The Central American Child Refugee Crisis: Made in U.S.A.

At a memorial for indigenous protesters killed by police in Guatemala, Oct. 2013 (Alba Sud Foto)

When the long-simmering child migrant crisis bubbled over onto front pages in early June, Republicans predictably pounced on President Obama. The reason, they claimed, for the enormous surge in the number of child migrants apprehended along the United States’ southwestern border—an increase of 160 percent in less than a year—was the administration’s lax border and immigration enforcement policies. Never mind that Obama has deported more immigrants than any previous U.S. president in history or that, under his administration, border and immigration enforcement spending has reached an all-time high of $17 billion per year (which, rather than curtailing illegal immigration, has only made it more deadly). Republicans and much of the media also blamed a 2008 anti-trafficking law (signed by George W. Bush) mandating full immigration hearings—as opposed to immediate removal—for unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico and Canada. (Though detained migrant children often have no access to legal representation, the law at least provides them with limited due process rights and the opportunity to apply for asylum.)

In response to its Republican critics, the Obama administration has embraced some of their arguments, hinting that it may support changes to the 2008 law and asking Congress to approve an emergency $3.7 billion spending bill aimed at further strengthening border security and immigration enforcement. The proposed bill also calls for a public relations campaign to let would-be illegal immigrants know that they face prompt deportation if apprehended. But there’s little evidence to suggest that migrants aren’t already well aware of the risks they are taking—not just of deportation but also of theft, rape, mutilation, extortion, and murder on the way to the U.S. border. A recent survey of detained migrant children by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees indicates that very few—only 9 out of 404—believed that they would be treated well in the United States or benefit from permissive immigration policies.

A number of Democrats have aggressively rejected Republicans’ claims and emphasized the “push factors” or “root causes” driving child migration. The three countries that are the source of the majority of the unaccompanied child migrants—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—are all poor and have high rates of unemployment. They are also experiencing appalling levels of violence, higher than any other region of the world, outside of war zones. Gangs and drug cartels are responsible for much of this violence, but state security forces have also played a role, according to human rights groups. The confluence of these two factors—economic turmoil and violence—appears to be decisive in driving increasingly desperate citizens of these nations to the United States. Tellingly, the adjacent country of Nicaragua—though the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere—has relatively low levels of violence and few of its inhabitants are leaving the country. On the contrary, large numbers of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans are now also migrating to Nicaragua, as well as Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize.

The administration has meekly acknowledged this reality and promised “to help address the underlying security and economic issues that cause migration”—although this “help” is barely perceptible in Obama’s spending proposal. Only a small number of U.S. politicians have cast a critical eye on their country’s policy toward these three tiny nations—often referred to as the “Northern Triangle”—and dared suggest that it might bear some responsibility for the current crisis. In a July 10 statement, the Progressive Caucus (which includes sixty-seven of the more left-leaning members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders in the Senate), asserted that free trade agreements with the United States have “led to the displacement of workers and subsequent migration.” The statement cited reports by  human rights groups that the U.S. government is “bolstering corrupt police and military forces that are violating human rights and contributing to the growth of violence in the Northern Triangle.”

Indeed, the United States has had a long history of supporting security forces engaged in violent repression in all three Northern Triangle countries. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency campaigns, often targeting civilians, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and sparked the first major migratory wave to the States from El Salvador and Guatemala. In Honduras, too, hundreds of activists were disappeared, but the violence wasn’t as generalized and Hondurans didn’t flee the country in droves.

Briefly suspended after the 2009 coup, U.S. funding for the Honduran military has since reached its highest level since the early 1990s.

Today, the situation in Honduras has changed. The country has by far the highest level of homicides in the world (again, outside of war zones) and has become the largest source of unaccompanied children fleeing to the United States and other countries. Honduras also offers the most striking illustration of what’s wrong with the U.S. government’s current policies toward the region and how they’ve contributed to the child migrant crisis. In the Spring 2014 issue of Dissent, I described how the Obama administration—opposed to Honduran president Manuel Zelaya’s leftward turn—helped whitewash his illegal ouster by the military in 2009 through its support for flawed and illegitimate elections later that year. After having been briefly suspended, U.S. funding for training and assistance to the Honduran military was resumed and reached its highest level since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the widespread military and police repression of the country’s peaceful resistance movement in the months following the coup gave way to frequent targeted killings and attacks against activists of all stripes as well as those seeking to fight or expose state corruption, human rights abuses, and organized crime activity.

Among those killed have been dozens of LGBT advocates, over one hundred land rights activists, more than thirty journalists—most recently, TV reporter Herlyn Espinal on July 21, 2014—human rights lawyers, labor activists, and at least twenty opposition candidates and organizers. Although state security agents are often prime suspects in these incidents as well as in numerous extrajudicial killings of young people who may or may not be involved in gang activity, Honduras’ broken judiciary system fails to investigate or prosecute these and other crimes. Indeed, the extraordinary level of violence in Honduras—with homicides rising 50 percent after the 2009 coup—is only matched by the overwhelming rate of impunity, generally estimated to be above 90 percent. In addition to being rife with corruption and critically under-resourced, the Honduran judiciary’s independence was subverted in December 2012 when the congress, controlled by the ruling National Party, illegally replaced four supreme court judges in the middle of the night.

While U.S. security assistance has continued to pour into Honduras, law enforcement—perhaps more aptly referred to as lawless enforcement—has become increasingly militarized. Since 2011, military troops have been deployed regularly for policing activities and, at the same time, police units have made use of increasingly lethal equipment and military style tactics. In late 2013, a hybrid “military and public order” police force was created and quickly became the government’s banner crime-fighting force. With U.S. support, Honduras’ security apparatus has become more sophisticated and far-reaching. In 2012, for instance, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding that formalized U.S. assistance in developing Honduran authorities’ wiretapping capacity for intercepting telephone and Internet communication nationwide. As a Honduran human rights defender recently put it at a meeting of U.S. advocacy groups in Washington: thanks to U.S. support, Honduran security agents are developing a “more technically advanced ability to advance crime and corruption.”

Even in cases where police and military units aren’t corrupt or infiltrated by organized crime, children and teenagers that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are often suspected of belonging to gangs and killed.

Militarization and brutal mano dura (iron fist) crime-fighting methods have also been making a reappearance in El Salvador and, even more so, in Guatemala, where 40 percent of security posts are reportedly in the hands of active and former military officers. The last half-decade of re-militarization of the Northern Triangle, funded and promoted by the United States in the name of the “War on Drugs,” came with the promise of enhanced citizen security. Instead, in many communities, the fear of repressive security forces—often jokingly referred to as fuerzas de inseguridad (insecurity forces)—is now nearly as great as the fear of gang violence. Even in cases where police and military units aren’t corrupt or infiltrated by organized crime, children and teenagers that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are often suspected of belonging to gangs and are summarily attacked and killed. Child rights advocates who oppose the systematic criminalization of youth end up attacked as well, as was the case with the director of Casa Alianza Honduras, José Guadalupe Ruelas, who was brutally beaten by Honduran military police troops in May of 2014.

Gang violence in the Northern Triangle, cited by the UN High Commission on Refugees and other organizations as a major factor in child migration, is also to some degree a byproduct of U.S. policy. Many of the gangs of El Salvador and Honduras—in particular MS-13 and Calle 18—were first formed in the streets of Los Angeles and included children of Salvadoran war refugees. Since the 1990s, gang members have been deported massively to their countries of origin—though they retain few or no connections there—and have gone on to engage in extortion, drug trafficking, and forced recruitment of teenagers and young children.

Add to this climate of terror rampant joblessness and economic stagnation, and you have a perfect recipe for mass migration. Here, again, Honduras stands out. Since the 2009 coup, it has experienced dramatic increases in poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Some of this is likely attributable to the post-coup violence, but there’s little doubt that the ruling party’s neoliberal policies—including cuts to social services, anti-labor legislation, and privatizations—have also played an important role. The United States has accompanied the International Monetary Fund in promoting these policies even though the U.S. army’s Southern Command, in an internal memo, cited them as a potential cause of unrest. The memo noted that “should key social programs remain under- or unfunded, preexisting socio-economic cleavages between the poor and elite business sectors may be further aggravated and lead to an escalation in protests.”

The Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which entered into force in 2006, was billed as a game changer that would provide a huge boost to the economies of the region. “Together, we will reduce poverty and create opportunity and hope,” declared U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick in 2005. But instead the economies of the Northern Triangle have sagged—averaging only 0.9 percent annual per capita growth since 2006—and poverty has increased. The agreement has led to the displacement of workers, particularly small farmers incapable of competing with the exports of U.S.-subsidized agribusiness, and has in all likelihood been a major push factor for migration. In Honduras, workers’ rights have been trampled and labor leaders attacked despite minimal guarantees mandated under CAFTA, prompting a 2012 complaint by the AFL-CIO to which the U.S. Department of Labor has so far failed to respond.

On July 25, the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador met with President Obama at the White House to discuss what to do about the child migrant crisis. Obama asked his counterparts for their help in keeping refugees at home, in part through further militarization and enforcement of their own borders. In remarks made before and after the meeting, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández and Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina both placed blame where it belonged—on the U.S.-led “War on Drugs.” But Hernández also asked the United States for a “Plan Colombia for Central America” to mitigate the push factors driving migration. Plan Colombia, often touted by the State Department as a great success, involved a no-holds-barred military and police offensive against drug traffickers and insurgents that resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Colombian civilians and thousands of extrajudicial killings and other abuses by security forces. The initiative appears in fact to be a model for the United States’ 2011 regional security plan—the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI)—which has provided the Northern Triangle with hundreds of millions of dollars of security assistance in addition to millions in bilateral assistance.

Why criticize the drug war and then ask for more of precisely the sort of assistance that has exacerbated violence and insecurity?

Why criticize the drug war and then ask for more of precisely the sort of assistance that has exacerbated violence and insecurity? Both Hernández and Pérez Molina, an ex-military chief implicated in war crimes, have helped reestablish the military as key political actors in their countries, with the unflagging support of the United States. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, military control was seen as essential—by national right-wing elites and the U.S. government—for guaranteeing the elimination of potentially subversive leftwing movements. In 2009, the same priority reemerged in Honduras when Zelaya was ousted and a broad-based grassroots movement took to the streets to try to return him to power.

But an additional factor can be seen at play both in Honduras and Guatemala: the militarized defense of a neoliberal agenda that is being met with stubborn resistance by community groups. Increasingly, public and private security forces act in tandem to attack and intimidate small farmers or indigenous and Afro-indigenous communities that refuse to be displaced by agribusiness corporations or resource-hungry multinationals. Such is the case in San Rafael, Guatemala, where the community continues to oppose the San Rafael mining operation; in the Bajo Aguan in Honduras, where over a hundred campesinos have lost their lives defending land claimed by the Dinant Corporation; and in Rio Negro, Honduras, where a Lenca indigenous community has sought to prevent the destruction of their land by a hydroelectric project. Human rights defenders that have tried to assist communities in holding security forces accountable for killings and attacks—such as Berta Caceres of COPINH, Miriam Miranda of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, and Annie Bird of Rights Action—have been subjected to threats and attacks themselves.

Right-wing pundits here in the United States have asserted that the border crisis is “not our responsibility.” The evidence on the ground in the Northern Triangle suggests the contrary. The economic and trade policies that the United States has supported in Mexico and Central America have resulted in the displacement of millions of workers and economic stagnation. The militarized drug war that the United States has promoted and funded in Mexico and Central America has further unleashed repressive, abusive security forces and undermined the civilian institutions that might hold them accountable. It’s time to change our policies toward these countries in their interest and our own.

Human rights groups and progressives in Congress have made important policy recommendations, and the administration should listen. In terms of immediate action, the unaccompanied children—the majority of whom appear to have legitimate claims to asylum, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and other organizations—should be granted legal protection and reunited with family members and legal guardians in the United States. In particular, anxious Honduran and Salvadoran parents residing in the United States legally under Temporary Protected Status are understandably concerned about their children’s safety and should be authorized to reunite with them without resorting to human smugglers and other desperate and dangerous means.

In terms of addressing the root causes, the United States should allow Mexican and Central American governments to revise trade agreements so as to protect vulnerable economic sectors and prevent more jobs from being lost. U.S. security assistance programs should be curtailed—especially when governments fail to prosecute abuses perpetrated by state security agents—and, in the words of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chair Raúl Grijalva, “we should reassess the aid we send to nations with corrupt police and military forces to ensure we are part of the solution, not the problem.”

Rather than empowering security forces with appalling human rights records, the United States and other countries should help these governments reestablish basic rule of law. Successful multilateral programs like Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity—which, since 2006, has provided international teams of attorneys to support judicial investigations of organized crime groups—should be strengthened and replicated in other countries with high rates of impunity.

Should the U.S. fail to revise its flawed policies toward the region, the humanitarian crisis in the Northern Triangle and Mexico will only grow, and children and their parents will continue to have few options but to risk the perilous journey across the U.S. border.


Alexander Mainis the Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), with a focus on U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.

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