temporarily moved the seat of government from Quito to Guayaquil and imposed a curfew in Quito.
  • CONAIE President Jaime Vargas and other indigenous leaders, encouraged by the United Nations and the Catholic Church, agreed to direct negotiations on October 12. Two days later, the president signed a decree rescinding the austerity measures and reinstating fuel subsidies, and CONAIE decamped. Moreno removed the head of the military Joint Command and the commander of the army, and on October 15 returned to Quito. (He has so far resisted calls to replace Interior Minister María Paula Romo, a possible 2021 presidential aspirant, and Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín.)

The crisis has deeply altered prospects for the Moreno presidency.

  • Moreno survived a degree of social protest and political resistance that toppled previous presidents, but he failed to anticipate the popular reaction to lifting energy subsidies, employed a heavy-handed response to protestors, and ultimately backed away from one of the few significant political decisions his government has made. As a result, Moreno lost an opportunity to make structural economic changes and suffered irreparable damage to his political capital and credibility.
  • Indigenous groups and a resurgent CONAIE – after largely disappearing from national political decision-making under Correa – are once again a key national political actor and informal public policy veto player. They not only forced Moreno and the government to reverse course on energy subsidies, but also literally and figuratively earned a seat at the negotiating table. CONAIE appears more unified than it has been at any moment since the early 2000s and may be emboldened to seek further concessions from the government.
  • Correísmo may well be the biggest political loser. Moreno remains in power despite calls from ex-President Correa and his Revolución Ciudadana party to debate the possibility of impeachment and early elections. Correístas were excluded from discussions over the executive decree that restored the gas subsidies. Moreover, CONAIE tweeted a stinging rebuke of Correa, accusing him of opportunism and holding him responsible for the deaths of three indigenous leaders under his government.

Moreno is a lame duck just a little over halfway through his presidency. It is difficult to imagine any policymaking of consequence in his remaining 18 months in office. The government is severely handicapped politically and economically, and the political space for negotiation until elections is almost nonexistent. Moreno’s government is likely to resemble the interim governments of Fabián Alarcón (1997-1998) or Alfredo Palacio (2005-2007), which essentially served as placeholder administrations without ambitious policy agendas. Against all odds, Moreno – with a legislative minority – neutralized Correa and shifted government policy to the right during his first two-plus years in office, which throws his failure to remove the subsidy into sharper relief.

  • Economically, the picture is not much different. The protests forced Moreno to kick the can down the road on energy subsidies, while making it more difficult for the government to close its fiscal deficit. The weight of these necessary reforms will therefore fall to whoever wins the 2021 elections. The failed implementation of this economic reform and subsequent reversal of policy show the limits of Moreno’s political acumen while laying bare the country’s governability challenges.

October 17, 2019

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

New Leadership in El Salvador: Breaking from the Past?

By Eric Hershberg*

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele / Joint Base San Antonio / Public Domain

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s stunning defeat of both of his country’s two dominant parties in February was propelled by promises of change and new approaches to challenges that vexed his predecessors. His initial six weeks in office have featured notable gestures toward fresh directions but also grounds for concern. The country’s problems are many and severe. Decades of paltry private investment has produced anemic economic growth, worsened in recent years by a devastating internal security situation. The limited economic growth that has occurred relies disproportionately on remittances from migrants – the value of which exceeds that of exports – but the circumstances of Salvadorans in the United States are growing more precarious, potentially eroding future transfers. In addition, plausible shifts in trade policy by an erratic U.S. administration could undermine the U.S.-CAFTA-DR trade agreement, threatening critical manufacturing jobs. Corruption, meanwhile, is perceived by the population as no less urgent a challenge as joblessness and impunity for the gangs whose extortion and violence torment much of the population.

Bukele’s winning campaign formula was to promise to turn things around with a new vision and new people. One important signal of change was the President’s order to immediately remove the big block letters “Monterrosa” from the barracks of the armed forces 3rd brigade, in San Miguel, and his hosting a dinner at the Presidential residence for family of the victims of the El Mozote massacre that Lt. Col. Monterrosa had overseen. A handful of initial cabinet appointments signaled an inclination toward meritocracy and gender balance. Yet Bukele has more recently appointed to key positions dodgy veterans of the administration of former President Tony Saca (2004-09), who split (and was later expelled from) his ARENA Party to form a new party, GANA. While Saca is serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption, Bukele, who was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 and thus lacked a vehicle of his own with which to seek the presidency, opted to run on the vacant GANA ticket. The appearance of figures from Saca’s inner circle is thus not entirely a surprise, but it stands out given the degree that Bukele’s largely platform-less campaign highlighted the battle against corruption.

  • One of his pledges was to create a hybrid (national-international) anti-corruption commission – adapted from the experiences of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras – to hold accountable political elites suspected of extraordinary levels of malfeasance. Yet both domestic and external constraints make such an effort less likely than Bukele might have imagined while on the campaign trail, and the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en El Salvador (CICIES) seems to have been relegated to a back burner.
  • Equally striking is the new President’s doubling down on militarized responses to gang violence, departing from both his campaign rhetoric and his mode of governance as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-15) and San Salvador (2015-18). Whereas he had entered into pragmatic if unspoken accommodations with the gangs in order to secure governability at the municipal level, he’s now declaring all-out war against the maras, sending the military into gang-ridden communities and clamping down on communication from the prisons from which gang leaders continue to direct operations. During the first week of July – a month after assuming office – he asserted that repression was but the first phase of a comprehensive anti-gang strategy, promising a second phase, focused on social opportunity, that would address the structural factors that draw youth toward lives of criminal violence. But details remain thin, and whether funds will be appropriated by a legislature in which GANA has only a small minority of seats remains to be seen.

Bukele represents El Salvador’s first Instagram and Twitter president – with a penchant for announcing sweeping personnel changes without having informed affected staff in advance. His recourse to social media for proclaiming “you’re fired” aligns him with other western hemisphere presidents eschewing traditional channels of communication with public employees and the citizenry, but in El Salvador as elsewhere this justifies concern over how governance through a cacophony of tweets may affect the quality of democracy.

Meanwhile, the new president has wisely emphasized that cordial relations with the United States are an imperative for his government. More than a third of his compatriots reside there, and he has already taken steps to gain Washington’s blessing for his administration. At U.S. urging, he invited the representative of Venezuelan assembly president Juan Guaidó to his inaugural, and when a Salvadoran father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande, Bukele exonerated President Trump’s border policies, saying “La culpa es nuestra.” Nonethelesss, he has been critical not only of Venezuelan dictators who Washington abhors but also Honduran ones who the Americans enable. Meanwhile, observers in San Salvador opine that, contrary to Washington’s wishes, he will not reverse his FMLN predecessor’s decision to deepen relations with China – he needs Chinese investment and recent history offers little reason for expecting analogous resources to arrive from the U.S. Finding the money needed to provide jobs, security and social welfare to the vast majority of Salvadorans who have lacked them may prove as vexing for the outsider president as it was for leaders of the dominant parties of the post-war period.

July 16, 2019

* Eric Hershberg is Professor of Government and Director of CLALS at American University. He took part in a delegation of AU experts for a weeklong visit to El Salvador in June, during which they met with political leaders across the political spectrum, as well as leading journalists, scholars, NGO leaders, policymakers and diplomats.

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

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.

Central America: Evolution of Economic Elites

By Alexander Segovia*

 

El Salvador landscape

El Salvador landscape / Google Images / Creative Commons

The elites of Central America – traditionally organized in national business groups with strong family ties – have lost power and allowed certain reforms to advance over the past 30 years, but the full impact of this historic shift has been blunted by the lack of broad, inclusive national debates and the growing role of regional economic powers. Until the 1980’s, the powerful interests of the traditional agricultural export economy dominated for more than a century, with enormous influence by virtue of their control over property and every facet of the production, processing, and domestic and foreign marketing of their products.

  • For these traditional elites, the state was to be used for their own benefit. Their decisive influence continued even as economies changed and exports diversified somewhat after World War II. It survived the growth of cities, the emergence of new players in industry, the growth of organized labor, and the expansion of government bureaucracies. Elites obstructed changes that threatened their interests and parried others into minor tweaks of the essentially agro-export model that they dominated. They preserved many inequities in social and economic systems, slowed diversification, and protected governments that were weak, corrupt, disorganized, and often authoritarian, repressive, and undemocratic.

Since the late 1980’s, according to my research, the agro-export model that enabled elites to have such power has changed significantly – facilitating the emergence of new economic models (albeit with different manifestations in each country) and eroding the old elites’ grip on society. The change was driven by the armed conflicts, political and social crises, emigration, and the flow of remittances. Neoliberal economic reforms, including liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and opening to foreign investment, had an impact within the context of the broader capitalist globalization gaining momentum during the period.

  • Although not always with alacrity, elites had to accept the advent of new spaces and patterns in which other actors were able to accumulate wealth and power. Tourism, telecommunications, banking, and other service sectors gave rise to new voices, as did the development in some countries of non-traditional exports. New entrepreneurs brought in new foreign actors, including many from neighboring countries and the rest of Latin America. Powerful transnational economic groups (known by the Spanish acronym GETs), with strong family ties, began to operate across borders – creating both new opportunities and new challenges. The GETs have already flexed their enormous influence over public policies. As a result, the traditional elites gradually have found themselves forced to function within a matrix of national and regional power, with new dynamics, over which their grip had been broken or at least significantly weakened.

National elites such as El Salvador’s have broken with the old stereotype of selfish economic interests united around an extreme right wing ideology – being more heterogeneous today in composition and perspectives than ever before – but deeper, lasting change is going to take time and effort. An inclusive national dialogue in each country to build agreement on the broad outlines of a political project to address how to effect national transformation and modernization would be the best way of reassuring all sides that their voices count, but unfortunately no country is holding one. Generational change – characterized in part by younger family members’ constant connectivity with peers outside strictly national circles – could also be a factor.

  • The increased activism of the GETs may explain why breaking the grip of the nation-based traditional elites has not led to deeper and broader change – essentially swapping one elite’s manipulation of government for another’s. The GETs have important, and sometimes decisive, influence over public policies not just in their home countries, but beyond. The future of reform therefore would appear to depend on the willingness of regional elites to pursue them. Several initiatives, including one undertaken by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y Cambio Social (INCIDE), of which I am President, aim to promote a constructive dialogue between society and the GETs. Progress hasn’t been easy or quick, but we have proven that change is indeed possible.

March 21, 2019

*Alexander Segovia is a Salvadorean economist and President of the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social.  He was Technical Secretary of the Presidency of El Salvador (2009-2014). This article is adapted from his recent book, Economía y Poder: Recomposición de las Élites Económicas Salvadoreñas.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

El Salvador: End of TPS Will Challenge Government and Society

By Jayesh Rathod and Dennis Stinchcomb

People wade through knee-deep water

Flooding in Jiquilisco, El Salvador / Global Water Partnership / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s end of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the United States next year potentially will drop some 200,000 people into an environment in which basic needs, including personal security, cannot be met.  TPS for Salvadorans was first granted in 2001 after earthquakes caused “environmental disaster and substantial disruption of living conditions,” but subsequent 18-month extensions have been based on a broad range of factors.  On 11 occasions over the past 16 years, Washington has cited the lack of infrastructure, food, housing, and health care and slow economic growth as reasons for continuing TPS for Salvadorans.  Violence, corruption, and impunity as well as limited state capacity to combat them were also key reasons.  Statements by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcing the policy change this week make limited mention of these factors, but numerous experts, including those contributing to a recent joint report by CLALS, The Washington College of Law, and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), concluded that El Salvador remains unable to adequately handle the return of its nationals.

  • Despite a decline in its national homicide rate, El Salvador remains the most violent country in the hemisphere. While the government espouses a narrative of progress, other indicators make clear that improvement on the security front has been limited, if not altogether absent.  Extraordinary security measures have coincided with increased allegations of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by both security officers and civilian self-defense groups.  Citizens’ pursuit of safety has made El Salvador the second-ranking country in the world of new displacements relative to population size.  Widespread corruption and weak rule of law contribute to impunity and abuse.
  • El Salvador remains extremely vulnerable to natural disasters – experiencing three major earthquakes since July 2016 and deadly torrential rains throughout 2017. El Salvador consistently remains Central America’s slowest growing economy, and under-employment affects more than one quarter of the labor force.  (That percentage will increase to roughly a third if TPS beneficiaries return to their homeland.)  The country has the highest deficit in adequate drinking water in the region.  Six out of 10 families who live there lack adequate housing.

The Salvadoran government is trying to put the best possible face on decision to terminate TPS, which it had previously lobbied against forcefully.  On January 8, the Foreign Ministry expressed “thanks to the government of the United States” for “postponing” the end of TPS for 18 months because it acknowledged the contribution of Salvadorans to the U.S. economy, culture, and society.  The government also thanked various non-governmental actors for supporting the “renewal” of TPS.  In closing, however, the government reiterated its commitment to push “alternatives” in the U.S. Congress that would promote Salvadorans’ “migratory stability” in the United States.

  • Think tanks and humanitarian organizations in Washington have condemned the Trump measure. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said ending TPS is a “senseless and inhumane policy.”  The Inter-American Dialogue notes that the Salvadoran MS-13 gang – one of President Trump’s most-stated enemies – will be a “primary beneficiary.”  Some fear that returnees, because of their perceived wealth, will be targets for extortion and other criminal activity at the hands of gangs.  A number of observers say that the resulting increase in instability in El Salvador will trigger more illegal migration into the United States.

Ending TPS for Salvadorans casts a shadow of uncertainty over the lives of 200,000 law-abiding, tax-paying migrants – half of whom have lived in the United States for more than 20 years and a third of whom have homes with mortgages, according to estimates.  That same uncertainty extends to TPS beneficiaries’ families, which include 192,000 U.S. citizen children. The Salvadoran government’s statement dodges the key issues of whether it can accommodate the influx of returnees and the loss of a significant portion of the roughly $4.5 billion (equivalent to 17 percent of El Salvador’s GDP) they send home each year.  There is no evidence that it can provide even basic protection for the returnees.  The Foreign Ministry’s unctuous thanks for Washington’s “extension” of TPS until the Salvadorans lose their status in 18 months suggests a mysterious confidence that the U.S. Congress will carve out exceptions for its compatriots in the United States.  However desirable that scenario might be, there’s precious little evidence that the U.S. legislature’s current leaders, who have shown support for most of Trump’s anti-migrant agenda, will help avoid the train wreck that Trump has now set in motion.

Click here for an in-depth review published by CLALS, The Washington College of Law, and ICEFI on the rationale behind TPS since 2001 and continuing need for protection.

January 10, 2018

Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

asylum-blog-graph

Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.