San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

US nation-building efforts should be in Central America, not Iraq and Afghanistan

It’s nice to see the United States paying attention to Central America again. Too bad it took tens of thousands of desperate children pouring across the border to attract our interest.

If we’d done more to help our poor, violence-racked neighbors to the south over the past couple of decades, then there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be struggling with the current crisis.

Instead, we were so busy with nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq that we didn’t bother trying to do the same in countries that are closer, smaller, easier to influence, and at least as crucial to our well-being.

One prominent politician with similar views, based partly on personal experience in the region, is U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. He taught in 1980 and 1981 in a Jesuit school in Honduras near San Pedro Sula, the murder-ridded city that seems to be producing more young migrants than any other.

Kaine laments that Washington has cut spending to support public security in Central America in recent years, while the U.S. appetite for cocaine shipped through the region has helped fuel the criminality contributing to the exodus.

“These kids overwhelmingly are refugees from an intolerably violent situation in their neighborhoods,” Kaine said. “The overwhelming cause is drug trafficking. … The amount of money to be made from selling drugs in the United States is so massive that it has corrupted civil institutions in the country – judiciary and the police – and gangs that want to make more money are killing anybody that gets in their way.”

Kaine would divert some of the billions spent to try to close the U.S.-Mexican border to strengthen law enforcement, boost economic growth and improve education in Central America.

“We’re being penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Kaine said. “We’re spending money on the wrong things. We need to be helping to rebuild civil society.”

There’s no question that a major factor contributing to the surge of young migrants is the now-notorious loophole in immigration law, adopted in 2008, that gave them an incentive to enter the United States without documents.

But there’s also no question that the rush to emigrate wouldn’t be nearly so strong if not for the violence and poverty in the migrants’ home countries.

It’s also clear that Central American governments need to take much more responsibility for fixing their problems. Unfortunately, they’re dominated by wealthy elites who hire private security guards to protect them in gated compounds and, thus, don’t suffer from the lawlessness afflicting fellow citizens.

As with Kaine, my interest in the subject stems in part from personal experience. In the mid-1980s, I was a Washington Post correspondent covering civil wars in Central America in which the U.S. government was deeply involved.

At that time, the threats posed by a leftist government in Nicaragua and Marxist-led guerrillas in El Salvador made the isthmus the hottest story around.

White crosses in memory of victims of violence are seen around Tegucigalpa, Honduras, after being placed by members of human rights organizations on July 9, 2014. Honduras, where gangs fight over drug trafficking routes, has the world’s highest homicide rate — 79 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

Orlando Sierra/AFP

Washington invested billions of dollars in military and economic aid for the region. It was taken for granted that making Central America safe and prosperous was vital to our own future.

That common wisdom evaporated as soon as the leftist menace faded with the civil wars’ end in the 1990s. Washington returned to its usual attitude toward the region: apathy and neglect. Despite repeated warnings from experts at institutions such as the Inter-American Dialogue and the Washington Office on Latin America, we looked the other way while the criminal gangs took root and economies stagnated.

The United States even contributed directly to creating the gangs. The two most powerful and dangerous gangs – MS-13 and 18th Street – originated in Los Angeles.

When members were caught and imprisoned, they were often deported back to their home countries. There, with few family ties or job prospects, they continued their criminal ways.

“Our deportation strategies weren’t really thinking about what they were producing on the other end,” said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America. “What the United States needs to do is to realize that our futures are integrally linked with the countries around us. If we want to be safe, it’s not just about putting up bigger walls. It’s about helping the region develop, and helping people in the region be safe.”

If only we can sustain our attention.

Robert McCartney is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Metro section.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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Scott Adams

BLA BLa Bla on the propaganda or not propaganda. We all need to be smarter. Consider this, President Obama needs 3.6 Billion to “beef up security” on our Southern Boarder due to the influx of Central American Immigrants. What we (as a US Citizen) should be doing is making 3.6 billion or more in Loans and Investments into these trouble Central American Countries. Help them reduce their crime and increase their jobs. We seem to wait until there’s an emergency to react and then we over react. An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Ken Morris

Here I expected to disagree with the article (I don’t like US nation-building anywhere) only to like it very much–and then to disagree with many of the posts in response to it.

A really nice touch in the article was the writer saying that during the 1980s Nicaragua was leftist while the rebels in El Salvador were Marxist-led. This is refreshingly accurate. Almost everyone else writes that Nicaragua was Marxist then, when it was not. This was the tag the Reagan administration incorrectly put on the Sandinistas, and since then not many journalists have failed to repeat it. This fellow proved that he actually knows what he’s talking about by avoiding this amateur but common mistake.

Anyway, the point is–and I do think the article is too soft in making it–that the problems in these countries that are pushing the kids northward are a result of their countries being dominated by drug gangs, which originated in, serve, and are probably still headquartered in the US. It’s nonsense to talk about how corrupt or whatever the governments in these countries are when the main reason for their corruption and incompetence is that the drug lords are in control of them.

I am no expert, but I happen to know a refugee family from El Salvador in Costa Rica. The dad was in one of the drug gangs, and as he explains it, that’s pretty much a forced choice for a teenage boy in many parts of El Salvador. You don’t have the option to refuse gang allegiance, only the choice between gangs. Then, once you’re in a gang, you can’t leave it or you’ll be killed. The only way he could quit and stay alive was to leave the country, and both he and his wife don’t want their kids to have to join the gangs too.

Basically, if I were a parent in that situation, I would probably put my kid on the train of death too. It’s a horrible choice, but a choice parents have to make and are now making rationally.

Anyway, this is a problem with roots in the US. It’s the power of the drug money and the completely ineffective US war on drugs that is the source. No small country can withstand this power and ineffective US policy on its own. It could have a King Solomon and still fail. (The drug gangs would probably just assassinate King Solomon.)

So I don’t care whether Democrats or Republicans own the major media in the US. This is irrelevant. Relevant is that the US demand for drugs and ineffective drug policies have created massive crises elsewhere, and the US has shirked its responsibilities to the victims it has helped create.

I still wouldn’t call the US’s responsibility “nation-building,” since I don’t think that’s what it is, but it has exported a serious problem that it should try to help fix.

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Propaganda is most likely what gave raise to the increased numbers of immigrants trying to cross the US borders, but by who’s hands?

FOX news will most likely end up blaming the President, as they blame him for everything else. Or the other side of the coin; the left will blame the right wing extremist.

Bottom line is, these kids are too young to know that life could be better some where else. Their parents are no more informed. If they were, they surely would know the idea of; “the land of opportunity” is a thing of the past if it ever existed at all for the majority of us. Plus it definitely did not include them.

Personally I find it to be more myth than reality, because it has really been for a minority few. Yes, the rest of us are allowed to pick up a few crumbs or scrap the bottom of the barrel. The cream goes to the very few.

The Central Americas have been passed over for thousands of years by all previous civilizations such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and the Incas, well except for the Spaniards; the thieving bottom feeders and corruptors. They have destroyed every country they have dominated.

The question is why. I personally feel part of it has to do with Spanish rule and the issue with the necessity of self determination.

The Central American Countries refuse to take responsibility for their own country’s needs and future, rather they have this mentality of seeking hand outs from other countries. They also have a culture of always trying to reinvent the wheel rather than build upon the foundations of past innovations. This may be the reason why little to no innovations which contribute to mankind comes from this area of the world.

As to the drug issue, the fault lies squarely with the US and Mexico. We could bring the drug trafficking an immigration issues to a grinding halt if there was the will.

Mexico has a hand in both the drug trafficking and all the illegal aliens coming from Central America. These aliens and drugs must first cross Mexico’s Southern borders before they ever find their way to the US, Mexican borders. I find it interesting how no one is discussing this issue.

As to nation building, the US needs to get back to taking care of our own country. The US is silently turning into a third world country because of our own dilapidated infrastructures, being a non producing nation, rather a consuming nation, and slipping in the realm of education. I guess one could add common sense.

While the US is being side tracked with internal bickering, China is busy entrenching it’s self all throughout Latin America. To the point of building a canal North of the Panama Canal in Nicaragua. This could be used to cut off the United State’s access to the Panama Canal. Not withstanding, having China at our back door step.

There is no doubt there is a major issue with what is taking place with corporate America and the multi national companies taking control over the United States. The United States has not been run by “the people and for the people” since the death of President Kennedy, if not before.

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Unfortunately the president has refused to enforce the U.S. immigration laws that he does not agree which is a violation of his oath of office. To compound the problem he has illegally changed immigration law. This weakness has opened the door for the coyotes to take advantage of the situation. Interviews with those crossing the border overwhelmingly point to the coyotes telling families their children will be able to stay in the U.S. and get their families in later. Of course that is not all of them, just a very large percentage as reported by a handful of media outlets. ABC,NBC,CBS seem to ignore these reports, they do not even question why they are banned from the border area, it is obvious they are being told not to go there.

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Be careful about articles from U.S. media, many times they are propaganda. This article says the children inundating the U.S. came to flee violence. The real reason is they are being told if they get to the states they can stay, and ultimately have their family join them. This information comes from actual interviews with the children, but it does not fulfill the administrations agenda so the reporters are told to ignore it by the White House.
Sadly the days of the media protecting the citizens of the United States are gone, the media is owned by the Democratic Party and it determines what will or will not be printed. There are a few news outlets that still expose the truth, but not enough to reach the uneducated voter.

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Talk about propoganda with an agenda, usexpat you just proliferated the nonsense. The Democratic Party controls the Media? What are you a paid shill of Rupert Murdoch? If Rupert Murdoch’s succeeds in his bid for Time Warner (as he almost always does, eventually; even the former owners of the Wall Street Journal couldn’t resist), he’ll have control over most of what Americans see over cable, on TV and the Internet — in addition to control he already has over the information we get through Fox News, the Journal, and his other media outposts. But Murdoch’s empire is only part of a huge consolidation of American industry: Amazon gaining control over publishing; Comcast over broadband service; Google over access to information; Facebook over person-to-person connectivity; the top five Wall Street banks over our financial system; a handful of giant health insurers and drug companies over the health services we receive.

This translates into higher prices (if not now, eventually). It also centralizes power over what we’ll know and how we’ll lead our lives. Both the antitrust division of the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are AWOL — perhaps because the private-sector behemoths already have enough political power to keep the antitrust enforcers quiet. Our government is in gridlock, incapable of doing much of anything, while a handful of giant corporations are consolidating their power over America. What shall we do about it?

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Unfortunately if you look at what is put forth by the media it is not hard to see. Consider that the democratic administration does not want anyone to know what is going on with the children coming across the border. Those working with the illegals have to sign an agreement not to disclose what is going on. The news media is barred from the areas where the children, and adults are being processed. States are getting bus loads of illegals and not even being informed of what is coming. The news media says nothing. What would an observer think? Not the only example, just the most recent.

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Mark Kahle


I see you ignored the entire first paragraph from USEXPAT.. how very convenient. You opinions on the media are noted.
Nides (deputy secretary of state) married to CNN President Mosely
Rhodes (Presidents NSA advisor) brother to CBS President Rhodes
Sherwood (Obama special advisor) married to ABC President Sherwood.

and the list is actually longer by many.. I suggest you do some real homework.

As to the situation in Central America regarding sending unaccompanied kids to the US the root cause is corruption that is rampant. The lack of basic morals and ethics in the people that run the countries involved. Without these two items the rest would not be possible.

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And the root cause of the violence and corruption from “The War On Drugs” and decades of supporting puppet regimes. We see how it has infiltrated Costa Rica’s Political/ Judicial System as well. The GOP and PLN are traditional allies, with one agenda. Just as Obama and Solis are…

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The United States is not a detached, innocent bystander. For decades, U.S. governments supported unspeakably brutal regimes and poured billions into maintaining them ($5 billion in El Salvador alone). Implacable opposition to communism—often defined as virtually any reformer—gave these regimes a blank check. The result is a legacy of dealing with opponents through extreme violence and a culture of impunity. Judicial systems remain weak, corrupt, and often completely dysfunctional. After the cold war ended, the United States lost interest in these countries. What was left was destruction, tens of thousands dead, and massive population displacement. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is 54 percent for Guatemala, 36 percent for El Salvador,and 60 percent for Honduras. More recently gangs, organized crime, and drug cartels feeding the US market have become part of this unholy mix…. We should not make children pay the price for the intolerable social destruction that Central American elites and militaries, as well as successive US governments, had a hand in creating.

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Unfortunately in many Central American countries the U. S. had two choices,bad and worse. I do totally agree that both parties have not helped Central America to the extent they should have. You do make it sound like the U.S. is the only market for illegal drugs, hardly the case.

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The USA is not the only market, but they are by far the largest market of consumers, with the most disposable income. And I think it is an easier route for the smugglers going north through a corrupt Central America where bribes are easily acceptable, than say shipping it directly to Europe or through Africa. For the most part, Mexicans now control the logistics and their tunnel systems into the USA are immense and typically difficult to uncover. South America has a growing appetite, but values are much cheaper. Pay $2k per kilo in Colombia and in NY it is $50K+. Most cocaine on the street in NY is about 30% pure, which means it has been cut by 2/3rds along the way, in essence tripling that profit. Move 1000 Kilos at once and your talking about incredible margins. One load makes it in and now the Narcos are buying helicopters, airplanes and yachts and paying off Presidents. With profit margins like that, there will always be people willing to take the risk, even if penalties are super severe. Someone gets screwed in the chain along the way, and they simply are killed. Do we really wonder why the poor governments of Central America are so corrupt? Do we really wonder why parents are sending their children north to escape this violence? The murder rate in San Pedro Sula was 173 per 100,000 residents in 2013. In comparison in Chicago, one of our most violent cities, it is 15 per 100,000 people. Legalizing and regulating these drugs is the only viable option.

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The media is corporately run. Both sides propogate propoganda. Just depends on the source you choose. Both sides should be taken with a grain of salt. People like Rupert Murdoch will try to pay off whoever is in power, be it Dems or GOP.

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