The World

The U.S. Can’t Just Fence Itself Off From Central America’s Crisis

Children play on the beach at Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, across the “border fence” that runs along the U.S.-Mexico border about three 3000 feet into the Pacific Ocean on April 4, 2013, near San Diego.

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

If nothing else, the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the southwestern border should hammer home the seemingly obvious point that events in America’s immediate region really ought to take higher precedence in U.S. foreign-policy discussions.

The Americas overtook Africa as the region with the world’s most murders this year, and Honduras now vastly leads the world with 90.4 murders per 100,000 people—around 37 more than the runner-up. The numbers of children killed in gang violence by ages 10 and 14  doubled in Honduras in 2012 and increased in El Salvador despite an overall drop in violent crime following a recent gang truce there.

While the scale of the current crisis is surprising, the trend has been building for a while.

A UNHCR report issued in March documented a major rise in unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. But the problem is regional. The report also notes a 435 percent increase in requests for asylum from those countries in countries other than the U.S. in 2012, including Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize.

In short, we should have seen this coming.

“The administration had a good few months at least to get ready for this. So I don’t think they should have been cut off-guard,” Sarnata Reynolds, a senior adviser on human rights at Refugees International, told Slate. “In December of last year, among people who work in this field, there was a good understanding that at least 45,000 children would be coming to the country this year. We’re already past that, halfway through the year.”

The problem is perhaps even more acute within Mexico. A report by Reynolds issued last month documented a “hidden humanitarian crisis” of internally displaced persons fleeing drug-related violence.  She notes that the Mexican government is also deporting foreigners at record numbers.

Most of the debate around the current crisis has focused on U.S. immigration law. But it’s becoming clear this is less an immigration crisis than a regional violence crisis.

The White House has also announced new funding to Central American governments to help them repatriate displaced persons and improve policing. This is much-needed. As Reynolds notes, “If Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador had programs in place and processes in place to protect these people, these children would not be coming to the United States.”

But there’s been less discussion about rethinking America’s approach to the underlying cause of the violence: a horrifically violent drug war. The U.S. spends about $85 million annually on anti-drug efforts in Central America. About $36 million of that goes to Honduras, which for all that aid has become the world’s murder capital.

Meanwhile, as Hillary Clinton herself acknowledged as secretary of state, U.S. demand for narcotics plays a large part in fueling the cartels and gangs that are perpetrating the violence. At a summit of the Organization of American States last year as well as the Summit of the Americas in 2012, Latin American leaders pressed the U.S. to rethink the regional drug war strategy, including serious consideration of legalizing marijuana, as Uruguay and two U.S. states have already done. 

This isn’t to say that legalizing pot would eliminate the region’s violence: The region’s problems with organized crime and weak rule of law are much deeper-seated than that. But at the very least, it’s time to start considering whether there are better uses of resources than funding one side of a drug war while the American people continue to fund the other side.

I don’t claim to have an immediate fix for Central America’s ills, but surely there are more creative strategies out there than pouring money into a failing drug war and then walling ourselves off from the victims.  

Latin American issues tend to get shortchanged in the U.S. foreign policy conversation relative to more remote regions. I suspect this is part of the reason why Central America’s instability is only garnering attention now that the consequences of it have quite literally arrived at our doorstep. 

On a broader level, the crisis should be a reminder that the U.S. is not immune from events to its immediate south. We’re an American country—in the regional sense of that word—and it’s time to start thinking like it.