Pressing Issues in Central America and Mexico

man, speaking, mexico and us relations 2014 © Rick Reinhard

On February 28, 2014, the Inter-American Dialogue organized a Capitol Hill conference on pressing issues in Central America and Mexico. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA); the chair of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ); and Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Michael McCaul (R-TX), Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), and Jared Polis (D-CO) co-sponsored the meeting.

The event was the culmination of a three-year initiative undertaken by the Dialogue, in cooperation with policy centers and think-tanks in Central America and Mexico, to examine the critical issues the region is facing today. The February 28 conference specifically addressed two of the most pressing: (1) the risk posed by crime and violence in governance, social and economic progress, and rule of law; and (2) the inability of the United States, Mexico, and the nations of Central America to effectively address multiple political, social, and security problems that have emerged from the continuation of largely illegal, northward migration flows.

The Dialogue launched the event with a welcome reception on Thursday evening, February 27. Discussions began the following morning in the Rayburn House Office Building, where experts from the United States, Central America, and Mexico gathered to discuss the economic and political climate of the region; migration and related U.S. immigration policy; and the region’s ongoing security crisis. Participants included journalists, civil servants, academics, members of civil society, and congressional staffers.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, offered a welcome address to commence the conference, during which he noted the significance of hosting the concluding event of the Dialogue’s Central America and Mexico Security series on Capitol Hill. The conference location and its congressional co-sponsors provided an opportunity to engage members Congress from both sides of the aisle on the region’s most critical challenges. Three sessions comprised the event, with each focusing on a particularly pressing issue in the region. The first session, titled “State of Play: Economic and Political Overview of Central America,” explored the overarching political and economic climate in the region and outlooks for a changing political map in 2014. A second panel, titled “Migration, Deportation, and U.S. Immigration Policy,” featured discussion of current trends of Central American and Mexican migration, U.S. immigration policy, and the reforms and initiatives that could address migration issues in the region. A third panel, “International Security Cooperation,” discussed the ongoing security crisis in the region and efforts to curb violence, drug trafficking, and fortify institutions to combat impunity.

State of Play: Economic and Political Overview of Central America and Mexico

The panelists of the first session included Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary for political affairs at the Organization of American States; Mario Arana of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Social and Economic Development (FUNIDES); and Carlos Dada, founder of El Faro. Mr. Shifter moderated the discussion.

According to Carlos Dada, “not much has changed,” regarding the economy and security in El Salvador. The country continues to struggle to achieve more than 2% annual growth, while security remains the chief concern of Salvadorans, who reside in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Dada acknowledged El Salvador’s stability; a peaceful change of power five years ago spoke to the maturity of El Salvador’s democracy. Nonetheless, the FMLN has proven capable of political behavior ascribed to its predecessors, making “pacts under a Machiavelli version of politics,” according to Dada. The Funes administration has also failed to significantly enhance the conditions of life of the majority of Salvadorans, with the country lacking resources to meet their basic needs. These shortcomings, combined with jobs that fall short of the population’s demands, renders El Salvador incapable of stopping its middle class from migrating to the United States in search of a better life.

Dada identified the gang truce in El Salvador as the most significant change regarding security in the country, calling it “a very successful story.” However, while it resulted in a reduced homicide rate, the gang truce emerged from a “dark and secretive association” between state officials and gang members, who discovered they “could do politics” through the process. Dada also addressed narcotrafficking and resulting corruption in El Salvador, where cartels have more strength than political institutions can face. Making “no distinction between ideologies,” narcotrafficking has corrupted officials from every political party. Officials undertaking initiatives in line with individual preferences, rather than the state promoting a consistent and coherent policy, impede the execution of effective policies to address security and narcotrafficking issues, according to Dada.

The challenge for Central America, asserted Mario Arana, is to “grow more.” The growth achieved from structural reforms of the 1990s will likely sustain itself “in spite of changes in administrations” occurring throughout the region, he argued. However, although Central American countries have grown, they have been unable to solve the persistent problems of unequal distribution and poverty, which have contributed to political and social decomposition. Arana identified Central America’s relations with the United States as a “big part of the picture,” as trade and investment play a key role in the region’s growth. However, unlike the 1980s, U.S. policy has been one of “neglect,” in the region, despite the mutual benefits all actors could reap from Central American growth. Arana stressed the need for investment in infrastructure in the region, including roads, railroads, and ports, asserting that, overall, “the region needs more money” to make things work. Central Americans want to see governments working for them, which can result in “strong men” governing, such as President Ortega in Nicaragua. Although Arana acknowledged the efficacy of such strong leaders, he identified this trend as the region’s “desgracia,” calling it unsustainable and compromising democracy. Building institutions remains the greatest challenge.

Casas-Zamora also stressed the importance of strong institutions, and identified Central America’s central political challenge as “the weakness of the Central American states and weakness of political power.” These shortcomings manifest themselves through states’ “fiscal feebleness” and the “lack of bureaucratic capabilities” that compound this absence of financial resources. Although collecting taxes provides the financial means to strengthen the state, should a state that does not have the ability to spend money wisely tax more? Casas-Zamora questioned. Despite misgivings, however, tackling the tax issue is the first step to addressing state weakness, he argued. Casas-Zamora also acknowledged the region’s recent economic growth, but cautioned that continuing to sign free trade agreements cannot guarantee it will continue when “structural weaknesses of economics are very deep.” Such structural factors, including low quality education, poor infrastructure, little investment in research and development, and a large informal sector, limit productivity, Casas-Zamora argued.

Although the region has recently reduced crime levels, the Central American states’ structural weaknesses continue to facilitative criminal activity in the region, Casas-Zamora argued. He described law enforcement institutions as “in shambles” and the 25% of young adults neither studying nor working a “security time bomb.” There are limits to external assistance addressing the region’s security issues; Central Americans themselves address the structural factors that allow crime to thrive. Just as the region itself found a solution to armed conflicts 25 years ago, so must it take it upon itself to create safe and prosperous societies, Casas-Zamora argued.

While a “bleak flavor” characterizes recent discussion of Central America, “we should never forget where we came from,” asserted Casas-Zamora. Thirty years after civil wars and narcodictatorships subsumed the region, the glass is “half-full, in spite of everything,” he contended.

Migration, Deportation, and U.S. Immigration Policy

Manuel Orozco, director of the Dialogue’s Migration, Remittances, and Development program, moderated the second session. Panelists included Rubén Zamora, ambassador of El Salvador to the United States; Rafael Fernández de Castro, director of the department of international studies at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM), and Doris Meissner, director of the US immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute.

Orozco opened the session noting the increased interest in human mobility as the global economy increasingly demands foreign labor in both high and low skill jobs. The economic and political performance of Mexico and Central America continues to prompt people to migrate, searching for a better political situation and decent salary. In addition, states’ migration policies impact migration flows, such as Costa Rica’s immigration law to regularize its undocumented labor force, and the United States’ ongoing immigration debate that now spans decades.

According to Meissner, the deportation issue remains “acutely important,” and “will be even more important in terms of the region and dialogue within the region” in years to come. Since September 11, 2001, the United States has deported close to 4 million people. Although 2 million deportations have occurred during the Obama administration, the infrastructure and political support for vigorous enforcement dates back to the 1990s and has received bi-partisan backing. An emphasis on removing criminals from the United States has garnered public support, but again points to the need for reform when the criminal offense of deportees is immigration-related.

The increased number of deportations significantly impacts the receiving countries, agreed Zamora. As the United States deports increasing numbers of Salvadorans, remittances, a significant portion of El Salvador’s economy, decline. In addition, the state must face the question of what to do with returnees, some of whom have committed crimes in the United States. El Salvador has yet to implement a policy of reintegrating returning migrants. As a result, many face the two most immediate choices of earning a living: joining a gang or selling drugs. El Salvador also continues to suffer the consequences of gang activity in the United States, where groups like MS-13 began and evolved. Gang members deported from the United States pose a significant challenge for the country as it continues to battle a security crisis. 

The security crisis in Central America and Mexico increasingly supplements the traditional reasons for migration from the region, noted Meissner. In addition to the lack of economic opportunity in their home countries, migrants increasingly “head north” because of high levels of crime and violence and weak states’ incapacity to address them. Fernández de Castro elaborated on the security issue by stressing the dangers Central American migrants increasingly face while traversing Mexico en route to the United States. While waiting for immigration reform, the region has failed to address the suffering of migrants, many of whom encounter violence, sexual assault, and robbery on their journey northward. Fernández de Castro highlighted the massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas, Mexico as evidence of the gravest danger that migrants encounter. Moreover, he argued, they face two choices after violent episodes: continue onward to the United States or return home; obtaining justice in Mexico is out of the question.

As migration throughout the region continues, states face old and new challenges. For Zamora, the influx of remittances into El Salvador has undermined the state by serving as a social security system. Migrants send remittances directly to the pocket of those who need them. The lack of state involvement in these transactions has direct and broad political implications, Zamora argued, as remittances remove the main instrument of legitimizing state authority. Meanwhile, Mexico finds its identity in the migration issue in flux. Once predominantly a sending country, Mexico is now a sending, receiving, and transit country for migration, facing the issues of Mexican migrants deported from the United States, outward migration, and migrants traversing its territory, many of whom suffer human rights abuses. Mexico thus has a “vertical border,” according to Fernández de Castro. Out of 10 Central Americans migrating to the United States, Mexico deports five from its territory.

Despite these many challenges, immigration reform before 2015 is unlikely, the panelists agreed. Zamora acknowledged that the U.S. immigration system is broken, but noted that it is up to the United States itself to resolve it. Although he will continue to support comprehensive reform, Zamora acknowledged that such a measure is unlikely given the present political conditions. Central American countries can thus attempt to make inroads via distinct policies in the meantime. For example, El Salvador can develop initiatives to ameliorate the conditions of its people, such as advocating for changing the costly process of extending Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans living in the United States, improving the government’s access to Salvadorans in immigration detention, and reducing immigration case backlogs.

Fernández de Castro agreed, arguing that waiting for reform has proven too long and too costly. He stressed the importance of an official dialogue between the United States and Mexico concerning migration, which will allow both countries to gain a fuller understanding of the issues the other faces. On a regional scale, the United States could help Mexico can traction with the Central American countries on the issue, while Mexico can more effectively stress the issues it faces with protecting Central American migrants.

Representative Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), a co-sponsor of the conference, joined the second panel prior to its conclusion. Cárdenas, acknowledging Los Angeles as the number one city for exporting gangs, stressed the importance of recognizing that security in Latin America is “an American problem.” Significantly, the Congressman contended that the war on drugs has proven unsuccessful, noting that the billions of dollars spent have exacerbated the situation and driven drug prices up, thus heightening incentive for more individuals’ involvement. In addition, Representative Cárdenas asserted that the United States does not always appreciate the potential of the “countries south of us,” and argued for its increased attention in the region. He specifically identified immigration reform, which will impact the United States’ relations with Central America more than any other region, as an issue that the United States Congress must address.

International Security Cooperation

Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Dialogue, moderated the third session of the conference. Eduardo Stein, a member of the Dialogue and former Vice President of Guatemala; Jorge Chabat of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City; and Hector Silva, an investigative journalist from El Salvador, participated on the panel.

Silva began the conversation by discussing the current security situation in the region and the United States’ policies to address it, and argued that a disconnect exists between the reality on the ground and United States’ response. The goals of U.S. policy, as articulated by then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2010, all remain “a burning challenge,” according to Silva; the problems of human rights violations, corruption, and state weakness in El Salvador have worsened. Silva noted that the “Washington approach” to Central America remains rooted in an “old paradigm,” contending that the United States addresses the region’s security issues using the “same lines of narrative and with the same set of players” as it did in the 1980s. The reality on the ground has grown increasingly complex, and “piecemeal” efforts, compounded by a lack of coordination between the United States and domestic governments, have only partially addressed regional security issues. Echoing the sentiments of previous panels, Silva noted that Central Americans understand it is up to them to address these problems with effective approaches and policies, and identified the gang truce in El Salvador as an example.

The central challenge, according to Silva, is the structural weakness of Central American states. At their core, he argued, “is a widespread culture of corruption and impunity that has deep historical roots and hasn’t been addressed either by local governments or approached by U.S. foreign policy.”

Chabat agreed, asserting that “the only real solution is to invest in institutions.” Moreover, if the problem of corruption remains unresolved, the state will not function as intended. In Mexico, he contended, “it’s not the software, it’s the hardware” that impedes effective state response to the country’s weak rule of law and security challenges. To ensure the state effectively uses resources to combat crime and fortify its institutions, he argued, international cooperation should focus on appropriating financial support to reliable actors.

In the security agenda, the issue of sovereignty frequently comes into play, noted Stein. The new types of solutions to address security and rule of law challenges are increasingly transnational, and thus immediately attack the nature of independent nation-states. As a result, there is a need for “a different type of state,” argued Stein. Central American governments grew accustomed to ceding sovereignty to incorporate internationally-imposed financial policy; perhaps they should do the same with regard to security policy. Providing an example of a domestically-initiated solution, Stein discussed the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), created in 2006 to investigate and prosecute crimes in Guatemala. This project, a United Nations and Guatemala collaboration, created inroads into Guatemala’s justice system and strengthened the capacity of its Ministerio Público to conduct professional investigations and trials. Though the CICIG was a tremendous undertaking costing more than $20 million annually, Stein believes Guatemala rightly obtained the assistance of international experts to combat impunity.

Summing up the panelists’ discussion, Hakim stated that Central American states largely lack the institutions to combat crime. The United States, while it has the institutions to effectively do so, approaches the regional security challenges the wrong way.


The Dialogue is grateful for the support of the Tinker Foundation, without which this important conference would not be possible.


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