President Barack Obama meets with three Central America presidents Friday on how to stem the child exodus to the U.S. border. But experts say organized crime and drugs, closed borders separating families, poor economies and U.S. strategy in the region are all factors that need to be addressed.
Without discussing this broad range of factors, little will be resolved long-term by the leaders’ meeting, experts said.
The U.S. is largely focused on getting Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala's leaders to agree to take back as many children as possible, cooperate in reintegrating them and outline what they are doing to stem the exodus of children and families, said Eric Olson, associate director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.
The Central America presidents will be most interested in continued U.S. financial help in paying for security and bolstering their economies, either through direct aid or through favorable trade and commodities treatment and investment, Olson said.
“They will come forward and say that both sides have responsibility to do the best for the children, to be humane,” Olson said. “The administration is trying to walk a fine line of not encouraging more migration and at the same time recognizing there are a certain percent of children that have a legitimate claim of protection who they don’t want to send back to certain death.”
Since 2008, the U.S. has spent $803 million for all of Central America, and the three countries whose leaders are meeting with Obama take the lions' share of that aid.
The administration included in its $3.7 billion requests for programs targeting larger issues, but more is needed, Olson said.
“We need a better strategy, a more focused strategy that will produce results, strengthen the state, do a better job of preventing crime and do a better job of employing people,” he said.
Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary for political affairs at the Organization of American States, warned in 2010 that the region seemed to be "unraveling politically or at least having some very serious political problems.”
While acknowledging that circumstances in each country vary widely, Casas-Zamora said then that the region has come far considering narcotrafficking and three civil wars were raging two decades earlier.
Still, the countries struggle with high levels of poverty and income extremes. By 2006, 47 percent of the population was living below the poverty line and a fifth of the population lived in “extreme deprivation, meaning they did even have enough to feed themselves,” Casas Zamora said.
Migration has to be part of the discussion, said one expert, since tougher U.S. enforcement has cut off travel, splitting families, and the deportation of immigrants with criminal records has contributed to crime and gang culture in Latin America.
Allert Brown-Gort, former director of Latino Studies at University of Notre Dame and an expert on immigration, said migration has to be part of the discussion because tougher enforcement in the U.S. has cut off travel between the countries, splitting families, even those with relatives legally in the U.S. In addition, the deportation of immigrants with criminal records has led to those who once belonged to U.S. gangs to return to some of the countries and bring the gang culture to Central America.
“These types of decisions have unintended consequences and a lot of what we are seeing is the chickens coming home to roost,” Brown-Gort said.
Brown-Gort said the recent border crisis provides a chance to examine how much the U.S. has vacated responsibility in the region, which he said has been going on since at least part of the Clinton administration.
“One of the things we see is that increasingly these are countries that have become much more difficult to govern where basic justice is hard to come by,” Brown-Gort said. “In this case ungovernability is leading to crime. The president has to consider what it can do to help the Latin American countries start governing again.”
Hugo Martinez, foreign minister to El Salvador, said in a forum sponsored Thursday by the Wilson Center policy think tank that smuggling networks that have been profiting from the exodus are a transnational problem that will have to be tackled jointly.
Smuggling networks, said one expert, are transnational problems that have to be tackled by the U.S. and Central American countries.
“If we don’t come together in an all-out war against this organized crime … there’s no other solution,” Martinez said.
In addition, the countries are looking for the U.S. to take responsibility for the drug trafficking and the cartels' infiltration into their countries because of the demand for illegal drugs in this country.
Mireya Agüero de Corrales, the Honduras foreign minister who also participated in the Wilson Center event, said the country spends 20 percent of its Gross National Product on security and fighting the violence. The country's homicide rate was 90 per 100,000 in 2012 and ranked worst in the world.
"What have we gotten out of this strengthening and hardening of the border issues here in the states?" Agüero de Corrales said. "If the [United]States had decided to give 10 percent of what it has given, instead of hardening the migration measures, it would have supported employment programs or maquilas (factories) or companies in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the history today would be different."