GUATEMALA CITY — Exhaust fumes from the old, poorly maintained cars traveling beside us infuse our cab. We pass shanty towns — settlements of poorly constructed, one-room houses; often nothing more than crumbling, lopsided walls with tin roofs. There are guns everywhere: Soldiers on the sidewalks, civilians guarding storefronts, young men in the backs of old pickup trucks. Everything is behind walls, protected, isolated.
We are driving through this town on our way to the tourist hub of Antigua. Our hosts know this particular cab company and assure us that we’ll arrive safely at our destination — not a given in Guatemala.
After decades of civil war, Guatemala is still in bad shape. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala reports “the widespread killing of women and children.” Only 2 percent of homicides in Guatemala ever go to trial. A 2013 essay in Esquire calls Guatemala City “one of the most dangerous places on earth,” and describes the “savage means” used by narco-traffickers to maintain control of their territory. The solid majority of the cocaine in the United States is smuggled through Guatemala. The CIA World Factbook reports that 54 percent of Guatemalans are below the national poverty line, with 13 percent in extreme poverty. Close to half of Guatemalan children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished, “one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.”
Capitalism is alive in the hearts of many Guatemalans. On the roads of Guatemala City, men stand in the median, in the heat, trying to sell flower bouquets to drivers stuck in traffic. Along the sides of rural roads outside the city, Guatemalans sell beautiful furniture, tapestries and food. In the town of Antigua, where we stayed, men congregate outside the hotels with rosaries and flutes, pushing hard to make a sale to well-off foreign visitors.
But capitalism can’t flourish — and, therefore, can’t significantly reduce poverty —without property rights, the rule of law, and the basic belief that what you earn won’t be taken from you by violent force. Markets don’t exist outside of society, and prosperous societies don’t always spontaneously emerge. What’s needed, first and foremost, is for Guatemala’s government to establish a monopoly on violence.
Its failure to do so explains why children from this country – along with children from Honduras and El Salvador — are flooding into the United States. The Post reports that the Border Patrol expects 90,000 unaccompanied children to illegally enter the United States along our border with Mexico before the close of the current fiscal year, mostly from those three countries, sent away by their parents from the violence and poverty and drug lords and gangs and danger.
President Obama has called this an “urgent humanitarian situation,” and Americans have taken notice. We’ve clinically diagnosed the problems of poverty and violence in Central America and identified them as the root cause of today’s humanitarian crisis. But something has been missing from our reaction: a sense of outrage at the conditions in these countries. The modern world doesn’t like making moral judgments, but our national leaders should say clearly that the situation in these countries is unacceptable, and that leaders in these nations have a moral responsibility to make the situation measurably better.
Also missing is a sense that we can help. After the Second World War, America helped to rebuild Europe. A great nation does things like this. A great nation surveys the world and knows it can affect change outside its borders. Have we forgotten our greatness? Have we forgotten what a great nation can do?
We could provide more money and expert knowledge to help Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador build institutions of justice and public safety like prisons and well-trained and equipped police forces, increase economic development assistance, step up efforts to freeze the financial networks of the criminal organizations responsible for much of the violence, help these countries to clean up their corrupt judges and police forces and mobilize an emergency international security effort.
The right answer may be that we should do very little for Central America, or it may be that we should do quite a bit. But we aren’t even having the discussion. Congress, the president and opinion leaders are haggling over how to deal with the immediate crisis of the children coming to and crossing our border, but are not discussing what we can do to improve the situation in those countries to make them places in which parents want to raise their children, not send them away.
Doing too little to improve the economic and security situations in those countries is itself a policy choice. As the flood of children to our border has shown, this choice has consequences. And not just humanitarian and economic: If the drug smugglers can get cocaine here along their sophisticated routes, they can get more dangerous stuff here, too.
The debate shouldn’t only be over what to do with the kids who are here and how to send the message to Central America that more kids shouldn’t come. At a minimum, we should also be debating whether we need to do more to help Central America become a place where parents don’t feel the need to send their children away.
And really, the debate shouldn’t be over whether we should do more to help, but how much more.