In the western highlands of Guatemala, farmers helped by U.S. aid are growing snow peas in soil changed by volcanic ash and learning to use software to help bring their crop to market.
The young Mercy Corps program is possible because of the money the United States has been sending into the Northern Triangle, said Dafna Rand, the corps’ vice president of policy and research.
It’s also some of the sort of aid that could be on the chopping block as the Trump administration tries another way to control immigration at the border.
On Saturday, the administration said it plans to cut off what has been around $700 million a year in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Experts said the administration is essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater if it ends financial assistance to the Northern Triangle, as the three countries are known.
The money was part of a $2.6 billion package Congress created after the 2014 surge in children from the three countries arriving at the U.S. border. The money helps pay for programs to curb violence, promote economic development and improve security.
“We are very disappointed in this decision and believe it is counterproductive to our mutual goals with the administration to address the root causes of the migration,” Rand said.
Rand said it’s too early to tell how successful the snow pea planting program could be in stemming the exodus of people from Central America. But she said there was a 30 percent drop in the number of farmers who said they were considering emigrating when they were surveyed after two years of the program.
Much of the aid goes directly to nongovernmental organizations, such as Mercy Corps, and local nonprofits to run programs aimed at curbing violence, job training, keeping young people out of gangs, reducing poverty and many other development areas.
Some money is used for training police officers in security but also basics, such as collecting evidence.
"When they cut off this money, I'm concerned that it is going to have the reverse effect, leading to deterioration of the country, stopping great programs and leaving people with fewer options except to come to the U.S.," said Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
"By cutting $700 million, you are not punishing the governments, you are punishing the people who are beneficiaries of these programs, a large chunk of whom don't want to come to the U.S.," he said.
Fernando Cutz, former acting senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council under the Trump administration, said he and other advisers had told President Donald Trump early on that “it would be counterproductive to cut all aid to Central America, and will not in any way better the situation of migrants who are fleeing their countries because of violence, because of corruption.”
Cutz said even though some people argue that direct aid to the governments should be cut because of corruption or because they are not trustworthy, in this case, the majority of money is given to the nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that are helping fight corruption in the country or collaborating with the U.S. on security, countering drugs, violence and gangs.
“To cut all programs .... there is no real policy objective that’s going to be met through that. All our policy objectives would likely be harmed by that.”
Daniella Burgi-Palomino, a senior associate with the Latin America Working Group, said her group has called for withdrawal of funds from security forces that are abusing human rights and urging the U.S. federal government to be more transparent about where it is sending the aid money.
But she said her group still is urging Congress “to make its power of the purse heard” and continue the funding to the nonprofits and NGOs.
The $2 billion that Congress appropriated for the Northern Triangle beginning in 2016 was to be distributed at about $700 million a year, although groups say the latest distributions have been less.
The U.S. assistance was part of the Alliance for Prosperity, a regional plan created by the governments of Northern Triangle countries after tens of thousands of families and children traveling alone arrived on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The three countries put $8.6 billion of their money into the plan’s objectives of tackling the region’s insecurity and poverty that have been driving people to leave.
But the effort is running into the current U.S. administration that campaigned on building a wall at the border and stopping illegal immigration. In addition, Trump is up for reelection next year and the number of people being taken into custody at the border is increasing.
Some people who once entered legally at ports of entry and requested asylum have been crossing illegally since the administration started limiting asylum-seekers' entry at the ports, adding to the number of people that U.S. Border Patrol agents have to handle and sending daily apprehension numbers to levels last seen in 2006. Most of the migrants are coming from Central America.
Funding, aid help to 'push out the border'
Marco Lopez, president of the international advisory group Intermestic Partners, said that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation’s strategy has been to “push out our border” and inspect people before they get to our physical land barrier.
“The more we can do in countries farther from us to deter people from coming or to inspect people before they get to our physical land barrier, the better off we are … This is exactly the opposite of what this will do and what I don’t think the president understands.”
Many experts point to the example of the U.S. assistance to Colombia that saw large outmigration in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s when the country was wracked by drug cartel violence, guerrilla warfare and economic instability.
The U.S. has spent billions helping Colombia, largely focusing on its drug eradication but also targeting the country’s judiciary and economy.
U.S. aid alone did not bring stability and peace to Colombia. But Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said lessons could be learned from Plan Colombia even though it did not resolve the drug problem.
“The main impact was enabling the Colombian state to assert itself and gain control over its territory and stabilize an extremely violent situation,” Shifter said.
Another important lesson is that it took time and heavy resources on the ground.
“In Plan Colombia, there was tremendous engagement in the level of training, cooperation, advisory and a wide range of support. That has not been sufficient in Central America.”
Furthermore, Colombia had a stronger state and stronger institutional development than the Northern Triangle countries, so the challenge is even greater in some ways, according to Shifter.
“And the experience with U.S. policy on Latin America is that threats usually don’t work very well. I’m doubtful that it will work in this case either.”