Op-Ed

Exclusive: White House building prosperity to ensure security in Central America

Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speak during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C. in May.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speak during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C. in May. Getty Images

In recent years, the world has seen a surge in migrants fleeing war, political persecution, or economic chaos. According to the United Nations, most of these displaced persons remain in their own countries, but millions also venture abroad, often undertaking perilous journeys and straining their new host nations.

International donors and the international community—particularly the United States—have provided billions of dollars to aid these migrants. But what if comparatively smaller sums were used to keep these humanitarian crises from happening in the first place?

Consider the case of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, three Central American countries that are known as the “Northern Triangle.” Each is under assault from a combination of poverty, ruthless gangs, and transnational crime. Over the last ten years, almost three million people from these three countries, mostly women and children, have left their communities and headed north, some staying in Mexico and others trying to reach the United States.

Almost twenty years ago, the South American nation of Colombia faced a similar crisis because of violence stoked by guerrilla warfare, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels. In that case, a bipartisan group from the U.S. Congress decided to support a long-term plan—Plan Colombia—to fortify the country’s public institutions, train and equip security forces, help fight narcotics traffickers, and expand social programs. For every dollar contributed by U.S. taxpayers, Colombia put in about 19 dollars—on top of the blood, sweat, and tears of countless patriots who longed to reclaim their country.

Contrary to what many initially predicted, Plan Colombia worked, as three consecutive Colombian administrations showed strong political will and carried out a sustained program to dismantle the cartels, increase security, and foster economic activity. Today, millions of Colombians are committed to making their country a better place to live, work and raise their families.

We believe a similar strategy can work in Central America. For the past two years, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been supporting the Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle. Essentially, this plan seeks to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras achieve what Colombia has – to regain control over territory, end the cycle of violence, corruption and impunity, win the confidence of investors, and create conditions for sustained and inclusive economic growth.

The Northern Triangle countries are pursuing these goals by vetting, professionalizing, and modernizing their police and criminal justice systems to better fight gangs and transnational crime. They are revamping their tax and customs administrations to boost revenues and make government procurement more transparent. The governments are expanding access to education, healthcare, and other social services. They are providing incentives for businesses to increase investments and create more jobs.

While it is far too soon to declare victory, we are seeing encouraging early results: declining homicide rates, increasing tax revenues, better targeted spending on schools and hospitals, and higher rankings in international business climate indexes. Such efforts, however, will need to be sustained over time if they are to take root.

Just as Plan Colombia enjoyed strong bipartisan support during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, the Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle has so far received generous U.S. contributions, including $650 million in the latest federal budget. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have collectively budgeted $5.3 billion for the initiative in the last two years, including $850 million in loans from the IDB. And the Bank is committed to providing an additional $750 million in loans for infrastructure projects over the next five years.

This week, we will have an opportunity to learn more about the Central American nations’ most recent progress, political commitment, and future needs when Vice President Pence leads a delegation to meet with the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in Miami for a conference focused on securing support from the local and international business communities.

The conference is co-sponsored by the United States and Mexico, with many partners from the wider international community attending as observers.

The goal is to trigger a positive “investment shock” – particularly in much-needed infrastructure that will improve competitiveness and generate jobs.

The Trump Administration is committed to making this initiative a pillar of its broader strategy to combat illegal immigration by creating conditions for shared security and economic growth across the hemisphere. Some critics may argue that there are elements of nation-building in this plan, and that each country has the duty to fix its own problems, which is true. There is no doubt that each country must sustain a strong political commitment to confront these challenges. But the United States also shares some responsibility for what is happening in the Northern Triangle, as the American demand for illegal drugs fuels criminal activity in these countries.

As was the case in Colombia, nearly all the costs and risks of this effort will be borne by the citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. But as Plan Colombia proved, international support at this critical juncture could be the decisive factor in ensuring a turn-around.

Creating an environment that accelerates private sector investment in the Northern Triangle countries benefits all involved – the United States and Mexico will see a decrease in the number of economic migrants illegally entering, and the Northern Triangle countries will benefit from increased economic prosperity and domestic cohesion.

This environment will further encourage the good people of the Northern Triangle countries to invest in their own countries, start businesses in their communities, and create a virtuous cycle that will provide opportunities for their children to thrive at home.

Tillerson is the U.S. Secretary of State. Kelly is the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC.

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