A quiet road on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in Honduras and a base of operations for MS-13. Flickr photo: Ian Mackenzie
A quiet road on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in Honduras and a base of operations for MS-13. Flickr photo: Ian Mackenzie

President Donald Trump says the U.S. is facing a crisis at its southern border as tens of thousands of migrants wait to lodge asylum claims or attempt to pass into the U.S. illegally.

But the real crisis driving that migration is thousands of miles south in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region encompassing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

This week on ‘Wake’ we’ll explore the breakdown in governance in those countries that’s fueling waves of migration.

“The Real Crisis South of the Border”

Duration: 26:00
Recorded: Friday, Jan. 18, 2019
Guests: Douglas Farah, senior visiting fellow, National Defense University // Sarah Bermeo, associate professor of political science, Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy // Eric L. Olson, director, Seattle International Foundation’s Central America-DC Platform


Violence makes the ‘Northern Triangle’ unlivable

Douglas Farah: In Honduras, MS-13 has become both a political entity almost unto itself  working on behalf of different political organizations, which we had never seen before  they’re working very aggressively to become a major drug trafficking transport group … and working very hard to establish themselves consciously as a transnational criminal organization, as opposed to just extorting people on a local level or extorting businesses and doing some of the low-level things we’ve seen them do for the past several decades.

One fundamental issue is the absolute failure of the state in the areas to fulfill the obligations of the state. You have massive corruption, you have gangs being able to hire dozens and hundreds of former highly trained policemen into their forces for training and intelligence training and tactical training … and you have the complete breakdown of what we would call normal governance. And into that void the MS-13 has stepped.

Eric L. Olson: Part of it is the insecurity  the presence of gangs, the threats that they pose  but also I think it’s just a generalized sense of despair, of not feeling like there’s much hope left. We tend to characterize that as lack of opportunity and insecurity, but I think it goes beyond just the up and down of homicide rates and the economic indicators. It’s a bigger, deeper sense of despair that we see in people coming from Guatemala, for instance.

Guatemala has the lowest homicide rates of the three huntresses, and yet they have the highest rate of those leaving. Part of it is the poverty in Guatemala, hunger is widespread, but these things have been around for a long time. What’s come to light is just the inability of government, the inability of anyone to provide real solutions for people, and in their despair they reach out for other opportunities, maybe to family members in the United States.

Sarah Bermeo: We don’t want to underestimate the role that violence is playing in this. There are multiple factors, of course, that weave into any migration pattern  there have been things written about climate change and migration from this region, and that’s certainly relevant  but the level of violence that is in these countries is keeping them from dealing with other situations that arise.

So for instance, when other countries have migration due to climate change a lot of that is internal migration and that can be handled because move from, say, the countryside into the cities and the cities can absorb that. But when the cities are overrun by gangs, that leads people to migrate internationally as opposed to migrating domestically.

What the U.S. can do to help

Douglas Farah: You have to strengthen the institutions and the ability of the host country to deal with these issues. The underlying problem with that is these governments have become so corrupt and incompetent over time that there’s very few interlocutors we can give money to that it won’t essentially go down the toilet. … We’re not dealing any longer with governments that we can sit down and design reasonable programs with and make sure the money’s going to go there. … The magnitude of corruption is so large that it’s hard to think about giving more aid as a viable option.

There are things in training, there are ways to do embedded units, there are ways to have targeted programs going after children at risk before they get into the gangs, which have been somewhat successful, you have in the region a few small church groups that have had enormous success in keeping kids out of the gangs or getting kids to leave the gangs once they’re in. But these are all small-bore, little targeted projects that have not been able to  be replicated on a mass scale.

So I think we fundamentally have to rethink how we deal with the nation state, or conversely, how we go into dealing with non-state actors.

Sarah Bermeo: It does seem to be clear that we need to have an approach that does deal with violence, as well as a more long-term development approach. Because until you deal with the violence you can’t really deal with the development challenges, and until you deal with the development challenges you can’t really help people have a stable livelihood in that region.

If the current U.S. administration wanted to pressure these governments into not reversing some of the gains that they have made … on fighting corruption … instead of using our interaction with them to talk about decreasing migration and threatening to withdraw foreign aid for those reasons, using some of the pressure that we can leverage in the foreign policy arena to really put pressure on El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to work to clean up corruption within their countries and take a foreign- policy approach to that where they’re not able to drive out or undo the gains that had been made with impunity would most likely be helpful.

Eric L. Olson: I agree with that. I think one of the unfortunate things in the last year is that the consensus around fighting corruption as a top priority that began during the Bush administration and was carried on into the Obama administration has started to break apart now, and corruption suddenly becomes a negotiable  if they help us on migration, maybe we won’t push them so far on corruption  and I think that’s a real tactical, strategic mistake.

There’s nothing more important than building the institutions of government that can fight against organized crime, that can fight against criminal interests and, frankly, elite economic interests that erode the development and the stability of these countries.

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