U.S. Military: More Counter-Narcotics Funding Will Help Stem Exodus of Children from Central America
Critics Argue Drug-War Money is Part of the Problem, Not the Solution
Some 58,000 migrant children, mostly Central Americans, have made the treacherous journey to the U.S. southern border alone over the past 10 months, but actions being considered by U.S. officials to combat the problem with more military and drug-war aid to their countries, critics warn, may worsen the violence that provokes this unprecedented exodus.
The number of unaccompanied children that have arrived at the U.S. border so far this fiscal year is up 106 percent from the same period a year earlier — with the total expected to reach 90,000 before Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
To put that latter number in perspective, it is nearly five times larger than the number of Border Patrol agents now stationed along the entire southern border.
The Obama administration paints the crisis as a humanitarian issue sparked by poverty, violence and the tug of family bonds. Congressional Republicans point the finger at the Obama administration’s lax enforcement of immigration laws.
Seemingly lost among the fray of political talking points over the child-migrant flight, however, is the stance of the U.S. military — which, unlike the president or Congress, is openly talking about the drug war as being a primary driver of the exodus.
Jose Ruiz, spokesperson for the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), said the transnational criminal organizations now entrenched in Central America have created elaborate networks “capable of moving drugs, money, arms and people” around the world.
“Sadly, crime syndicates that profit from human smuggling prey on victims willing to put themselves and their loved ones at great risk by entrusting ruthless criminals with their safety,” he added.
Gen. John Kelly, commander of SOUTHCOM, recently penned an opinion piece for the military press that lays out the nexus he sees between the flight of unaccompanied children and the pervasive narco-trafficking networks in Central America — particularly in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the major source nations for the child-migrant surge.
“… It has been the malignant effects of immense drug trafficking through these nonconsumer nations [in Central America] that is responsible for accelerating the breakdown in their national institutions of human rights, law enforcement, courts, and eventually their entire society as evidenced today by the flow of children north and out of the conflictive transit zone,” Kelly wrote. “… I believe that the mass migration of children we are all of a sudden struggling with is a leading indicator of the negative second- and third-order impacts on our national interests that are now reality due to the near unimpeded flow of drugs up the isthmus [Central America], as well as the unbelievable levels of drug profits (approximately $85 billion) available to transnational criminal organizations to literally buy police departments, court systems and even governments.”
SOUTHCOM, which oversees U.S. military operations in Latin America, says its resources are stretched to the limit, and consequently it is hamstrung in addressing adequately the many dire problems plaguing the region as a result of the growing influence of these criminal networks.
“The fiscal challenges our country is currently experiencing has not spared our command, and we too face funding and resource allocation reductions that have seriously impacted our ability to conduct important missions and achieve significant results,” Ruiz said.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, Kelly said “severe budget constraints are significantly degrading our ability to defend the southern approaches to the United States.”
But there appears to be a more global agenda in play as well with respect to U.S. military operations in the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala). Specifically it is SOUTHCOM’s growing concern over the rising influence of Russia and China in the region.
Some experts on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America contend, though, that whatever the agenda, the U.S. push to militarize the region in support of the drug war is actually accelerating the breakdown of civil society in the Northern Triangle — with the surge in unaccompanied children fleeing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador being a prime example of the blowback.
A major vehicle for extending U.S. influence in the Northern Triangle has been the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a counter-narcotics effort launched some six years ago in conjunction with the Mérida Initiative — a multi-year, multi-billion dollar U.S.-backed effort to combat drug trafficking in Mexico.
Ruiz said CARSI has provided “more than $640 million in assistance since 2008 to assist security forces, build law-enforcement and justice-sector capacity, and advance community policing, crime prevention and socioeconomic programs” to the seven nations of Central America.
“SOUTHCOM contributes to CARSI goals by providing security assistance through various programs that fund infrastructure, donate equipment and provide training,” Ruiz added.
More funding for CARSI translates into more U.S. operations and influence in the region. But it also is likely to feed the fire that is causing children to flee the Northern Triangle, according to Molly Molloy, a research librarian and a specialist on Latin America at New Mexico State University. Molloy founded and edits Frontera List, an online forum for news and debate around border issues.
“It is our militarization of the region, both as a base for our counter-insurgency forces and for our support of the corrupt local armies, that lie at the root of the social dysfunction in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala,” Molloy said. “[It’s worth noting that] the two Central American countries that seem not to be expelling their children are Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Costa Rica did away with its army in 1948 and Nicaragua fought a revolution to get rid of the U.S.-imposed Somoza dictatorship and its corrupt National Guard in 1979.”
Critics of U.S. policy in the region argue that those historical dynamics are clearly in play in Honduras, which is leading the pack in the recent surge of unaccompanied children exiting the Northern Triangle, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Nearly 17,000 kids from that nation have crossed the U.S. border through June of fiscal 2014.
“The police [in Honduras] are overwhelmingly corrupt and widely documented to kill people, including children with impunity,” said Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert on human rights and U.S. policy in Honduras. “Rather than clean up the corrupt police, [Honduran] President [Juan Orlando] Hernández's answer has been a dangerous and escalating militarization of the police, especially a new 5,000-strong Military Police that has already committed major human rights abuses with impunity…. Yet the U.S. continues to pour funds into the dangerous Honduran police and military, and act as if Hernández is an amiable and successful partner in the drug war.”
In late June, the White House announced that in response to the unaccompanied-children crisis, it is providing Honduras with $18.5 million under CARSI “to support community policing and law enforcement efforts to confront gangs and other sources of crime.” SOUTHCOM, via Joint Task Force Bravo, currently has a military force of about 600 airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines stationed at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, which also is home to the Honduran Air Force Academy.
Honduran President Hernández, echoing SOUTHCOM’s Kelly, sees a strong link between drug-related violence and the escalating flight of children from his nation. He recently called for more U.S. assistance and a ramp-up in funding for counter-narcotics operations in the Northern Triangle.
Frank said the United States, through existing counter-narcotics programs like CARSI, is already helping to prop up a regime in Honduras that is “countenancing the spectacular violence children are fleeing.”
Cold War Redux
Beyond combating the very real problem of narco-trafficking syndicates and the associated government corruption in the Northern Triangle and Latin America in general, SOUTHCOM also has a broader reason for assuring funding levels for CARSI and other military operations in the region remain robust.
Kelly, in his report to the House committee this past February, argued that budget cuts are eroding SOUTHCOM’s “security cooperation activities,” such as CARSI, in Latin America and opening the door for other world powers to fill the vacuum — principally Russia and China.
“Russian continues to build on its existing strategic partnerships in Latin America, pursuing an increased regional presence through arm sales, counterdrug cooperation and bilateral trade agreements,” Kelly stated. “… In contrast to the Russians, Chinese engagement is focused primarily on economics, but it uses all elements of national power to achieve its goals [in the region].”
That broader agenda, which also implicate U.S. business interest in the Latin America, arguably may create a higher tolerance among U.S. policymakers for supporting regimes in Central America that have less-than-stellar track records in protecting human rights and democracy.
“The 2009 military coup that deposed democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, itself a great criminal act, opened the door to a free-for-all of criminality in Honduras,” Frank said. “Since then, organized crime, drug traffickers and gangs have flourished, worming their way ever-higher within the Honduran government, courts, attorney general's office, and congress. New President Juan Orlando Hernández himself has a stellar track record of subverting the rule of law — prominently supporting the coup, overthrowing part of the Supreme Court and stacking it with his loyalists, and helping illegally name a new attorney general to a five-year term.”
The 2009 coup d’étatin Honduras was carried out with the acquiescence of the U.S. government at the time. In fact, the Millennium Challenge Corp., an independent U.S. foreign-aid agency chaired by the Secretary of State — Hillary Clinton at the time — continued to provide funding to the coup regime in the immediate aftermath of the putsch, even as the U.S. State Department indicated publicly that it had suspended assistance programs in Honduras.
Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization focused on human rights, democracy and social justice, said the coup did have a major destabilizing influence on the institutions in Honduras that were already very weak, “and criminal elements took advantage of that space.”
“And it’s still a huge problem even to this day,” Olson added. “They just don’t have good-functioning police forces. And when you don’t have a functioning police force is when people start calling on the military, and Honduras has done that. They now have military police because the regular police haven’t been working out all that well.”
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, United Nations data shows. El Salvador and Guatemala rank fourth and fifth on that scale. And both the police and military have been implicated in extrajudicial murders in Honduras, according to a 2013 State Department human rights report.
Whether US-sponsored drug-war programs like CARSI are part of the solution, or the problem, is likely to remain a flashpoint for debate in Washington and beyond for the foreseeable future.
But on the ground in Honduras, far more needs to be done than simply sending more bullets, guns and troops into an already bloody landscape, if Honduras hopes to pull more of its fleeing citizens back to the country, according to Clarice Mishel Velasquez, secretary of women’s affairs at the nonprofit Organization for Ethnic Community Development [ODECO in its Spanish initials] in La Ceiba, Honduras.
“Every morning when we wake up and go out to greet our neighbors we realize that two, three, five, 10 or more people have said goodbye to their families and have taken the famous journey to the USA,” Velasquez said. “… Most people pay between $3,500 and $5,000 U.S. to take a journey to certain death.
“Robbery, rape, extortion and, on the other hand, the loss of arms or legs are a constant threat if you fall off what they call LA BESTIA (The Beast) —a train [in Mexico] loaded with tons of steel that people cling to for dear life to reach the [U.S] border when they decide to flee the plight of the country.
“Personally, I believe that if conditions improved in public hospitals, if employment opportunities with a living wage were created, if the education system were improved at the national level, if public safety were improved, if public policies to combat this scourge were created, conditions would improve in this country. … Honduras is beautiful, and I don’t think that migrating is the way to solve our problems.”