So far, the crisis of the Central American children has been largely defined as either a humanitarian problem or has served to deepen the debate about immigration reform. Yet an aspect of the problem which has been largely overlooked is the lawlessness, criminality, corruption, and anarchy in the three Central American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) that these children are trying to escape from.
Some Republican lawmakers blamed President Barack Obama for not upholding immigration laws. According to this theory, it created an incentive for the children to come to the U.S. illegally. Likewise, they hold the president responsible since, in their view, the promise of immigration reform encouraged a mass illegal immigration.
Several Democratic Members of Congress that I recently met, argued that if we expect Jordan to absorb a large number of refugees created by the Syrian civil war, there is no reason why the United States should not absorb 50,000 children from Central America that are escaping the abuses of drug trafficking and the generalized violence it creates .
In turn, President Obama made several proposals. First he pledged to sign an executive order to make changes in the immigration system which he would do without congressional approval. He said he would do this in order to grant some kind of relief to undocumented immigrants.
Also, the president, in a letter directed to the Congressional leadership, proposed a number of measures aimed at further controlling our borders and expanding the use of alternative detention programs. The proposal also included working with Central American countries and Mexico in order to hunt the criminal organizations and smuggling rings that exploit those individuals who try to reach our borders.
Thus, President Obama made a commitment to provide resources to Central American countries in order to improve the capacity of these countries to receive and reintegrate returned individuals, improve their existing repatriation processes, and increase the capacity of these governments and nongovernmental organizations to provide expanded services to returned migrants. “Additional resources will support community policing and law enforcement efforts to combat gang violence and strengthen citizen security in some of the most violent communities in these countries”.
Without dismissing any of the presidential initiatives; without dismissing the humanitarian considerations; and without taking away from the important debate on immigration reform, none of those actions and criticisms from both sides of the aisle discusses a major issue that can badly affect our national security: The problem of the increasing anarchy of the countries in Central America.
In the words of the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, these minors are “displaced persons” as a result of a war caused by drug trafficking, and related fights between gangs to seize control of crime and recruit children and teenagers for criminal purposes.
Hernandez charged that the United States government is making a minimal effort to fight criminal organizations that ship drugs to the U.S. The president of El Salvador, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, made an appeal to double efforts to fight drug trafficking and crime.
Indeed, these countries are already in a state of anarchy where drug cartels and traffickers have bought the cooperation of the police and the state bureaucracies.
These countries have lost both their ability to exercise governance and provide security to their citizens.
If the United States provides money to law enforcement to insure the law and prevent criminals from smuggling children, who can guarantee that these law enforcement agencies are not part of the problem, that they themselves are not extortionists, drug traffickers or child enslavers?
When there is an entire region that has either succumbed to anarchy (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), it opens up a gate for infiltration of dangerous elements.
Iran and its proxy, the terrorist organization, Hezbollah, have had a presence in Latin America for years. It is known that Hezbollah cooperates with drug cartels. Of course, the Colombian guerilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which operates as both a drug cartel and a terrorist organization produces 70 % of the total Colombian refined cocaine and controls the shipments of drugs out of Colombia. From Colombia most of the cocaine passes through Venezuela, up through Central America and into Mexico where Mexican drug cartels market, sell, and transport the product into the United States.
Ultimately, the FARC is a violent guerilla organization that uses violence and challenges stability. The drug business is a means. Hezbollah uses the connections between the FARC and the narco-state of Venezuela to raise money whose ultimate purpose is to serve Shiite terrorism and Iran’s goals.
In addition to the FARC and Hezbollah, the anarchy that now characterizes a good part of Central America could be a draw for other terrorist groups. Next, it could well be the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant known as ISIL or ISIS. Their Al Qaeda style of threatening the United States, their ruthlessness with respect to human lives, and their search for financial resources could make Central America an easy target for their brand of terrorism. The expanding drug business and lawlessness provide a sort of safe heaven of fund-raising and a strategic place from where they could carry out a number of activities.
First, ISIL would be in an area geographically close to the U.S. As such they could kidnap Americans and extort them easily in exchange for money. Secondly, they could obtain documentation that would allow them free movement in the continent that could make U.S. embassies and other institutions vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Finally, ISIL could deepen its’ involvement in the drug trafficking and criminal activities in Latin America to help provide funding resources to their murderous organization.
Hezbollah, of course, has been doing all of the above for a long time.
Furthermore, with an increasing presence of terrorist organizations that work with drug cartels, we may even face a worse situation.
As in Gaza, Mexican drug cartels have built very sophisticated tunnels to smuggle drugs into the United States. These tunnels are equipped with electricity, ventilation and a rail system. Hundreds of tons of cocaine were transferred through these tunnels. These tunnels connect between warehouses or between two regular houses on both sides of the border. In fact, what Hamas did on the Gaza/Israel or Gaza/Egypt border is no different than what we have seen on the U.S./Mexico border. This is a “perfect union” where Middle East terrorists and Latin drug cartels can find a lot in common. According to reports, Hezbollah helped the cartels build those tunnels in the image of the tunnels it had built in Southern Lebanon. Just to be clear tunnels in the Southern U.S. are more diffcult to detect than in Gaza.
It is time to think about this recent crisis of illegal influx of unaccompanied children not purely as a humanitarian issue, a border patrol problem or an immigration reform issue. This is a national security issue that requires serious changes in the state structure of the Central American countries we mentioned and a very serious strategy to restore law and order. Cosmetic changes will not help.
The United States can ill afford to live with failed states in its neighborhood or to have three countries that look like Afghanistan or Lebanon during their worst times. This is not an option in the era of asymmetric war and dangerous non-state actors. Therefore, any strategy in regard to Central America should pursue the goal of eliminating criminality altogether, restoring government authority, and assisting in the task of nation and institution building.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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