Presidents in Central America have blamed US drug policy for fueling the ongoing child migrant crisis, but the violence, unemployment and underdevelopment fueling this flight has more to do with the way the elites run these countries than US actions.
Children have fled in massive numbers. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says close to 63,000 unaccompanied minors have been picked up at the US-Mexico border during FY2014, a 100 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.
What is pushing this migration is a complex set of circumstances that includes gang violence at home, but in public statements made prior to meeting with US President Barack Obama in late July to discuss this issue, both Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina pointed towards US counterdrug policy and US drug consumption as the driving forces.
“A good part of (migration) has to do with the lack of opportunities in Central America, which has its origin in the climate of violence, and this violence, almost 85 percent of it, is related to the issue of drug trafficking,” Hernandez said, according to Reuters.
Things had gotten worse in Honduras, Hernandez added, because anti-drug operations in the US, Colombia and Mexico had pushed more trafficking to his small country.
Perez Molina was more direct: “Once again countries of Central America became transit corridors or warehouses for the drugs reaching the United States,” he said, according to ABC News.
The US does share some of the blame for this crisis. In particular, the country failed to create or share adequate databases of the massive number of ex-convicts it deported beginning in the late 1990s, which helped feed the growth of the gangs who are at the heart of the violence pushing Central American children north. And the US could certainly do more to address the current situation, although requests by Honduras for a “mini Marshall Plan” for Central America presume a level of professionalism on the part of public officials in the region that simply does not exist.
What’s more, Guatemala and Honduras would have been ideal places for these street gangs to take root even if US deportation policies had not been a contributing factor. And they provided excellent conditions for drug trafficking organizations to flourish regardless of the strategies implemented in Colombia, Mexico and the United States.
To begin with, Guatemala and Honduras are some of the most corrupt countries on the planet. Guatemala ranks 123 on the latest Transparency International corruption index, just ahead of countries such as Azerbaijan and Gambia; Honduras ranks 140, behind countries such as Bangladesh and Guyana.
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Corruption permeates these societies. In one of the few cases to actually reach a formal investigation stage in Honduras, the government is accusing Mario Zelaya, the former head of the country’s social security institute, of embezzling over 200 million dollars from the body. Zelaya is on the run in Honduras, where authorities seem unable to capture him.
Poor financing of key institutions is an important factor in this corruption. According to the World Bank, Guatemala collects just 10.8 percent of its GDP in taxes and Honduras just 14.7 percent of its GDP in taxes, putting the two among the lowest tax paying countries in the world (see chart below developed using World Bank statistics).
One of the many sectors that is hardest hit by this lack of tax collection is the police. In both Guatemala and Honduras, the perennial question with regards to security in the communities wracked by gang violence is how to recruit, train, equip and pay police better.
In Honduras, police very often do not have paper on which to print their reports — they often borrow it from the also impoverished Attorney General’s Office — and they sometimes have to ask victims of crimes to pay for their gasoline to investigate a case. In Guatemala, poorly paid police routinely form part of groups that steal and resell illegal drugs. In both countries, police officials collect “ghost” salaries in order to augment their earnings.
Meanwhile, both governments take extreme measures to open avenues for “investment” that often foments the criminal environment. Under a so-called “Law to Incentivize Tourism” following Hurricane Mitch in 1998, for instance, fast food restaurants do not have to pay taxes in the first 10 years they operate in Honduras.
The result has been a massive influx of US fast food chains, which are simultaneously making the country more obese (one local pediatrician called it a “pandemic”), putting local restaurants out of business and augmenting unemployment.
Over the years such policies have made these countries hugely dependent on foreign aid and foreign-earned income — mostly remittances, but also drug trafficking profits. A few years ago in Coban, Guatemala, cardamom farmers complained because they were receiving so many payments in dollars, they had to make an extra trip into town to exchange them. The cardamom market is one of various used to launder drug proceeds.
The criminal environment is also compounded by the elites’ penchant for using — and their ability to use — the justice system only when it works in their interests. For years, hydroelectric and mining interests in Guatemala have been pushing to legalize ever-larger land holdings to secure their investments. When the indigenous groups most impacted by these economic projects push back, the indigenous are extracted by security forces, and their cases languish and get thrown out of the courts. The latest clashes in the Alta Verapaz province over the construction of a hydroelectric service left three protestors dead; in response the community took eight police captive (they have since been released).
Any government official who supports indigenous land rights or goes against this elite in virtually any fashion can expect to have their public service career cut short.
Witness the recent ousting of Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s celebrated former Attorney General, who lowered impunity rates, imprisoned some of the most feared drug traffickers in the country, and created a more effective justice system for battered women. But after trying and convicting a former general for genocide (whose conviction was overturned a week later) and daring to legally defend indigenous groups resisting large economic projects, Paz y Paz was prematurely pushed out of office.
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All told, it is disingenuous for the presidents of Honduras and Guatemala to point the finger at the United States. Children are fleeing these countries largely due to extreme violence and a lack of opportunity. While US policy may have played a role, both of those factors are in large part the result of decades of political and economic policies that have systematically impoverished the two nations, while enriching a small elite.