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Miami summit an opportunity to rethink Central America

Honduran family gets into a U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck. They came escaping gang violence.
Honduran family gets into a U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck. They came escaping gang violence. AP

This week’s Miami summit with the presidents of three of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest and most violent nations may not draw the kind of attention of the recent NATO or G-7 meetings attended by President Trump, but maybe it should.

The direct implications of the Miami meeting for the national security of the United States should not be ignored.

The irregular flow of migrants and the existence of illicit trafficking networks in Central America are symptomatic of the region’s greatest challenges: fragile governments infested with corruption that are unable to protect their own citizens, provide adequate economic opportunities or deliver basic services. Failure to address these challenges in a comprehensive and sustained way poses grave risks to the region, and ultimately the security of the United States.

Dubbed the “Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America,” the June 15 and 16 meeting is the brainchild of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. He, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, will co-host the meeting with their Mexican counterparts.

The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras - representing what is commonly known as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) - will be in attendance. No policy breakthrough or new aid program is expected, but the meeting is the first high-level summit between the Central American presidents and the Trump Administration and will set the tone of the relationship for years to come.

While the Trump Administration intends the meeting to highlight a renewed commitment to working collaboratively with Mexico and the Northern Triangle, this message is undermined by its own 2018 budget request to Congress where U.S. assistance for the NTCA countries is slashed by about a third, potentially gutting essential aid programs dedicated to violence reduction.

The first official day of the conference will be chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, and will focus on “advancing prosperity and economic growth.” A half-day pre-meeting organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Inter-American Development Bank will bring together Central American private sector and potential investors to focus on the region’s development needs.

On day two, Secretary Kelly will take the lead in defining U.S. security relations and policy towards Central America. Mexico’s Interior Secretary, Miguel Osorio Chong, responsible for his country’s civilian law enforcement and intelligence apparatus, will co-chair the day’s proceedings.

In this context I offer the following five caveats and suggestions for dealing with the region’s multiple security challenges based on thirty years of experience in Central America and Mexico.

It’s important to not reduce Central America’s complex challenges to a matter of ending drug trafficking – which is a fool’s errand. Drugs are a concern but they are not the region’s only problem, or even its most pressing one. Furthermore, drug consumption in gang-infested neighborhoods is a problem that requires a strategy rooted in treatment, education, and employment, not bigger jails and greater isolation.

If we focus narrowly on interdicting and eradicating drugs, while capturing and extraditing drug lords, we run the risk of missing the bigger picture – the deeper problems that undermined democracy in the region before it became a central drug transshipment point. Central America became a key transit zone for drugs because of its weak governments and endemic corruption, not the other way around. Organized crime takes root and prospers where the state is weakest or non-existent.

Data generated by U.S. military and intelligence suggests that cocaine entering the U.S. through the Central America-Mexico corridor has shifted very little in the last eight years despite billions spent by the U.S., Mexico, and Central American nations in law enforcement efforts, intelligence agencies, and militaries. An estimated 95 percent of cocaine entered the U.S. through this corridor in 2010 and approximately 90 percent entered in 2016. It’s time to rethink our counter-narcotics strategy, not double down on something that isn’t working.

Corruption may be the single most important problem to be addressed. It destroys government, skews the economy, and contributes to the region’s extreme violence. It erodes public confidence in essential institutions – police and justice systems in particular – and is a disincentive to vital investments. Fighting corruption is especially difficult because the state institutions charged with this task, like prosecutors and judges, have traditionally been corrupt and subject to political manipulation.

Fortunately, there are some glimmers of hope in the region. The international community has come together in Guatemala and Honduras to support innovative mechanisms that have worked with local prosecutors to deal serious blows to corruption at the highest levels. And El Salvador’s attorney general has done the same with international support. But fighting corruption is a constant task, and the U.S. and Central America cannot afford to take their foot off the pedal.

A strategy that builds from the bottom up is not a glamorous approach but may be the most successful. Reinforcing local governance, professionalizing the police and prosecutors, and providing youth opportunities are the most important ways to combat violence and corruption. Strengthening family and social structures, reforming neighborhood schools, and creating employment skills and opportunities may not be as sexy as capturing the latest kingpin or making a multi-ton drug bust, but it may ultimately be the most useful and successful.

Deportation of gang members from the U.S. to Central America could easily backfire and make the situation in Central America worse. While it is understandable that the Administration has sought to increase deportations of violent and destructive gangs like MS-13, it was the deportation of MS-13 and rival gangs, formed in places like Los Angeles, during in the 1990s and 2000s that propelled El Salvador and its Central American neighbors to the brink of collapse. These countries were completely unprepared to receive and reintegrate gang members, leaving them free to take root and grow.

Those deported gang members have contributed to the violence that helps drive current migration to the U.S. That vicious cycle will only be strengthen if we once again attempt to deport our way out of this problem. Returning MS-13 members or other violent criminals to Central America, where governments are weak and jails are already overcrowded and teeming with violence, will simply push the countries closer to the brink, generate further migration, and exacerbate the current humanitarian crisis.

Finally, the U.S. needs to reconcile itself to the notion that its own security depends on a prosperous and stable Central America and Mexico. Simply walling itself off from these problems, some of which are of our own making, won’t make the U.S. safer. Instead, the U.S. will be better, safer, and stronger if we adopt a long-term policy of working with Central Americans to root out corruption, recover government institutions, and restore the social fabric that has been seriously tattered by decades of conflict, violence, and exclusion. This will involve enormous sacrifice from the governments and people of Central America, but it also requires dedication, patience, and generosity on the part of the U.S. The outcome of the Miami meeting should be to strengthen this framework rather than narrow it to a simple counternarcotic, counter-terrorism strategy that ignores the subtleties of a region of vital national importance to the United States.