The president of Guatemala believes the United States should provide at least $2 billion in aid to Central American countries in order "to attack the root of the problem" causing recent waves of illegal immigration.
During an interview with The Washington Post Thursday -- his only sitdown with an American newspaper during the trip -- Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina acknowledged that it will be up to President Obama and Congress to determine how the U.S. should respond to the influx of Central American migrants.
But "If they want to attack the root of the problem, I think that they need to think about making investments in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras," he said. "The United States is spending about $20 billion on border security and other border crossings where they process children and where they treat them and all those other processes. We say that with just 10 percent of that money that you’re investing on the U.S. border, it could be spent at minimum in the three countries and I’m confident that it would be much more profitable than investing it on border security or border control with Mexico."
Molina and the leaders of El Salvador and Honduras are in Washington this week for meetings with Obama, Vice President Biden and congressional leaders. Obama will host the presidents at the White House Friday afternoon, the first time Central American presidents have been invited to the White House as a group since 1998, when President Clinton hosted regional leaders after the deadly Hurricane Mitch.
Since signing an agreement with Central American countries and the Dominican Republican in 2008, the U.S. has spent roughly $800 million on security and law enforcement assistance in the region, with roughly two-thirds of the money sent to Central America's "Northern Triangle" countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Lawmakers and regional experts this week said that any new requests for additional security aid is likely to be greeted with skepticism in Washington.
“I think that there isn’t much appetite for a blank check,” said Eric Olson, director for the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “There’s deep concern about the violence in Central America, but people are asking hard questions about what is our money going to be used for and what real impact is this going to have?”
Asked this week about the possibility of a request for more aid from Central American leaders, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) initially replied in jest. “Surprise, surprise they’ll be asking for more money,” he said. Turning serious, McCain, who sits on a Senate subcommittee concerned with Latin American issues, said any new aid “depends on what they’re asking for, depends on what their commitment is to securing their border, it depends on a lot of things.”
Molina detailed steps his government has taken in the past two years to boost tax revenue, improve the nation's education system and cut violent crime. Homicides have dropped on average in recent years and "are still high in numbers," he said. But the progress demonstrates "that we can do things right."
Molina explained what he has been told to expect from American officials planning to begin mass deportations in the coming months. Last week, five mothers with seven children were flown home and this week the Guatemalan government is preparing to receive two flights with at least 10 families, he said.
The number of flights should increase by mid-September, he said, when a larger wave of unaccompanied minors will be returned to their home countries.
In preparation for the return of younger Guatemalans, Molina said his government is working on ensuring they can quickly match up children with family members, or ensure that orphans "have the opportunity to have somewhere to stay, sleep, and receive something to eat. We’re going to try and be flexible with this returning process," he said.
"Who knows how many kids we’ll get. But, if it’s 10,000 kids, then we have to put forth the effort and have the capacity to receive them,and take them to their place of origin, and once they’re home ensure that they are provided with education and with the social programs to help their families," he added.
During the interview Molina was shown recent news pictures of migrants detained at facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border. He said it was sad and frustrating to see his countrymen living in such conditions.
"We have to understand that there was an immigration explosion that was not expected. And this obviously has led to these circumstances," he said. "And we believe in Obama’s efforts to ask Congress for more resources -- I understand that Congress is going to approve them -- and I believe that these resources will help improve these conditions that are not the conditions that any human being deserves. Their human rights need to be respected as well. And I think that’s where Obama’s administration stands by soliciting more resources from Congress, and I feel that Congress will answer correctly."
Asked what he would say to Americans who believe that the U.S. shouldn't be burdened with the cost of caring for and deporting young illegal immigrants, Molina suggested that his country has long suffered from the consequences of U.S. foreign policy.
"Why did Guatemalans have to live an internal armed conflict? Especially when the Cold War was not our problem?" he asked. "But the hot spots of that Cold War were in Central American countries. We lived 36 years of internal armed conflict between capitalism and communism. In Guatemala we were neither capitalists nor communists, but we lived 36 years in which many died."
Guatemala suffered through a 36-year civil war that pitted successive governments against indigenous populations. As a military general, Molina played a key role in the historic 1996 peace accords that ended one of the world's longest armed conflicts.
Molina repeatedly urged regional cooperation to address the crisis and seemed pleased that his request for long-term regional cooperation was welcomed by lawmakers he met with on Capitol Hill Thursday. After hosting Biden, three Cabinet secretaries and two congressional delegations in Guatemala in recent weeks, Molina said "we have concluded that we’ll only find a solution together. With different responsibilities, but working together."
A full transcript of the interview, which was conducted primarily in Spanish, appears below. It has been translated and edited for clarity:
Question: I wanted to start by asking you, why are you visiting Washington, what exactly are you looking for from the United States government?
Molina: I believe that the main topic right now has been provoked by the humanitarian crisis with unaccompanied minors that are on the border right between Mexico and the United States and coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. And that has provoked a series of actions, like the visit from Vice President Joe Biden in Guatemala. The meetings with the ambassadors, and now, the meetings of presidents here in Washington. What do we expect? To work together with all three countries of Central America, with the United States and together find a solution to the humanitarian crisis with the kids in the border right now.
Question: How would you assess your interactions with the Obama administration in the last few months regarding this crisis?
Molina: We’ve had an excellent communication. I think the visits of various government figures, the ones that have visited, like the defense secretary, the secretary of state, Vice President Biden, we also met with the secretary of homeland security.
Also, we’ve had two delegation of congressmen come to Guatemala. And these visits have not only allowed us to exchange points of view, but to know the reality of what’s really going on in Guatemala. And together, it has allowed us improve the quality of communication, and together we’ve been able to find the ways to find a solution for this crisis.
And I think that with the Congress, and President Obama and the members of his Cabinet, we’ve maintained a good communication, and we have concluded that we’ll only find a solution together. With different responsibilities, but working together.
Question: On Tuesday one of the first groups of illegal immigrants was flown back to Guatemala. What has the U.S. government told you to expect regarding similar flights in the coming weeks and months?
Molina: The agreement that we have is that last week the first flight came with five families. There were five mothers with seven children. We also know that this week there should be two flights with 10 families. And we’re expecting that in the next three weeks there will be similar flights – two flights with about 10 families. One should have a father with his son, or an uncle with his nephew or a mother with her children.
And we expect that after this first month of flights, we’ll see how we’re handling the return process, the process of receiving these people, the registration process. We expect that in September the number of flights will be increasing and on those flights, we expect the arrival of unaccompanied youths, or minors.
This first month they were going to be accompanied in the flights, but after September, and that depends on the process in the United States, and the process of the judges, that they’ll be determining if the child told to stay here or that the child be returned back, and I believe that they are trying to be flexible with the this process. So we expect that by mid-September, kids will be able to fly back by themselves. And then we’ll have a cushion of about a month and a half to finish preparing for their arrival, and be able to receive them, and give them all the support they need.
Question: And when those unaccompanied children come, what happens to them when they arrive in Guatemala? Can you ensure their safety, their security? That they’ll be receiving a good education, that their health-care will be provided for?
Molina: Well, let me tell you that we cannot deny the arrival of any of our kids, so we have done all we can since the time they get off the plane, and arrive in Guatemala. We have a process were we’re improving the quality of how they’re received.
For example, if a kid, or a child is not claimed, or where the family members aren’t identified right away, they’ll have the opportunity to have somewhere to stay, sleep, and receive something to eat. We’re going to try and be flexible with this returning process. Then, we’d like to see, and actually, at the moment, the process of gathering personal information from these families has been working for us. That means that we get to find out if the kid was going to school here or not, what school they were attending, if it’s necessary to provide a scholarship for education, or if it’s necessary to provide the family with any kind of support that we’re working out with the ministry of social development.
We’re expecting that, well, who knows how many kids we’ll get. But, if it’s 10,000 kids, then we have to put forth the effort and have the capacity to receive them, and take them to their place of origin, and once they’re home, provide them with education and with the social programs to help their families.
Question: Are you expecting at least 10,000 children to come back?
Molina: Well no, not in eight days or in a month. We expect that from the entire process, after the U.S. has exhausted the procedures of deportations, or after the judge decides to end the process. We don’t anticipate a massive deportation of children to Guatemala. We expect that it will happen gradually and that we will be able to receive them well and provide for them.
Question: Do you think that the U.S. sending more National Guard troops to the Mexican border will deter Guatemalans from coming?
Molina: We think that the investment to you can make on the border obviously is a decision that has to be made by the Congress, whether they want to make those investments on the border or if they also want to attack the root of the problem. If they want to attack the root of the problem, I think that they need to think about making investments in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The United States is spending about $20 billion on border security and other border crossings where they process children and where they treat them and all those other processes. We say that with just 10 percent of that money that you’re investing on the U.S. border, it could be spent at minimum in the three countries and I’m confident that it would be much more profitable than investing it on border security or border control with Mexico.
That’s what we’re here talking about with representatives and senators. That just like you did a Plan Colombia, or the Merida Plan, or the Alliance for Progress in the 1960s in the last century, you should be thinking about a similar plan for Central America of peace and prosperity.
Question: You would like a new regional plan similar to Plan Colombia or plans in Mexico. Members of Congress probably said to you and have been saying, that’s wonderful, but we need to see that your government is taking steps to see that your economy improves, that safety improves, that education improves. What are you doing – give me a specific example – to ensure that the problems improve?
Molina: Yes, we are very clear in the meetings we had with congressmen and senators, and we expect that U.S. citizens would support a similar plan, once they see that progress has been made on our end.
I can say that in these last two and half years that I’ve been a president of Guatemala, first of all, we pushed tax reform, a reform that provides the government with more resources so we can tend to the problems that I mentioned earlier. Obviously we also have structural problems that we’re not going to fix in a year or two, or even during a regular presidential period of four years. But we’re doing the best we can.
We also pushed for an education reform that had been in the works for the last 18 years, and was never implemented. The tax reform had been pending approval for 20 years. We were able to approve it in the first two years of my presidency. We also have a reform that involves the security system of the country. We have incremented the National/Civil Police force from 22,000 to 35,000. We have implemented a plan to improve our police with training, equipment, and making them more professional. We’re also installing the technology that helps the police to do their job the best way they can. And the results start to show.
From 40 homicides per 100,000 citizens that was at the start of my presidency, after two of years of me being president it went down six points, bringing it to 34 homicides per 100,000 citizens. And we’re expecting to finish the year off with 30, to 31 homicides -- which are still high in numbers -- but show that we can do things right with the fact that it’s gone down almost 10 points in the first three years in government.
So we are doing things, we’re fighting against crime, we’re fighting corruption, and we’re using our resources in the best way possible. And these are actions, once more is known about them, the clearer the picture will be about the changes we’ve made. And these actions help us so that the congressman, the senators, and all Americans could be in agreement about investing the same way it was invested with the Colombia plan.
Question: Let me ask a border security question a slightly different way: Should Mexico be doing more to secure its border with Guatemala?
Molina: Yes, we have worked with President Enrique Peña Nieto and with the members of his cabinet, and with our key officials in Guatemala. I was just with President Peña Nieto about 15 days ago at the inauguration of a new system they have established to have better control, not on the border -- we have more than 600 miles of border with Mexico, but, it’s an infrastructure that’s about 40 miles inside Mexico, and President Peña Nieto is taking the steps to create opportunities where Guatemalans can have an ID card that allow them to have a temporary job, but that ID card has all their personal information in it. It gives them the freedom to move about those 40 miles. Later, there’s another type of control where a visa is required to get passed the 40 miles. And last, there’s a third type of control that is located in the most stretch area in the border of Mexico and Guatemala where more security will exist.
Question: But you know that Mexico isn't stopping people from crossing the river between your two countries. People can easily hop a boat and go back and forth. Shouldn't they be stopping that?
Molina: Well, I believe it’s important to mention that we, the three presidents of Central America have been in talks with the authorities here in the U.S. But Mexico happens to be the place where all migrants reside temporarily, and where there’s a series of risks, and dangers they go through. But, the Mexican authorities have done all they can by improving the shelters, and looking out for the human rights of all migrants. And this has been a constant concern of President Peña Nieto that he has shared with Guatemala, and there, we have improved the topics of security and human rights.
Question: Why do you think so many people are leaving your country? Why don't they want to stay in Guatemala?
Molina: The migration problem has always been a multicausal problem; you cannot identify a single cause. We have seen how the deported youths and minors have been interviewed, and have been asked why they left Guatemala. The majority has said their reason was for a better economy, and better employment opportunities. Those are the two major causes. Other reasons that follow are the reuniting with family members living outside of Guatemala. That family member may invite them to come to the U.S., or may do all he or she can to get the family out of Guatemala.
Question: Well, let me stop you right there: You say they're seeking better economic opportunity, better educational opportunity. To an American who doesn't understand the situation -- why doesn't that opportunity exist in Guatemala right now?
Molina: Well, we can’t deny that there’s a lot to be done to generate employment that are needed. For example, right now we have 200,000 young people entering the labor force each year. And, in the last two years we have been able to generate more employment, like providing jobs for approximately 110,000 to 120,000 people a year. That’s almost 350,000 opportunities in the time I’ve been president so far. That means that we’re left with around 80,000 to 90,000 young people who don't find an opportunity. They’re forced to find informal jobs, or find a way to the United States. And that makes it clear that we’re in need of more investments, just like I mentioned before, that more investments could come from the U.S. to generate jobs, and reduce the migration.
Question: Has the United States given you any specific incentives or threats to stop the flow of illegal migrants?
Molina: No, nothing in specific at this moment, no. The one thing that we have been discussing, and have been trying to do is have an excellent reception in the congress as well as with US officials. And if we’re able to maintain that cooperation on both sides, and if we can work on a plan, more than to resolve, obviously right now the crisis has been going on for long. But if we’re able to work on a short and long term plan, I’m sure if would benefit the countries of Central America and the United States.
Question: There have been some that think that once Central Americans see the images of their countrymen being flown home that it will deter illegal migration. Do you agree?
Molina: Well, I’d like to tell you about a campaign in Guatemala, where even the media have joined us to share the troubles, and the dangers the migrant would face when making the trip to the U.S. The topic has been all over the news, and with the help of the campaign, and that has helped reduce the number of migrants to about 50 percent in the last two weeks. These numbers reflect people attempting to enter the U.S., not leaving from Guatemala.
This is important, because it means that since the topic has hit the news, and with the help of the campaigns, the desire to leave the country has calmed down. Of course, it could be possible to maintain these numbers down, but I insist that we need to have a level of cooperation, and short- to long-term plan to really be able to attack this problem.
Question: [He is shown recent news photos of migrants detained at facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border]: I imagine you’ve seen them yourself. And I’m curious: When you see that, what do you think?
Molina: In all reality, it is very sad to see these photos of Guatemalans.
Question: Do you think that the United States is treating these people properly?
Molina: I think that we have to understand that there was an immigration explosion that was not expected. And this obviously has led to these circumstances. And we believe in Obama’s efforts to ask Congress for more resources, I understand that Congress is going to approve them, and I believe that these resources will help improve these conditions that are not the conditions that any human being deserves. Their human rights need to be respected as well. And I think that’s where Obama’s administration stands by soliciting more resources form Congress, and I feel that Congress will answer correctly.
Question: Many of these people are Guatemalans. What do you think? These are your people, your countrymen?
For us, it’s not only a sadness, it’s a frustration to see that Guatemalans have to travel here and then, when they arrive, be treated in this way.
Question: Many Americans have said we shouldn’t have to pay for this. They're angry that illegal immigrants are coming from these countries, why should we have to take care of these problems?
Molina: What I could say is that first; we have to understand that this is a regional problem. I would also tell those who feel this way, why did Guatemalans have to live an internal armed conflict? Especially when the Cold War was not our problem?
But the hot spots of that Cold War were in Central American countries. We lived 36 years of internal armed conflict between capitalism and communism. In Guatemala we were neither capitalists nor communists, but we lived 36 years in which many died.
But now I’ll tell you something else: Eighteen years ago, after we signed a peace treaty we had to face the transnational organized crime, that, because of the geographic situation (location) of our country, we are forced to see how organized narco-traffickers produce drugs, and have us in the middle of a problem where drugs come through Guatemala en route to the U.S., and how guns from the U.S. and illegal money make their way down through us. And we have to live with this problem, we’re forced to use resources that our country needs for health and education, but we’re forced to use it to stop and help fix this problem, when the problem of consumption comes from here and not from Guatemala. That’s why I’m telling you, that we’re just a region and we need to work together to find a solution to this problem. It will make things better for the United States, but also for Central America.
Question: You’ve spoken frequently about the possibility of legalizing some illicit drugs, marijuana especially. Many Americans were intrigued when you said last year that Colorado and Washington had made a “visionary decision” to begin partially legalizing marijuana. I’m curious, after a few months of their policy now in place, what you make of how it has gone so far and whether other states should consider this in the future?
Molina: Well, we made a proposal about two years ago that seemed a little out of context. But little by little, there have been more incidents that suggest that the issue should be looked at differently, based on the level addiction and the damage they can cause.
That’s why you can separate marijuana from cocaine, or from heroin. It’s clear that marijuana doesn’t cause a level of addiction, or damage to health [compared to other drugs] and these are steps we’re taking in the right path. That’s why in September, we’re bringing this proposal to the extraordinary assembly at the OAS to unify all positions and points that will take place in the United Nations and to be able to revise all protocols as to how other countries are dealing with the drug problem in the last 40 years.
Question: So will Guatemala do what Colorado and Washington have done?
Molina: Right now we have a commission that’s following what’s been happening in Uruguay, Portugal, Holland, Colorado, and the state of Washington. And I expect to receive studies, analysis and recommendations at the end of the year and from there we will make the decisions that would best fit our country.
Jeff Simon and Randolph Smith contributed to this report.