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Northern exposure

As President Biden proposes a massive aid program to stem migration from the Northern Triangle, some wonder what’s happened to billions of dollars already spent on a problem with no end in sight

A Central American migrant moves with a caravan to the U.S. border. Marco Ugarte/AP

Northern exposure

In the western highlands of Guatemala, visitors to the market town of Salcajá can’t miss the 40-foot statue dominating the town’s entrance: It’s a towering figure of a man in simple clothes, sturdy shoes, and a small backpack, holding one hand high and waving north—toward the southern border of the United States.

Homage to the Migrant pays tribute to the thousands of local residents who’ve left the Guatemalan town to trek north and enter the United States—and those who have sent millions of dollars back home over the last four decades.

It’s a small part of the billions of dollars in remittances that Guatemalan migrants in the United States send to family members in Central America each year. The stream of income totaled some $10.5 billion in 2019—about 13 percent of Guatemala’s GDP.

Remittances haven’t enriched most Guatemalans, but they’ve eased financial burdens for some living in a nation with a high poverty rate and a low supply of decent-paying jobs.

Still, the gains come with loss.

In a nearby town, Michael Shead has worked as a missionary among indigenous Mayans for a decade and says he’s witnessed the sorrows of family separations. He doesn’t mean families separated by border patrol once they reach the United States but local families separated by a parent (or sometimes a child) leaving Guatemala for the long trek north.

Shead says he’s met young Guatemalan men who told him they grew up with what they needed materially from the funds their migrant dads sent back home. But they also lament: “I didn’t have a father.”

Some migrants say such separations are the cost of trying to provide a better life for loved ones living in difficult conditions, says Shead: “But I don’t think people realize it’s costing them more than they think.”

With a recent surge of migrants from Central America arriving at the U.S. border, officials are asking a related question: What would it cost to help some migrants stay in their home countries instead of attempting to enter the U.S. illegally—and what kind of aid actually helps?

It’s a question that’s perplexed presidents from both parties for decades, but President Joe Biden has suggested a new aid package with a hefty price tag: $4 billion over four years. That’s a billion dollars more than the plan he proposed as vice president in 2015, when President Barack Obama tasked Biden with confronting the same problem after a similar border surge.

Ryan Berg, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the 2015 initiative—called the Alliance for Prosperity—produced some results, but “not a whole lot of prosperity.” And history indicates the aid won’t be effective as long as crime and government corruption plague the countries migrants are fleeing. Berg says the current dilemma shows that one of the highest costs is one of the hardest to pay. “The problem here is time,” Berg says. “Central America is a long-term project.”

A man walks near a ­monument that pays ­homage to migrants at the entrance to the town of Salcajá.

A man walks near a ­monument that pays ­homage to migrants at the entrance to the town of Salcajá. Moises Castillo/AP

A SPIN THROUGH the archives of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) gives a glimpse of how long-term the effort has grown.

The government agency summarizes some of the challenges in Central America driving migrants to the U.S. border: “armed conflicts, economic hardships, human rights violations, natural disasters, political instability.” The problems sound familiar, but the report isn’t new: It’s from 1989.

U.S. involvement in the region goes back further: In the 1960s, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson pressed for Latin American reforms and U.S. aid to the region in an initiative called Alliance for Progress.

The history of U.S. action in Central America is complex and often perplexing, but some of the same themes of corruption, poverty, and violence that ran through the chaotic days of the infamous drug wars of the 1980s continue to the present day in the region known as the Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The three countries account for an estimated 85 percent of Central American migrants who’ve arrived in the United States in the past three years. Not all immigrants enter the United States illegally, and some apply for asylum, but a surge of illegal migration in 2014 included an alarming number of unaccompanied minors showing up at the U.S. border.

Obama tapped Biden to intervene.

The administration birthed the Alliance for Prosperity initiative, calling for billions in U.S. aid. During a 2015 visit to Guatemala, Biden told the region’s leaders it was critical to find ways to keep millions of their young workers in their home countries for the sake of local economies and local communities: “If we don’t do this, all of us will feel the consequences.”

Six years later, President Biden’s secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, acknowledged in a March 2021 briefing: “We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”

That doesn’t mean U.S. aid hasn’t accomplished anything in the Northern Triangle, but it does underscore what Biden acknowledged in Guatemala back in 2015: “The devil is in the details.”

Members of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs at the maximum security prison in El Salvador.

Members of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs at the maximum security prison in El Salvador. Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. OFFICIALS aim to disperse most aid to nongovernmental organizations and civil service groups working in the receiving nations. While aid-related corruption is certainly possible in those groups, the goal is to keep money out of the coffers of politicians who could misuse it.

Congress appropriates the funds and taps U.S. government agencies to disperse the money: USAID usually focuses on poverty alleviation projects. The U.S. State Department usually focuses on initiatives related to security and violence.

But those aren’t separate endeavors.

While poverty remains a driving force in pushing migrants to the United States, it’s deeply intertwined with violence and corruption in the Northern Triangle. Promoting economic growth without making the region a more secure place to live is a difficult task.

For example, USAID has worked with local organizations on scores of programs that promote better agricultural conditions for farming jobs in rural areas and better training for technology-related work in cities.

But staffers from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported gangs and criminal activity can make it hard for some citizens to pursue a simple education or secure a basic job: Agency officials in El Salvador reported many children won’t attend school after the seventh grade because they’re afraid to cross gang borders on the way to class. They fear being attacked on the way to school.

The report’s authors said children from a particularly violent neighborhood in Honduras told them it was hard to secure a simple job because employers sometimes reject applicants based on where they live.

In some neighborhoods, ongoing shakedowns from local gangs make it hard to keep a small business afloat. A 2015 report by the investigative group InSight Crime described a tightly managed extortion racket run by violent gangs like Barrio 18 and MS-13 in Honduras.

On a small scale, gangs target corner stores and sometimes street vendors. A gang’s demand for a supposedly one-time sum turns into weekly payments. One store owner told InSight Crime that a local gang insists on living in an apartment above her family’s store rent-free. She assumes they use it for their crime ring.

On a bigger scale, dangerous gang members operate wide-scale extortion of taxi and bus fleets. A leader of one organized group of 80 buses operating in the capital city told researchers he was paying four different gangs. An initial demand for payment can range between $3,000 and $13,000, depending on the size of the business. Weekly payments could range from $300 to $700. Locals call it a “war tax.”

It makes maintaining a business or keeping a job difficult for a segment of Hondurans who sometimes decide it would be safer and more sustainable to flee. Some start over in other cities. Others head north.

The dynamic can also make it difficult to achieve widespread results from local programs funded in part by U.S. aid.

A study by the GAO in 2019 said U.S. government agencies had allocated some $2.4 billion for 370 projects in the Northern Triangle from 2013 to 2018: “However, agencies reported mixed results for projects and little information about overall progress.” The conclusion: “Limited information is available about how U.S. assistance improved prosperity, governance, and security in the Northern Triangle.”

Relatives of a man shot dead in Ayutuxtepeque, El Salvador, cry near the crime scene.

Relatives of a man shot dead in Ayutuxtepeque, El Salvador, cry near the crime scene. Yuri Cortez/AP via Getty Images

KURT VER BEEK does have information about how U.S. aid has helped in some parts of Honduras.

The co-founder of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ), a Christian organization based in the city of Tegucigalpa, says his group has used U.S. funds to pay for projects related to improving security and justice in the country of nearly 10 million people. (When former President Donald Trump slashed aid to Central America in 2019, citing surging migration levels, the group had to cut about half its staff.)

In 2019, I visited some of the organization’s projects and met attorneys helping frightened survivors walk through the process of testifying against gang members and other criminals who had killed family members and likely expected impunity.

Corrupt police have contributed to impunity in the past, and a pair of ASJ staffers joined a massive project to confront corruption in the ranks: In 2016, a presidential commission ejected 5,000 out of 13,000 officers from the police force, including six out of nine generals. ASJ staffer Omar Rivera endured death threats during the process but said, “We have always been convinced that to be a brave Christian, you have to do more than criticize.”

Other groups have had targeted success as well. Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute testified before Congress in 2019, noting that USAID and the State Department worked with El Salvador on crime prevention programs that led to a 45 percent reduction in homicides in targeted areas. USAID efforts in Guatemala helped local prosecutors accomplish a dramatic increase in successful prosecutions for extortion.

Ver Beek acknowledges the many problems that persist in Honduras, but he rejects the notion that U.S. aid can’t help make life more livable for Hondurans tempted to leave or that the United State can’t distribute it responsibly to groups that can help.

He says ASJ has been in communication with the Biden administration on ways to attach more accountability to any potential aid package. One idea that might gain traction: a scorecard for each nation in the Northern Triangle that would track each country’s progress on goals in areas like education, healthcare, economic progress, and violence reduction.

Every three months, newspapers would report the results on their front pages and countries could see how they compare with their neighbors. Ver Beek says the public comparisons could put pressure on individual governments and give U.S. officials leverage to insist on progress in connection with aid.

Still, even as Biden taps Vice President Kamala Harris to tackle the same issues he confronted as vice president years ago, members of his own party are skeptical. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told The New York Times in March: “We have a long history of sending aid to Central American governments that failed to produce lasting, positive results.”

Leahy said nations receiving U.S. aid “need trustworthy leaders who want to help their people, rather than to stay in power and enrich themselves.”

That may be a tall order, given corruption among government officials: In late March, a U.S. judge sentenced former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández to life in prison after a conviction on charges of trafficking drugs into the United States. Hernández is the brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández.

In February, federal prosecutors in New York indicated the Honduran president himself was under investigation. Hernández has denied any connections to drug trafficking or bribes.

Even members of Biden’s own team seem wary. Ricardo Zuniga, special envoy for the Northern Triangle, recently co-authored a report for the Wilson Center that said if donors, including the United States, “do not make good governance and anticorruption their top priority in the Northern Triangle, progress related to economic growth and security will be fleeting at best.”

BACK ON THE STREETS of western Guatemala, missionary Michael Shead says progress sometimes meets an unexpected roadblock because of the money migrants send back home to their families.

Shead said the U.S. dollars flowing into the economy drive up property prices for other poor Guatemalans. (One recent U.S.-funded program offered financial education for Guatemalans receiving remittances.)

But Shead’s biggest concern remains Guatemalan families separated when one or more members head north. He sees it undercutting the kind of solid family structures that stabilize any country.

Shead thinks about a man he knows who missed his father’s funeral in Guatemala because he’s afraid he won’t be able to reenter the United States if he leaves. For some migrants, Shead says, the intention to reunite becomes a far-off goal: “Maybe next year.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C.



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