July 8, 2014 | Issue Brief on Foreign Aid and Development
Current proposals in Congress would cut foreign assistance in response to the crisis at the border. As Congress considers any measures, it should be careful not to disrupt programs that serve U.S. interests and address the security conditions that have contributed to this problem.
In particular, programs such as those run by the Department of Defense and other relevant federal agencies also contribute to security assistance efforts.
It cannot be denied that Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—are all facing chronic citizen and economic insecurity crises. Rampant corruption and weak state institutions have made it virtually impossible to combat threats posed by violent transnational gangs and organized criminal groups. Coupled with the issue of endemic corruption, the regional debt crises and weak state institutions plague the region. Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rates, averaging 91 per 100,000 citizens. El Salvador is fourth in the world with an average of 41 per 100,000, and Guatemala is fifth at 40 per 100,000. (In comparison, the U.S. average is five per 100,000.) Located along a critical trafficking route, the isthmus is particularly vulnerable to illicit smuggling. Honduras alone is a layover spot for upwards of 79 percent of northward-bound drug flights.
Despite declines in Mexico’s overall homicide rates, the threat that crime and violence pose has not diminished. Mexican cartels operate as full-scale criminal enterprises, controlling vast systems of illicit distribution networks throughout the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. They account for the majority of illicit drugs in the U.S., and they are also involved in human smuggling and trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and arms trafficking.
U.S. security objectives in Central America are codified in the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which focuses on:
Implementation and funding for these programs come from four State Department accounts: International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE); Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Relations Programs; Foreign Military Financing; and the Economic Support Fund. In addition, there are various agencies implementing CARSI objectives outside the State Department’s funding purview: the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of the Treasury. A number of security assistance accounts, such as the International Military Education and Training (which promotes professional military education) and the Democracy Fund supplement these initiatives.
U.S. security cooperation with Mexico is codified in the Merida Initiative, which is grounded on four pillars:
Like CARSI, INCLE is the dominant source account in Merida. Following the State Department and USAID, the DOD represents the largest foreign assistance provider. Concerns about violence levels in Mexico and drug-related violence in the U.S. has prompted high levels of cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican security forces. Joint operations have resulted in numerous arrests of high-profile drug kingpins and record-breaking seizures. In addition to joint operations in Mexico, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Joint Task Force-Bravo operates out of the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, conducting and supporting activities against transnational organized crime and joint military engagement activities.
Rather than cutting foreign assistance, the U.S. should be looking for ways to better engage with regional partners in Latin America. The U.S., Mexico, and countries in Central America all have a shared interest in regional security. Recent developments in the region offer opportunities for expanding security cooperation.
Honduras’s recently inaugurated president, conservative Juan Orlando Hernandez, has emphasized a willingness to improve relations with the U.S. after the Obama Administration’s mishandling of the 2009 political crisis. Additionally, the U.S.’s renewal of a market-oriented aid program, the Millennium Challenge Cooperation compact, is a positive step forward. Congress also should:
In recent years, chronic insecurity in Mexico and Central America has threatened regional stability and U.S. security interests. This recent crisis on the southwest border has raised concerns about not only U.S. immigration policy and border security, but also the utility of foreign assistance.
When used wisely, foreign aid is a key national security tool. It ensures U.S. partnerships, promotes like-minded democratic institutions, and provides the U.S. with leverage abroad. Congress should understand that as security conditions in the region continue to deteriorate, cutting foreign aid would undermine the U.S.’s security interests.—Ana Quintana is a Research Associate for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.
 Peter J. Meyer and Clare Ribando Seelke, “Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 6, 2014, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41731.pdf (accessed June 3, 2014).
 Government Accountability Office, “Central America, U.S. Agencies Considered Various Factors in Funding Security Activities, but Need to Assess Progress in Achieving Interagency Objectives,” September 2013, http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/658145.pdf (accessed July 3, 2014).
 Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin Finklea, “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Merida Initiative and Beyond,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, April 8, 2014, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41349.pdf (accessed July 3, 2014).
 See Ana Quintana, “The United States Needs to Expand Security Cooperation with Honduras,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4115, December 31, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/12/the-united-states-needs-to-expand-security-cooperation-with-honduras.
 See Ana Quintana, “Improving Regional Security in Central America’s Northern Triangle,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4240, June 23, 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/06/improving-regional-security-in-central-americas-northern-triangle.