US funding to Central America will decrease in 2017, but where will the cuts be made?

US aid funding for Central America will be reduced in 2017. And while news reports have largely focused on the difference in the overall amount to be allocated, there's a lot more to the story regarding where exactly those cuts will be made and how they will affect the region.

Over the last week, reports from Prensa Libre in Guatemala and La Prensa in Honduras have surfaced claiming that the US will be assigning $95 million less in aid to Central America in 2017 than in 2016. While this is true, a close examination of US federal budget documents reveals that the cuts are more complex than they have been portrayed. 

Specifically, InSight Crime looked at the money designated to the Northern Triangle region in Central America -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- for so-called "hard-side" measures, such as military aid, and "soft-side" measures, such as development assistance. 

In fiscal year 2016, the US Congress allocated $750 million for Central America in its annual budget. Congress allocated $270 million to the Northern Triangle region for "soft-side" development assistance, $2.5 million for military education and training, and $8.14 million for military financing programs. 

The money allocated for these programs in the Northern Triangle in 2017 was more or less the same.

For fiscal year 2017, Congress has again allocated $270 million to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala for development assistance. Military education and training decreased slightly to $2.4 million, while foreign military financing remained stable at $8.14 million. 

However, there were certain programs that did see cuts in funding. 

Military education and training programs for the Northern Triangle and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) were two program areas that received slight cuts in funding between 2016 and 2017. Military education and training programs lost about $125,000, and the CARSI program was alloted $329.2 million in 2017, roughly $19 million less than the $348.5 million appropriated in 2016.

While in 2016 the money allocated to the CARSI program was provided under the Economic Support Fund (ESF) and the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) programs, for 2017, all of the money allocated to CARSI came from the ESF.

ESF monies can be used for both hard- and soft-side assistance. In 2016, $183.5 million was allocated to this fund, of which $126.5 million was allocated for CARSI. However, for 2017, ESF was cut by about $80 million; just $104.2 million was appropriated for the fund, all of which was allocated to CARSI. 

In other words, for the region as a whole, the majority of cuts were made to soft-side measures like development and economic assistance, while hard-side security programs received similar levels of funding. In total, $655 million was appropriated for the Northern Triangle in 2017, $95 million less than the $750 million appropriated last year.

It is important to remember that these appropriations are a barometer for the level of support that these programs receive from Congress, but they don't necessarily have a direct relationship with how much money is actually spent. Appropriations act as a ceiling. Agencies can spend less than the appropriated amount, but not more. 

For example, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, between 2008 and 2011 in El Salvador, $28.8 million was appropriated for CARSI, but just under $6 million was actually disbursed. During that same time in Honduras, $23.2 million was appropriated and just under $4 million was disbursed. In Guatemala, $55 million was appropriated over those four years and just $9.4 million was disbursed.

InSight Crime Analysis 

Reporting on the US federal budget is challenging for various reasons. But correctly presenting and interpreting the often-confusing flurry of figures is vital for getting an accurate picture of US foreign policy. The US federal budget is arguably one of the most important policy documents when it comes to foreign assistance. Therefore, it provides an important perspective on how the United States plans to approach various national and international security issues.

In recent years, the momentum of US foreign policy in Central America has been trending towards a focus on more soft-side measures centered on development assistance and economic aid. However, this has the potential to change under current US President Donald Trump. 

While so far there have been mixed signals about what the Trump administration's policies will be towards Central America, the administration has announced plans for massive cuts to soft-side foreign aid in the region. And the 2017 cuts in funding to Central America provide some evidence that Congress is willing to back such a shift. 

Experts on US defense and international affairs budgets consulted by InSight Crime explained that while there were significant cuts to funding for Central America in 2017, the total amount allocated to the region is still higher than the $560 million that was allocated in 2015 and the amounts allocated in years prior. Still, the cuts for 2017 are undoubtedly significant.

In particular, these experts highlighted the fact that most of the 2017 cuts were made to soft-side assistance, rather than hard-side. This is not surprising given the fact that the US Congress is currently controlled by the Republican party, which tends to favor hard-side security aid. It also fits with Trump's "America First" rhetoric, which argues that the United States generally should not attempt to help other nations overcome development challenges.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

In another example of this dynamic, Reuters reported last week that the Trump administration is pressuring Mexico to do more to help "stem the flow of migrants fleeing violence and poverty" in Central America, shifting the burden from the United States onto its neighbor to the south. Still, it is unclear what more Mexico can do. Local officials told Reuters that "cash-strapped Mexico lacks the money to invest significantly in the region."

Under pressure from the administration of Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, Mexico stepped up deportations of undocumented Central Americans in 2015, before they could get to the northern border with the United States. It is possible that Mexico will continue or expand this enforcement-centric approach going forward, but it is highly unlikely that the country will be willing or able to fill the gaps left by the multimillion-dollar cuts to US assistance to the Central America.

Many questions remain about the direction that US policy in Central America will take under the Trump administration. However, there may be a degree of continuity with the policies of the Obama administration. Several individuals who served in key positions under Obama have stayed on or joined the new administration. Specifically, current Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly served under Obama as the head of the US Southern Command, which is responsible for military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, and William Brownfield has been the Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) since January 2011.

Investigations

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