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.

Tim Kaine: Boon for Latin America Policy?

By Tom Long*

Tim Kaine

Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul.  Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.

  • Kaine spent nine months in El Progreso, Honduras, as a young man working at a high school founded by Jesuit missionaries; he learned Spanish there and frequently mentions the period as formative. His approach to the region and immigration seems anchored in a focus on human dignity and belies an understanding of the difficult circumstances many there face.  El Progreso is close to San Pedro Sula, which has been a center of the country’s staggering violence and emigration.  In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine wrote that when unaccompanied minors arrived to the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers, “I felt as if I knew them.”
  • As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has developed a rare policy focus on Honduras. He has pressed the U.S. and Honduran governments on issues of human rights in the wake of the 2009 coup.  In 2013, Kaine urged Secretary of State John Kerry for stronger U.S. support for elections.  Just two weeks ago, he called on Honduran President Hernández for greater effort on justice in the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • Kaine has placed immigration policy at the confluence of foreign and domestic policy. He has pressed President Obama to halt “deportation raids targeting families and unaccompanied minors who have fled the rampant violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.”
  • Kaine’s political rhetoric often reflects his Jesuit background, and his Catholicism-inspired references to social justice – and his warm welcome for Pope Francis – are likely to earn him an empathetic ear among many throughout Latin America.

Vice-presidential leadership for the Americas offers an important opportunity – and one that Tim Kaine, if elected, is likely to use wisely.  He has complained that Washington usually pays attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis, and has argued the region should get similar priority as China, Russia, or the Middle East.  He would build on efforts initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has chaired a “High Level Economic Dialogue” with Mexico and pushed for the $750 million “Alliance for Prosperity” in Central America.  Kaine would be an asset in relationships that often fuse international and domestic policy, slicing across the domains of myriad departments and agencies.  While Kaine’s personal interest and positive relationships don’t guarantee policy successes on migration, drug policy, citizen security, and development assistance as vice president, his language skills and reputation for treating colleagues with respect all but guarantee a warm reception from leaders of countries long aggrieved by U.S. highhandedness. 

August 2, 2016

*Tom Long is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading (UK) and an Affiliated Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

El Salvador: Dual Crackdowns Raise Questions

By Fulton Armstrong

El Salvador Seguro

Photo Credits: Presidencia El Salvador and Departamento de Seguridad Pública OEA (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén’s months-long crackdown on gangs has broadened into a crackdown on proponents of negotiations with them.  Upon orders of Attorney General Meléndez, 18 former officials involved in the past truce (covering two periods in 2012-2014) have been arrested, among them a principal mediator, former FMLN Congressman Raúl Mijango.  Three others, including the former head of prisons, are on the run.  Meléndez claims that the recent passage of legislation outlawing negotiations with gangs was not a factor, and that the detainees are not being held for their role negotiating the previous truce, but rather for violations of laws in place during the truce.  They are accused of “dereliction of duty,” “illicit association,” smuggling mobile phones into prisons, and possible misuse of US$2 million for truce implementation.  Meléndez said the government-gang pact “was not illegal” and he noted that it did help reduce reported murders, but he has asserted that it gave rise to disappearances and other violence, and allowed the gangs to re-arm and consolidate their control in some sectors.

The campaign against pro-dialogue voices has left several prominent players untouched.  The government has distanced itself from the activities of current Interior Minister Arístides Valencia, whose taped conversations with gangs have been revealed by the media, but he has been neither fired nor arrested.  Former Security Minister (and current Defense Minister) David Munguía is widely seen as the principal architect of the previous truce (securing essential cover from the Church for it), but he too remains in place.  Munguía’s name is prominent in Meléndez’s report, according to press accounts, but the Attorney General said that he lacks evidence of his involvement in wrongdoing.  Paolo Luers of El Diario de Hoy (himself a secret negotiator in 2012) and others are severely criticizing the lack of charges against Munguía while others, whom they call “political prisoners,” are detained.

  • Meanwhile, the government is deploying elite joint Army-Police units to hunt down alleged gang members in the countryside, amid growing unconfirmed reports of human rights violations.  The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman has identified 13 cases of extrajudicial killings in two operations last year.

The recent arrests have caused debate to flare over the costs and benefits of the past truce and any future agreements with the gangs – as well as the efficacy of the mano dura approach. The crackdown on advocates of negotiations and the simultaneous emerging signs of death squad operations could threaten the credibility of the Sánchez Cerén government’s El Salvador Seguro strategy, which entails an array of efforts requiring political agreement on how to address the violence crisis.  Amidst mounting concern about the implications of the police and army crackdown on gangs, Washington has kept a low profile on these developments.  If current trends continue, however, the dual crackdowns could potentially raise doubts about the Administration’s ability to meet the human rights and other conditions that the U.S. Congress has put on the Alliance for Prosperity under which El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have agreed to form and execute a common strategy against violence and other problems in Central America’s northern triangle.

May 16, 2016

For previous AULABLOG items on the impact of the Salvadoran truce, click here (January 2013), here (November 2014), and here (April 2015).

*This version of the blog was updated May 16, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

Honduras: President Hernández’s Mission

By Fulton Armstrong

Hernandez honduras 2

Photo credit: Public domain

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who last month passed the half-way point in his four-year term, has scored some important political gains, with uncertain implications for his country.

  • The Obama Administration has embraced him as a partner in the “Alliance for Prosperity,” to which it has committed $750 million year to “build a safer and more prosperous future for [Northern Triangle] citizens.” It represents a doubling of U.S. assistance.
  • In a decision Hernández said he “would respect,” last April the Honduran Constitutional Court – key members of which the Congress elected under circumstances of questionable legality when he was Congress President – allowed him and other former presidents to run for reelection. The Chairman of the Congressional budget committee last week said there “should be no doubt” that the party is committed to Hernández serving a second term.
  • He successfully parried efforts to create a copy in Honduras of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the UN-sponsored body with extensive powers in that country. The final terms of reference of the OAS-sponsored “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) aren’t as loose as he had proposed, but many of its key definitions, personnel, and funding remain highly uncertain.  OAS Secretary General Almagro’s public blessing of it was a public relations coup.
  • The Honduran Congress’s approval last week of a new 15-member Supreme Court took numerous rounds of voting – presidents traditionally get the slate approved in one vote – but his party did well enough. Allegations of bribery arose immediately.  Praising the new court, he said last Friday that he would soon launch a national dialogue on additional Constitutional reforms and on “revising the social contract of Honduras” and building “a new Honduras.”

Hernández is not without critics in Tegucigalpa and Washington – even if their attacks have not thwarted him.  Opponents claim that his desire to overturn Constitutional prohibitions on a second term was more blatant than that of former President Mel Zelaya, whose removal by the military in 2009 Hernández supported claiming that Zelaya violated the prohibition.   Hernández has admitted that his party received funds embezzled from the national Social Security agency.  The Indignados, a grassroots opposition, doesn’t have the lobbying resources that the government has, but they have mobilized massive peaceful demonstrations, and veteran Honduras watchers praise their idealism, discipline, and maturity beyond their youthfulness.

Hondurans and foreign governments often favor leaders whose appearance of power promises stability, rather than favor processes and values – such as transparency and inclusiveness – that promise more effective democratic institutions.  Hernández was elected with barely 35 percent of the vote, but his growing power, coinciding with the weakening of legislative and judicial institutions, has concentrated power on the executive.  The country arguably faces one of the most complex situations in its history, on the cusp of either difficult change, such as reducing shocking levels of impunity, or a deepening of the current crisis.  The economic and political elites who control the nation have driven it into a rut from which “more of the same” does not appear a viable way out.  Hernández won praise from the international financial community by pushing through fiscal adjustments, yet these measures increased inequality in a country where half the population lives on less than $4 a day.  Preliminary data show that austerity has brought about an increase in unemployment and underemployment, which already affected roughly half of the labor force.  A U.S. and Mexican crackdown on Central American migration has reduced one of the only options that young Hondurans fleeing poverty, violence, and impunity thought they had.  While many Hondurans may wind up accepting a President’s reelection to a non-consecutive term, Hernández’s big push for a consecutive one and his talk of a “new social contract” understandably fuels skepticism if not angst.

February 16, 2016

Honduras: No Solution in Sight

Photo Credit: OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

CLALS and the Inter-American Dialogue this week hosted a conversation on the crisis in Honduras with experts Hugo Noé Pino, of the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales, and Carlos Ponce, of Freedom House, and about a dozen of some 80 participants spoke up.  The following are key analytical points that were broadly accepted during the 90-minute session.

Honduras is experiencing a multi-faceted crisis – economic, political, judicial, and security– that has grown steadily worse since the 2009 coup and shows no sign of abating.

  • Economic growth (1.5 percent per capita) is too low to alleviate the country’s severe employment problem (affecting half of the working-age population) and poverty (62 percent). Recent polls indicate that some 63 percent of all Hondurans would leave the country if they could.

Violence, corruption scandals, and the steady weakening of institutions dim prospects for a turnaround.

  • The over-concentration of power in the Executive, the remilitarization of law-enforcement and other security services, and the politicization of the judiciary have undermined what democratic foundation Honduras had built since the last military government stepped down in 1980. The economic and political elites, as well as the media they control, have further stifled political discourse.
  • The Sala Constitucional of the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Tribunal have been stacked to tightly control preparations for elections scheduled for November 2017, apparently with the intention of ensuring the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The Honduran political class lacks the will to root out corruption, and is united in resisting developing the capacity and programs to do so.

  • The embezzlement of more than $300 million from the Social Security Institute – funneling part of these funds to the ruling National Party and a variety of fronts – led to the flight of the investigating fiscal (who left the country because of death threats to himself and his family) but little else. Indeed, the most significant law-enforcement actions, such as the indictment of members of the Rosenthal family on money-laundering charges, have come from the United States. Some 80 percent of crimes in Honduras go uninvestigated and unpunished; some reports put the figure as high as 96-98 percent.
  • A Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Honduras (CICIH), adapted from the successful CICIG model in Guatemala, would be a healthy way of addressing ongoing impunity while building investigative and prosecutorial institutions. The economic and political elites solidly oppose it.  Even if Honduras accepted a CICIH, alone it probably would not be a silver bullet.
  • The OAS’s planned “Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) – announced in late September jointly with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez – shows little promise of success. Its mandate will be to diagnose problems and write reports, not take action or facilitate a serious, inclusive national dialogue.

Opposition to the current Honduran government is strong and growing, but it has not yet institutionalized.

  • Peaceful marches organized by the Indignados and other organizations have mobilized tens of thousands of citizens outraged by government corruption and its inability to provide even basic citizen security. Among the masses have been an unprecedented number of middle-class and upper-middle-class persons – not seen during previous crises.
  • Opposition groups are still struggling, however, to coalesce into a viable, institutionalized political force. Sustaining effective leadership and overcoming pressure from the government and Honduras’s two traditional parties are difficult challenges for them.

There are no magic or quick solutions to the crisis.

  • Any solution would have many moving parts, including recognition by elites that their own assets are threatened by the deepening chaos. The government will have to be held accountable for corruption.  The judiciary will have to be strengthened and made independent.  The military will have to return to the barracks.  The media will have to be professionalized.  Civil society will have to be empowered.
  • The U.S.-sponsored “Alliance for Prosperity” is unlikely to help Honduras – and could make things worse if it doesn’t challenge the status quo. Honduran observers believe that the $250-plus million dollars from the program should focus on deep change – the product of a broad national dialogue – and should be conditioned on deep reforms, rather than working with just the sitting government, which has shown no willingness to reform.
  • U.S. cooperation in counternarcotics and other security operations might in some cases expose partnered services to U.S. respect for human rights and democratic institutions, but the resources transferred in the process also serve to strengthen them and make them more independent of civilian authority.

October 15, 2015

* Correction: The first sentence of the article originally stated “CLALS and the Inter-American Dialogue this week hosted a conversation on the crisis in Honduras with experts Hugo Noé Pino, of the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales, and Carlos Ponce, of Freedom House, and a dozen speakers from among over 80 participants.” It was edited to clarify that “about a dozen of some 80 participants spoke up.”

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

Central American Minors: Headed Home?

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

Two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Last year, two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center during the height of its operation. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Legislative safeguards have protected from deportation most of the 68,000 unaccompanied children (UACs), almost all of them from the Northern Triangle of Central America, who were apprehended at the southern border of the U.S. last year – but the challenges are far from over.  This temporary reprieve comes despite warnings by the Obama administration at the height of the crisis – and U.S. embassy-supported education campaigns in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since then – that youth considering flight to the U.S. will be returned home.  Provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 have aided these Central America kids to legally remain in the U.S. by making them ineligible for expedited removal or voluntary departure until their cases are decided by an immigration court judge.  Attempts by the Department of Justice to fast track initial hearings have yet to result in expedited case closures, as judges typically issue continuances to children securing legal counsel and soliciting forms of deportation relief.  While it is still too early to predict case outcomes, several trends are evident:

  • Available data suggest that large numbers of UACs are benefiting from relief codified in U.S. immigration law, including asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and non-immigrant visas for victims of trafficking and other qualifying crimes. According to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, approval rates for asylum applications submitted by minors have hovered around 80-90 percent for the past year.  (The bulk of applications of the most recent wave of arrivals have not yet been decided.)
  • More than 7,000 child migrants have been ordered deported between October 2013 and January 2015 for failing to appear in court, but their attorneys and advocacy groups have blamed an overburdened and resource-starved court system, pointing to documented instances in which clients were never notified of their hearing date or notices arrived late or were sent to the wrong address. In other cases children have been ordered to appear in court hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they have been placed in sponsor care.  With sufficient evidence, children who have received deportation orders in absentia may file motions to reopen their cases.
  • Access to legal representation continues to impact case outcomes. In fiscal years 2012-14, 73 percent of UACs with attorneys were permitted to remain in the country, compared to just 15 percent of children without representation.  According to federal data obtained by Syracuse University, as of October 31, 2014, less than one-third of UACs in pending cases had secured an attorney.

While the fate of these Central American kids hangs in the balance, so too do the legal protections that guarantee their day in court and their access to deportation relief.  An emboldened Republican-controlled Congress has resuscitated efforts to amend the TVPRA provisions protecting these children from expeditious return to their home countries.  Similar bills still under debate by the House Judiciary Committee propose tighter restrictions on the most commonly solicited forms of relief – asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.  Asylum seekers, for example, would face shorter filling deadlines and be required to wait for hearings in a “safe” third country.  A proposed revision to the hotly contested SIJS statute allowing abused, neglected, or abandoned children to reunite with a second parent in the U.S. would have serious repercussions for Central American UACs, many of whom are in the care of parent sponsors.  Meanwhile, a steady flow of new arrivals – 12,500 UACs and 11,000 family units since last October – are added to backlogged court dockets and increase the likelihood of a due process crisis.  Observers in the region and in Washington are acknowledging gingerly the possibility of a new wave of youth migration during the coming months, as conditions fueling the exodus from Central America remain acute.  The politics of such a renewed surge are complex, and may shape both the immigration policy debate in the U.S. and the prospects for Congressional approval of the administration’s request for $1 billion in development assistance for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.

March 26, 2015