In order for President Trump’s new plan to curb Central American immigration to be effective, the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will have to respond to the loss of $450 million in aid by making drastic changes to improve the basic security and employment opportunities of their people. One reason to doubt this will happen is that they are not the primary recipients of our aid. Most of it goes to non-governmental organizations. Those organizations are clearly no match, even with our aid, for the deteriorating conditions that prevail in these countries, and that’s largely due to poor and corrupt governance. However, even if the NGO’s aren’t stemming the decline, they surely aren’t contributing to the problem. Without the work they do, things would be even more dire.
And even if most of the money goes to NGO’s, there will be consequences for these governments’ ability to maintain law and order.
The decision turns American policy in the region on its head. Not only will it cut development and humanitarian assistance, but it will also halt joint law enforcement efforts, such as anti-gang units vetted by the United States, that had been supported by Republicans and the Trump administration until now, said Juan S. Gonzalez, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Indeed, just a day before Mr. Trump made the comments, the United States signed a border security agreement with the three Central American governments intended to increase cooperation against human trafficking and organized crime.
The timing of Trump’s announcement clearly isn’t coordinated. This is one more example of his fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants style. We lock down an agreement on combatting gangs and human trafficking one day, and our president basically severs relations the next.
I’m not going to argue that our country has a good track record of combating organized crime in Latin America, but if our efforts were going to have any impact at all, they would have tended to reduce people’s motivations for pulling up their roots and heading for our southern border. If dialing our law enforcement cooperation back results in more gang activity and violence, then migration levels will tick up.
In theory, I could get behind an effort to focus the attention of the governments in these Central American countries. They are corrupt and ineffective, and making our aid contingent on changes of behavior is a tool in the box that we can always consider using. The problem is that we have one part of our government that is trying to address the problems and another in the White House that is undermining their efforts.
The primary problem is that the societal structures have broken down and no one can provide law and order for the people. This isn’t an easy thing for Americans to solve, especially in light of our extraordinarily checkered history in this region. We’ve often been a source of the problem, and never more so than when we overthrew the Guatemalan government in 1954. Here’s a reminder of how that worked out for the Guatemalans:
Democratic elections during the Guatemalan Revolution in 1944 and 1951 had brought popular leftist governments to power, but a United States-backed coup d’état in 1954 installed the military regime of Carlos Castillo Armas, who was followed by a series of conservative military dictators. In 1970, Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio became the first of a series of military dictators representing the Institutional Democratic Party or PID. The PID dominated Guatemalan politics for twelve years through electoral frauds favoring two of Col. Carlos Arana’s proteges (Gen. Kjell Eugenio Laugerud Garcia in 1974 and Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia in 1978). The PID lost its grip on Guatemalan politics when General Efraín Ríos Montt, together with a group of junior army officers, seized power in a military coup on 23 March 1982. In the 1970s continuing social discontent gave rise to an insurgency among the large populations of indigenous people and peasants, who traditionally bore the brunt of unequal land tenure. During the 1980s, the Guatemalan military assumed almost absolute government power for five years; it had successfully infiltrated and eliminated enemies in every socio-political institution of the nation, including the political, social, and intellectual classes. In the final stage of the civil war, the military developed a parallel, semi-visible, low profile but high-effect, control of Guatemala’s national life.
It is estimated that 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during the conflict. As well as fighting between government forces and rebel groups, the conflict included, much more significantly, a large-scale, coordinated campaign of one-sided violence by the Guatemalan state against the civilian population from the mid-1960s onward. The military intelligence services (G2 or S2) and an affiliated intelligence organization known as La Regional or Archivo – headquartered in an annex of the presidential palace – were responsible for coordinating killings and “disappearances” of opponents of the state and suspected insurgents and those deemed by the intelligence services to be collaborators. The Guatemalan state was the first in Latin America to engage in widespread use of forced disappearances against its opposition with the number of disappeared estimated at between 40,000 and 50,000 from 1966 until the end of the war. In rural areas where the insurgency maintained its strongholds, the repression amounted to wholesale slaughter of the peasantry and massacres of entire villages; first in the departments of Izabal and Zacapa (1966–68) and later in the predominantly Mayan western highlands from 1978 onward. In the early 1980s, the killings are considered to have taken on the scale of genocide. Most human rights abuses were at the hands of the military, police and intelligence services. Victims of the repression included indigenous activists, suspected government opponents, returning refugees, critical academics, students, left-leaning politicians, trade unionists, religious workers, journalists, and street children. The “Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico” has estimated that 93% of human right abuses in the conflict have been committed by government forces and 3% by the guerrillas.
As Americans, we’re partial owners of all of that, and the people of Guatemala know it. So, it’s not a situation where we’re trusted or even in which we have much right to trust ourselves. Yet, if we have a human rights concern for the people of Central America and we also want to reduce the level of people turning up on our border asking for asylum, we have to try to do something.
I’m open-minded about what to try, and I certainly am willing to entertain new ideas that overturn existing efforts that have clearly been inadequate at best and often counterproductive. If threatening their governments or withholding aid would get them to do a better job, I’d be all for it, especially because it’s definitely more of a hands-off approach than we normally employ.
But I have two main problems with Trump’s approach beyond the fact that I know it is motivated by his racism. The first is that it is premised on a faulty idea that the migration can be stemmed by the same governments that are causing it if only they would just try a little harder. Things have deteriorated beyond the point where that’s realistic, and now we’re asking them to do it with less help.
The second is that we’re talking about a big change of approach, and the proper way to try something new and different is to do a lot of preparation. Everyone in our government should be rowing in the same direction. We shouldn’t be working our asses off to build a new plan for combatting organized crime and then be undercut the day after everything is nailed down and in place.
Trump isn’t going to give us a humane or a well-prepared plan in any sphere of foreign policy. That’s clear now. But just because he’s doing this in a haphazard way for all the wrong reasons doesn’t mean that the status quo is acceptable or that the migration problem isn’t something that needs to be addressed. If nothing else, we should want these countries to be livable places where people can thrive rather than the murder capitals of the world from which sensible people are fleeing.
Congress can begin thinking about new approaches and maybe Trump’s unorthodox and idiotic style can ironically provide an opening for a new start. Unless we’re doomed, he’ll be gone by 2021, and this will be a problem for a new administration. There are a lot of people who take the announcement by Trump as an impetus to get cracking on policy proposals that have a prayer of helping.