The highly publicized progress by a “caravan” of approximately 5,000 migrants from Central America to the United States underlines a persistent trend. The reason for the trend is obvious. Economic conditions in Central America are grim, and the many young people there have poor prospects for advancement. The countries these migrants are fleeing are also plagued by violence.
Net migration of Mexicans to the United States has been negative in recent years, but the number of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — countries that are part of the Northern Triangle of Central America, or NTCA — rose by 25 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. The demographic picture suggests that the migration is going to continue in the medium term: While fertility rates in those countries have declined substantially in recent years, the high rates of the two previous decades mean many young people are still in the pipeline. Guatemala’s working-age population will double by midcentury, and Honduras’s will rise by three-fifths.
What should be done about the impetuses driving them north?
Start by improving economic conditions in the NTCA countries, an effort that can be achieved without any direct budgetary outlay from the United States. The election of a new Inter-American Development Bank president is scheduled for 2020, an opportunity for new leadership to redirect the bank’s finance focus from bankable countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) to its poorest member countries. We suggest a 70 percent resource allocation to projects in the neediest countries, independent of how much these countries contribute to the IADB.
The principal emphasis should be on financing a sizable infrastructure and public-health plan that puts in place the basis for economic expansion and offers immediate job opportunities to citizens in their home countries. Redirected lending could be tied to governance improvements in the region such as rule-of-law and anti-corruption measures. And Central American countries should be encouraged to enter a free-trade agreement, establishing a unified market with common standards. Perhaps Mexico could join the agreement, with Canada and the United States eventually signing up as well.
The advantages of participating in a larger market would expand the economies of these Central American countries, creating more jobs with decent wages.
Violence, the other main driver of the migration north, stems largely from the fight among drug lords in Central America for access to and dominance in the U.S. market. The United States’ failed war on drugs is thus a principal contributor to violence in Central America.
The goal of the war on drugs, which began during the Nixon administration, was to educate the public about their dangers and to do everything possible to make them difficult to obtain — to attack them on the supply side. However, as became apparent long ago, when there is a big, profitable demand for drugs in the United States, there will be a supply, and that supply has come predominantly from south of the U.S. border. The profits are used by drug cartels and gangs to buy weapons, use them to create an atmosphere of violence and, in many cases, to pay off local authorities.
Curbing violence in Central America will require addressing the U.S. war on drugs. The supply-side approach’s failure can be seen in the fact that the United States has the highest use of cocaine among major economies. The United States should instead focus more on reducing the demand for illegal drugs.
The United States would do well to study the example of Portugal, which has found success by taking a demand-oriented approach to drug control. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use and small-scale (for personal use) possession of drugs; punishments remain but are distinct from the prison system, and addicts can seek treatment without fear of arrest. The Portuguese experience suggests that real progress is possible, particularly among young people, in preventing and treating addiction. If the United States were to adopt this approach, people would increasingly go to free, well-vetted drug treatment centers, and the illegal drug market in this country would gradually disappear, as would profits going south to the drug lords.
Some say the answer is legalization, especially for drugs such as marijuana, and many states have been moving in this direction. But this misses the point. The goal should be to reduce drug use, not to encourage its recreational consumption. Resources spent on disrupting supply and paying for the costly domestic incarceration of drug users could be used instead to support drug demand reduction and treatment efforts.
Instead of blaming the migrants who are fleeing violence and corruption in Central America, we should recognize why they are leaving and do something about it. If we succeed in improving economic conditions and reducing drug-related violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, then we can expect that the citizens of those countries will choose to stay home.