The large numbers of Central American children and families who crossed the U.S. southern border this summer brought new attention to underlying conditions in these countries. It also made clear that unless the factors that originally drove these children to flee are addressed, many will continue to seek refuge in the United States. What can be done to address the lack of economic opportunity and endemic levels of crime and violence that drive this migration?
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Foreign Ministers of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, on the side of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, to discuss exactly this question. The Ministers presented the Secretary the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” a proposal to address the lack of opportunity and insecurity in the Northern Triangle countries, and to ask the United States to support it.
How should the United States respond to and evaluate the Alliance for Prosperity?
If the plan is sound, the United States ought to be prepared to respond with significant financial, technical, and political support. Recent estimates suggest that the United States spent over US$9 billion during the Central American conflicts of the 1980s. In contrast, assistance in recent years for development, governance, and law enforcement has been only a fraction of that: well under US$200 million per year. While U.S. budget constraints are real, it is in the interest of the United States to ensure that citizen security and shared economic growth take root in Central America.
The United States should carefully review the plan and its components. Below we list a dozen key principles that ought to be used in evaluating and responding to the plan.
We believe it’s critical to ensure that any plan that the United States supports is comprehensive, targeted, and strategic; has indicators of progress that can be evaluated; and is backed by a serious Central American government commitment to implementation, tackling corruption, and promoting transparency.
1. Ensure that the plan’s strategies are comprehensive and coordinated within each country. The plan should coherently address multiple elements of the problems of lack of opportunity and insecurity, and reflect clear priorities. It should rely on smart investments, not just additional funding. It needs to identify multiple sources of the problem, set priorities, propose solutions that involve multiple government programs and agencies, and seek the coordinated input and support of various international donors, along with consultation and input from civil society.
2. Governments must show institutional commitment to full implementation. Governments have often made verbal commitments to programs that, for example, target marginalized or migrant sending communities, or seek to identify and dismiss corrupt police officials, but have then pursued development priorities that benefit elites, or failed to ensure that investigations touch senior officials. The result is donor investments that are wasted or misdirected. The United States and other donors should support programs where the government is committed and will expend political capital to ensure their implementation.
3. Focus on institutional reforms that will improve the daily life of citizens in Central America. This will require an emphasis on reforms of the police and other criminal justice institutions such as more effective police investigation, control of police abuse, improved police-community relations, and targeting the crimes, such as extortion, that affect the quality of life. These deserve priority over any plan that narrowly emphasizes narcotics interdiction and special vetted units, or a plan that gives the military a leading role in law enforcement.
4. Strengthen transparency and fight corruption. The corruption of public officials—police, judges, customs officials, contracting officers, and politicians—is a long-standing problem in Central America. The growth of organized crime groups over the last two decades has made it worse. The Alliance for Prosperity should include mechanisms to increase government agencies’ transparency, and develop and implement mechanisms for both internal oversight and citizen review.
5. Build capacity and accountability for the judiciary and public prosecutors, and protect witnesses in sensitive cases. Both corruption and incapacity are serious problems in the judicial system and the public prosecutors’ offices in all three countries. A recent study in El Salvador found, for example, that only 5 percent of cases filed with the Attorney General’s office— whether filed by police or by citizens— ever conclude with a court verdict. These weaknesses mean that violence goes unchecked and deterrence is ineffective. The plan ought to focus on evaluating and strengthening both the judiciary and the public prosecutors’ offices. Because threats against witnesses often prevent cases from moving forward, a plan that establishes effective witness protection programs ought to be supported.
6. Support evidence-based, community-level violence prevention. The United States and other donors have been very supportive of youth violence prevention programs and of municipal-level violence prevention strategies, but there is little coordination or comprehensive planning. Evaluating these programs, scaling up successful ones, and finding ways to make the programs sustainable in the long-term are vital complements to any effective law enforcement strategy.
7. Target employment training and job creation programs to communities where youth are especially at risk and from where many young people are migrating. This should include significant focus on comprehensive programs for urban youth in marginalized communities and efforts to expand programs that help with the re-insertion, economically and socially, of returnees from the U.S. and from Mexico. It should also include investment in rural development programs in migrant-sending communities, supporting promising initiatives that benefit small farmers and create additional employment opportunities in rural areas. With significant drought and coffee blight challenges hurting rural livelihoods in Central America, programs must help those most severely affected.
8. Emphasize fiscal reform and the long-term sustainability of programs. Central American governments have limited financial resources and relatively low effective tax rates. They are not in a position to do everything needed to provide opportunity and improve security, which is why they are turning to the United States and other international donors for support. Over time, these programs will have to become self-sustaining, and this will require fiscal reform and Central American government budget support. Commitments for such future support must be a prerequisite for any ambitious plan.
9. Recognize that different countries require different approaches. There are common elements to the problems of insecurity and lack of opportunity in each country in the region, but there are critical differences as well. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have differences in the structure of their economy, priorities and interests of the governments, and in the capacity of civil society groups. U.S. and other international donors ought to be realistic in recognizing those differences; where government capacity or will is weak, it may be appropriate to limit support to civil society groups, or to focus support on other areas.
10. Avoid any plan that is too narrowly targeted on only one element of the problem. If the security component of the Alliance for Prosperity focuses only on
gangs, or only on drug traffickers, for example, it would fail to meet this criterion, as would a plan that focuses only on the police, or a plan that does not seek assistance from multiple international donors. At the other end of the spectrum, if the plan consists of scattered, unfocused “wish lists” from various government agencies, it would also fail to meet this criterion.
11. Evaluate successes and failures. The plan should be based on evidence-based models and include clear measures of success and progress. A plan to address lack of opportunity needs to define how many jobs are created, or how many young people have moved into self-employment; a plan on citizen security needs to set targets for citizen trust in police, or what percentage of citizen complaints have been addressed.
12. Ensure that the plan includes mechanisms for effective donor coordination. A number of bilateral, multilateral, and private donors support initiatives to reduce violence and poverty. Since 2008, the international community has provided an estimated $1.7 billion to support citizen security related programs in Central America. Coordination among donors is key to helping reduce duplication and contradiction in funding, and to increasing efficiency.