The World

The Face of the Crisis

Mexico has a plan to prevent more tragedies like the death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal. Trump isn’t buying in.

Jakelin Caal Maquin
Jakelin Caal Maquin in Guatemala.
Caal family handout

It was only a matter of time before the tragic exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle found a specific face to mourn. Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal grew up in the minuscule indigenous community of San Antonio Secortez, in central Guatemala. Her family spoke mostly Q’eqchi’, a Mayan language.* Jakelin dreamed of owning her first toy and learning to read and write. A few weeks ago, the girl packed a few things and joined her father, Nery, on the trudge toward the United States, a common one for an increasing number of people leaving in extreme poverty in Guatemala.

Nery and Jakelin crossed the border as part of a larger group on Dec. 6 and soon surrendered to the authorities. After waiting seven hours at New Mexico’s “Camp Bounds,” a small Border Patrol substation that seems to be inadequately staffed, they boarded a bus that would take them to a larger facility in Lordsburg. Jakelin hadn’t been feeling well, having apparently vomited shortly before the bus ride. Then, tragedy struck: At some point during the drive, the girl stopped breathing. She passed away a day later, likely of of sepsis shock in an El Paso, Texas, hospital, where she had been airlifted.

It is still unclear why exactly Jakelin Caal died. CBP officials blame Nery, who they insist failed to notify agents of his daughter’s deterioration until they were about to board the bus to Lordsburg. DHS, which is conducting an investigation, insists both father and child were offered food and water during their long stay at Camp Bounds. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has been critical of the Trump administration’s child-separation policy and its treatment of infant migrants, has called Jakelin’s death “preventable.” In any case, her passing, along with the picture of her still in San Antonio Secortez, wearing a blue dress, her dark hair sleeked back while she stares into the camera with a slight melancholy, should shake numb consciences: Central America faces an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that requires far more than a stubborn punitive approach.

Mexico’s government, at least, seems to have a plan. (And no, it doesn’t involve paying for Trump’s wall, directly or indirectly.) Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the country’s just-inaugurated president, has put forth an ambitious project to foster development in Jakelins home country, Guatemala, along with El Salvador and Honduras, where the recent migrant caravan originated. (Thousands of Honduran immigrants are still waiting in Tijuana, in slightly better but nevertheless dire conditions.) López Obrador has long maintained that the solution to the crisis lies not in more border enforcement but in a historic partnership akin to a Marshall Plan for the region. He told me as much when I interviewed him last year, a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Now, López Obrador seems eager to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to Central America. His foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, recently announced the Mexican government’s intention to pour over $30 billion over the next five years to foster development in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. “We will show this is far more efficient than all the containment measures that have been implemented before,” Ebrard said recently.

Over the past few days, López Obrador and Ebrard have been trying to convince Donald Trump to join the effort. The relationship between the two leaders, both populists, though of a very different sort, began auspiciously enough. Trump praised López Obrador after his election and the new Mexican president warmly welcomed Vice President Pence; his wife, Karen; and Ivanka Trump at his Dec. 1 inauguration. Sadly, though, the Central American deal has apparently proven to be a tougher sell. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Ebrard touted what he called “a new era of international support for development” and announced what seemed to amount to an unprecedented agreement between Mexico and the United States that included, according to Ebrard, America’s “commitment to grant $5.8 billion dollars for institutional reform and economic development in the Northern Triangle”—referring to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Perhaps eager to earn a quick win in the early days of Mexico’s new government, Ebrard has mischaracterized the nature and size of the supposed U.S. commitment. As Adam Isaacson, an expert on human rights in Central America, quickly pointed out, Ebrard’s supposedly historic deal barely includes new aid money at all. (The Trump administration requested only $180 million dollars more in aid for the region in 2019.) Most of America’s pledge would come through OPIC, the government agency in charge of helping American businesses invest in emerging markets. OPIC’s investment depends on finding commercially viable projects, a far cry from a “Marshall Plan” that would tackle corruption, crime, poverty, and the myriad problems currently facing Central America. A historic aid package it is not, no matter how badly Mexico’s foreign minister wishes otherwise.

It’s a pity.

Trump’s evident reluctance to join the Mexican government’s ambitious nation-building project in Central America is both a tragedy and a sign of profound hypocrisy. If Trump were really interested in gradually stemming the flow of Central American immigrants to the United States, he should forget about erecting walls and instead concentrate on helping potential immigrants remain in their countries of origin by ameliorating their daily woes. Although poverty, unemployment, and inequality are certainly not the only causes of the current exodus—the region’s brutal violence is probably an even more important factor—the gradual strengthening of the Northern Triangle’s economy and its social fabric seems to be the only way to stem the flow of immigrants who keep fleeing an impossible situation by the thousands.

To search for a better life is a natural human aspiration; to find a way to simply stay alive is part of human nature. If the United States doesn’t want to help people like Jakelin Caal survive, tragedies like her death will keep happening.

Correction, Dec. 19, 2018: This piece originally described Q’eqchi’ as a dialect. It is one of the national languages of Guatemala.