Chaos has erupted at the border with a sudden influx of Central American children entering America—illegally and alone. Initially, the Obama administration tried to blame the exodus of adolescents on their desire to flee violence in their home countries. Only lately has the White House bowed to reality and finally conceded what Democrats in Congress, The Washington Post and even Univision were already admitting: that dreams of sanctuary under the DREAM Act had convinced Central American families to hand their children over to coyote networks that would take them across Mexico and the Rio Grande. In other words, the administration had to admit that it had contributed to the problem by appearing to promise that children who crossed the border illegally would not be deported.
But the administration shouldn’t get a pass on the violent hell that has been unleashed in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The United States has great sway over what (in a less-enlightened age) used to be called America’s backyard. The Obama administration knows it, too, because it wields that influence with gusto in Central America. If it wanted to help quell the turmoil, it would pursue policies aimed at alleviating the crisis. Instead, the administration props up bad actors who have always disliked America and beats up on long-standing friends.
The Northern Triangle nations of Central America are dangerous places. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world at 90.4 per 100,000 inhabitants; El Salvador is No. 4 with a 41.22 rate and Guatemala is No. 5 with 39.9. These statistics don’t show a spike in violence; they are largely unchanged from the numbers I discovered two years ago when researching a book on Hispanics. Still, they are alarmingly high. By comparison, the U.S. rate—the second highest in the thirty-four-member OECD—is “only” 5.2. (For wider context, France’s is 0.8; Britain’s is 0.3.)
And the flight of children isn’t new either. The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement told me in January 2013 that some 2,179 unaccompanied minors from these three countries were in U.S. custody. Because of the DREAM Act incentive, however, those numbers have become much worse this year. More than 40,000 unaccompanied minors have come to the United States since January; the vast majority came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
So, yes, the Northern Triangle is a desperate place. A U.S. official, who recently visited the main prison in Guatemala, described it as a huge compound run entirely by MS-13 and Calle 18, two transnational crime organizations that can no longer simply be called gangs. Each had its separate wing at the prison, prepared its own food and ran its own children’s centers, replete with toys, for when sons and daughters came to visit their fathers, he told me. When they’re outside, they pressure Central Americans, including children, to enlist in the gangs—“or else.” The army is completely overwhelmed. These two gangs alone have an estimated 85,000 members in the three countries, compared with about 100,000 uniformed soldiers, many of whom cannot be relied upon.
So no wonder so many Central Americans are making the trek across Mexico to enter the United States, where they expect to get a permiso (permit). Central America is messy. Its problems are not self-contained, either—they affect us here at home. It’s not just the question of minors flocking to our border with Mexico; transnational criminal organizations are vertically integrated in several criminal activities in cities throughout our country, especially just a few miles from the White House and Congress, as Maryland and Virginia have a high concentration of Central Americans.
But the region has faced problems before, and previous American presidents have stepped up. Ronald Reagan, of course, comes to mind. When the Soviets and the Cubans decided to make Central America a test of America’s resolve, Reagan answered the call. He supported the Contras fighting the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He also backed El Salvador’s democratic president, Jose Napoleon Duarte, who was facing the equally Marxist guerrilla group the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Reagan won both those fights and Nicaraguans and Salvadorans electorally supported the sides he had picked, throwing out the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and voting for Duarte in El Salvador.
Many of us have long been warning the Obama administration to step up and support those in the region who have been our allies for years, who have been inspired by American values and who want to emulate the American experiment. It is those people precisely that the Obama administration has punished, while supporting those factions and individuals who have long loathed the American “Yankee.” A country-by-country survey of the Obama administration’s actions in the Northern Triangle shows how the administration has sown instability in Central America by siding with former guerrillas who have ties to drug trafficking.
Honduras presented the new Obama administration with one of its first foreign-policy tests. On June 28, only six months after President Obama had come into office, the Honduran Congress and the Supreme Court issued a warrant for the arrest of President Manuel Zelaya and asked the Armed Forces to physically remove him from the country. President Obama, it is now fair to say, botched that first test of Central American policy. Zelaya had close ties to Hugo Chavez, the then president of Venezuela (a transit point for the drug shipments). He was also an ally of every anti-American actor in Latin America and beyond (most notably, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and the Castro brothers in Cuba). Zelaya had tried to subvert Honduras’s constitution and stay in power, and when the country’s other legal institutions refused to budge, he tried to exploit fissures between the rich and the poor, calling mobs of his supporters to the streets.