The journey of Central American migrants to the US border – a perilous journey through thousands of miles of mountains and deserts – begins in places like the dry corridor of western Honduras.
Many of the region’s 1 million smallholder farmers still live in mud huts with no running water. Corrupt Honduran officials have invested too little in stabilizing or modernizing the region, allowing violent gangs to extort families. Recent droughts and hurricanes have created widespread hunger.
These long-standing problems across Central America are at the root of the current crisis at the southern border of the United States, where more than 170,000 migrants arrived in March in search of jobs and a asylum. As the Biden administration grapples with this growing outbreak, it proposes a long-term $ 4 billion plan (the largest ever for the region) to tackle the root causes of migration – corruption, violence and poverty – in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The Biden administration says fighting corruption is now the top priority because nothing will change until elected officials stop stealing and governments become more accountable to citizens. Countries will have to meet more stringent conditions, such as adopting governance reforms, before receiving aid, and officials face the threat of financial sanctions and revoked visas.
Honduras is a showcase for government crime. The election of President Juan Orlando Hernandez in 2017 was tainted with fraud. He is currently under investigation by US prosecutors who have brought a series of cocaine smuggling cases against prominent Hondurans. Members of the National Congress in Tegucigalpa are used to embezzlement and other forms of corruption, and the US Treasury Department has responded with sanctions.
But fierce diplomacy, with Vice President Kamala Harris leading the strategy team, is already meeting resistance. In early April, the US special envoy to the region, Ricardo Zuniga, born in Honduras, visited El Salvador to advocate against corruption. But President Nayib Bukele, upset by criticism from a State Department official about his commitment to the rule of law, refused to meet with the envoy.
The snub is said to be familiar to a long line of presidents who have stumbled across the region. Since 1960, governments have strategically deployed about $ 24 billion in foreign aid to Central America and the Caribbean.
Honduran economy, once dominated by coffee and banana exports to the United States, has produced a number of ultra-wealthy clans resistant to the idea of cleaning up corruption.
Miguel Facusse, whose nephew was President of Honduras, got rich from palm oil production and consumer products. But his legacy is marred by accusations stemming from human rights investigations that his security forces were involved in deadly clashes with small farmers over their claim to land in the area where his plantations operate. .
Today, President Hernandez tops a list of Honduran politicians, military and police who are under investigation or have been convicted of running what appears to be a drug cartel. state-sponsored, according to US prosecutors. The president has repeatedly denied any involvement in trafficking.
The Biden administration points to the silver linings in the dark clouds of the region’s recent history. Over the past five years, an effort to root out political corruption has made remarkable progress before being canceled. The United States-backed effort to reform the National Police also got off to a promising start five years ago. The police were used as a tool by cocaine traffickers, who exploited low-paid agents with profits for dirty work. The 2016 revelation that senior police officials organized the assassination of the Honduran anti-drug tsar ultimately forced President Hernandez and Congress to set up a commission that acted quickly to purge 5,000 cops and corrupt senior officials. and inexperienced – including six generals.
The purge was a watershed moment showing that Hondurans could overthrow a stronghold of crime. But four years later, drug traffickers start breaking into the police again, forcing good officers to choose whether to take a bribe or a bullet. “The traffickers say to the cops, ‘I’m going to kill you if you don’t help me or if you don’t take a lot of money,” said Kurt Ver Beek, co-founder of the Association for a Fairer Society in Honduras. “So they take the money.”
US agencies have funded other projects such as community policing to reduce crime in Honduras, which ten years ago had the highest murder rate in the world. However, corporate extortion by criminal gangs – one of the main drivers of migration – can get worse. Gang members approach small businesses, like barbers, food vendors and taxi drivers, and demand a small monthly payment that continues to rise until the owner can no longer pay it and runs away. . Hondurans call the extortion a “war tax”.
As officials steal public funds and gangs push businesses to close, it’s no wonder half of Hondurans’ population remains nearly locked in poverty. The high rate has not improved much over the past decade and is twice the level of neighboring El Salvador.
USAID’s Future Employment program had the ambition in 2016 to train 7,500 at-risk youth in Honduras and place half of them in jobs to keep them away from gangs. The program struggled to find enough recruits in difficult neighborhoods and enough employers willing to take a chance and hire them. Aid experts criticized the agency for hiring U.S. and international contractors to administer most of the program’s funding and for missing an opportunity to train local advocates to push for reforms.
Meanwhile, migrants from Central America are flocking to the US border. The increase that began a year ago has accelerated under Biden, threatening to exceed one million this year, the highest total in more than a decade. Biden’s root cause strategy won’t change anything at the border in the short term. Proponents say progress will be incremental at best and measured in decades, not years.
This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published on May 5.