Obama's Central American Follies

June 23, 2014 Topic: The PresidencyGrand Strategy Region: Central America

Obama's Central American Follies

"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."


The Bar Association canceled Barrios suspension after that, proving once again that the United States has plenty of influence in the country. Unfortunately, this administration uses its influence for purposes that do not always seem to support U.S. interests. Writing in May, Armando de la Torre from Guatemala’s renowned Francisco Marroquin University and Steve Hecht said:

The Obama administration’s blatant support for the ex-guerrillas of Guatemala shows the unvarnished Obama agenda. The U.S. embassy and its friends mercilessly oppose, with callous disregard for the facts, those Guatemalans who faithfully execute their duties. . .people who really do support the rule of law, and thereby threaten the leftist agenda.


El Salvador

If the Obama administration has been activist in Honduras and Guatemala, in El Salvador it has been strangely quiescent. Our ambassador there—Mari Carmen Aponte, a leftist Obama appointee [1]—never lifted a finger to bring attention to the ties between the drug gangs and the man who was elected president in February, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

Sánchez Cerén is in a class by himself. A former Marxist guerrilla leader who has admitted to taking part in brutal killings, he is fiercely anti-American. On September 11, 2001, he led a mob down San Salvador streets and burned the American flag in celebration of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Would action by Mrs. Aponte have made a difference in this year’s elections? It might have; Sánchez Cerén was elected by a whisker, garnering 50.1 percent of the vote against 49.9 percent for his opponent.

Mrs. Aponte had plenty to work with had she wanted to request law enforcement sanctions against Sánchez Cerén and his cronies. His FMLN party has well known links to MS-13 and Calle 18. A close ally of Sánchez Cerén, José Luis Merino, is the well-documented connection between the FMLN, the FARC (the Colombian drug and terror group) and the Italian Mafia. The Wall Street Journal’s José de Cordoba reported:

…documents [which] show that the FARC has an international support network stretching from Madrid to Mexico City, Buenos Aires to Bern. Merino, the documents suggest, is a key link in that international chain, the FARC’s man in El Salvador, and one of the architects of an arms deal that includes everything from sniper rifles to ground-to-air missiles.

What to Do

Clearly, the Obama administration policy in Central America is not working. We’re seeing the results not just at the border, but in the streets of our inner cities. Equally clear is the way forward. My colleague at The Heritage Foundation, Ana Quintana, offers the following steps:


  • Remove withholding requirements on foreign assistance to Honduras: Under the Obama administration, the United States has directly contributed to the country’s descent. Following Honduras’s constitutional crisis of 2009, the United States suspended critical aid and joint military operations, largely in the form of counternarcotics assistance. Land, sea and air counternarcotics operations along the Caribbean coast virtually halted, and they were weakened elsewhere. Drug trafficking organizations quickly filled the security vacuum. Since FY2012, Congress has withheld a minimum of 20 percent of security assistance. It maintained this provision in FY2013 and in FY2014, increased the hold to 35 percent, despite the country making great strides in both human rights and democratic governance. Congressional appropriators should ensure the FY2015 budget stops suppressing the U.S. security engagement.


  • Let Honduras repair its fleet of F-5 jet fighters. Congress recently blocked Israel from taking a contract to repair a fleet of Cold War-era F-5 jet fighters provided by the United States in the 1980s. Despite Honduras’ membership in the F-5 Technical Operation Group, the quality of the fleet leaves much to be desired. The Obama administration must recognize that repairing the fleet is a critical component in the country’s efforts to arrest both inbound and outbound drug flights. Honduras is currently the transit point for an estimated 79 percent of northbound South American drug flights, and this number is expected to increase. The repair of this fleet would support the country’s much-needed expansions in aeronautical radar technology.


  • Recognize Guatemala’s critical position and relieve burdensome legislative restrictions: Congressional restrictions on Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) for Guatemala continue to undermine regional-security efforts. It hinders the promotion of human rights and reduces our ability to promote democratic values and professional military education. In 2013, U.S. Southern Command supported the new Guatemalan Interagency Task Force, which provides infrastructure and operational antitrafficking support along the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Yet FMF and IMET restrictions impede strengthening this cooperation. Guatemala shares a 600-mile border with Mexico and is the final Central American destination for individuals traveling from Honduras and El Salvador. Despite the long border, there are only eight formal points of entry. With the surge in unlawful border crossings, an estimated 350 informal crossings have been created. The United States should support Guatemala’s efforts to secure this border.

These simple steps would do a lot more for our country’s security than relitigating the 1980s.

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, served in the State Department in the George W. Bush administration and reported from Latin America, Europe and Asia during almost two decades as a journalist. His book, A Race For the Future, is due out in September.

[1] Note: Aponte’s nomination was held up in 2010 by then Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). DeMint is now president of my employer, The Heritage Foundation.