Obama's Central American Follies

COMMENTARY Immigration

Obama's Central American Follies

Jul 1st, 2014 9 min read
Mike Gonzalez

Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow

Mike is the Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Chaos has erupted at the border with a sudden influx of Central American children entering America—illegally and alone. Initially, the Obama administration tried to blame the exodus of adolescents on their desire to flee violence in their home countries. Only lately has the White House bowed to reality and finally conceded what Democrats in Congress, The Washington Post and even Univision were already admitting: that dreams of sanctuary under the DREAM Act had convinced Central American families to hand their children over to coyote networks that would take them across Mexico and the Rio Grande. In other words, the administration had to admit that it had contributed to the problem by appearing to promise that children who crossed the border illegally would not be deported.

But the administration shouldn’t get a pass on the violent hell that has been unleashed in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The United States has great sway over what (in a less-enlightened age) used to be called America’s backyard. The Obama administration knows it, too, because it wields that influence with gusto in Central America. If it wanted to help quell the turmoil, it would pursue policies aimed at alleviating the crisis. Instead, the administration props up bad actors who have always disliked America and beats up on long-standing friends.

The Northern Triangle nations of Central America are dangerous places. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world at 90.4 per 100,000 inhabitants; El Salvador is No. 4 with a 41.22 rate and Guatemala is No. 5 with 39.9. These statistics don’t show a spike in violence; they are largely unchanged from the numbers I discovered two years ago when researching a book on Hispanics. Still, they are alarmingly high. By comparison, the U.S. rate—the second highest in the thirty-four-member OECD—is “only” 5.2. (For wider context, France’s is 0.8; Britain’s is 0.3.)

And the flight of children isn’t new either. The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement told me in January 2013 that some 2,179 unaccompanied minors from these three countries were in U.S. custody. Because of the DREAM Act incentive, however, those numbers have become much worse this year. More than 40,000 unaccompanied minors have come to the United States since January; the vast majority came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

So, yes, the Northern Triangle is a desperate place. A U.S. official, who recently visited the main prison in Guatemala, described it as a huge compound run entirely by MS-13 and Calle 18, two transnational crime organizations that can no longer simply be called gangs. Each had its separate wing at the prison, prepared its own food and ran its own children’s centers, replete with toys, for when sons and daughters came to visit their fathers, he told me. When they’re outside, they pressure Central Americans, including children, to enlist in the gangs—“or else.” The army is completely overwhelmed. These two gangs alone have an estimated 85,000 members in the three countries, compared with about 100,000 uniformed soldiers, many of whom cannot be relied upon.

So no wonder so many Central Americans are making the trek across Mexico to enter the United States, where they expect to get a permiso (permit). Central America is messy. Its problems are not self-contained, either—they affect us here at home. It’s not just the question of minors flocking to our border with Mexico; transnational criminal organizations are vertically integrated in several criminal activities in cities throughout our country, especially just a few miles from the White House and Congress, as Maryland and Virginia have a high concentration of Central Americans.

But the region has faced problems before, and previous American presidents have stepped up. Ronald Reagan, of course, comes to mind. When the Soviets and the Cubans decided to make Central America a test of America’s resolve, Reagan answered the call. He supported the Contras fighting the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He also backed El Salvador’s democratic president, Jose Napoleon Duarte, who was facing the equally Marxist guerrilla group the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Reagan won both those fights and Nicaraguans and Salvadorans electorally supported the sides he had picked, throwing out the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and voting for Duarte in El Salvador.

Many of us have long been warning the Obama administration to step up and support those in the region who have been our allies for years, who have been inspired by American values and who want to emulate the American experiment. It is those people precisely that the Obama administration has punished, while supporting those factions and individuals who have long loathed the American “Yankee.” A country-by-country survey of the Obama administration’s actions in the Northern Triangle shows how the administration has sown instability in Central America by siding with former guerrillas who have ties to drug trafficking.


Honduras presented the new Obama administration with one of its first foreign-policy tests. On June 28, only six months after President Obama had come into office, the Honduran Congress and the Supreme Court issued a warrant for the arrest of President Manuel Zelaya and asked the Armed Forces to physically remove him from the country. President Obama, it is now fair to say, botched that first test of Central American policy. Zelaya had close ties to Hugo Chavez, the then president of Venezuela (a transit point for the drug shipments). He was also an ally of every anti-American actor in Latin America and beyond (most notably, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and the Castro brothers in Cuba). Zelaya had tried to subvert Honduras’s constitution and stay in power, and when the country’s other legal institutions refused to budge, he tried to exploit fissures between the rich and the poor, calling mobs of his supporters to the streets.

The country was destabilized. The Honduran Congress and high court acted entirely constitutionally. So did the Armed Forces, which showed they did not lust for power by immediately handing power to a civilian interim president, who himself handed power to a popularly elected successor later that year. The Supreme Court’s vote had been a unanimous 15-0, with eight of those fifteen votes coming from members of Zelaya’s own party.

But President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the action a military coup and terminated a broad range of assistance programs toward the impoverished country. It also connived with the socialist Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, to expel Honduras from the OAS. (This is the same OAS that is now insisting that Cuba, under a fifty-five-year undemocratic communist dictatorship, must now be given membership.) The Obama administration did recognize the free elections held in November 2009. But when I went to Honduras a few months later, our friends there still wondered what had caused the administration to act in this manner.


In Guatemala, too, the Obama administration has played an activist role, again fighting a country’s own institutions and again propping up Marxists who have never liked the United States. In this colorful country, where a twenty-first-century visitor can still see a Mayan past, the Obama administration seems to be relitigating Reagan’s legacy.

The administration’s interference this time has to do with the trial of Efrain Rios Montt, who was president for eighteen months after a 1982 coup. During that time, the country was fighting a Cuban- and Soviet-supported Marxist insurgency, to which Rios Montt dealt severe setbacks. He was tried in Guatemala in 2013 for “genocide” and found guilty, but the Constitutional Court annulled the conviction and set a retrial for next year. The Court did so because the presiding judge, Yassmin Barrios, had removed Rios Montt’s lawyer during the trial and appointed two others to replace him without consulting with her defendant, violating his constitutional rights. The Court also ruled earlier this year that Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz must step down because she had interfered with the Rios Montt process.

The problem is, Barrios and Paz are favorites of Mrs. Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama. Earlier this year, Barrios received the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in Washington, from none other than the First Lady, for her performance in the Rios Montt’s trial—the same performance that had moved the high court in Guatemala to throw out the conviction and the Guatemalan Bar Association to suspend Barrios for a year. U.S. Ambassador Arnold Chacon cut a video in Spanish in which he said it had been “a privilege for my government to count on a partner like Dr. Paz y Paz.”

In fact, our embassy in Guatemala has interfered in the whole process from the start, issuing statements in Spanish only—in contravention of the usual practice that all statements from our embassies must be also in English, so we can know what’s going on back home—and making it clear that it wanted a guilty verdict for the eighty-one-year-old Rios Montt. After Barrios and Paz were sanctioned, our embassy issued this statement: "For the proper functioning of democracies, independent and capable public servants are essential. If judges are subject to threats and intimidation, justice will suffer."

The Bar Association canceled Barrios suspension after that, proving once again that the United States has plenty of influence in the country. Unfortunately, this administration uses its influence for purposes that do not always seem to support U.S. interests. Writing in May, Armando de la Torre from Guatemala’s renowned Francisco Marroquin University and Steve Hecht said:

The Obama administration’s blatant support for the ex-guerrillas of Guatemala shows the unvarnished Obama agenda. The U.S. embassy and its friends mercilessly oppose, with callous disregard for the facts, those Guatemalans who faithfully execute their duties. . .people who really do support the rule of law, and thereby threaten the leftist agenda.

El Salvador

If the Obama administration has been activist in Honduras and Guatemala, in El Salvador it has been strangely quiescent. Our ambassador there—Mari Carmen Aponte, a leftist Obama appointee [1]—never lifted a finger to bring attention to the ties between the drug gangs and the man who was elected president in February, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

Sánchez Cerén is in a class by himself. A former Marxist guerrilla leader who has admitted to taking part in brutal killings, he is fiercely anti-American. On September 11, 2001, he led a mob down San Salvador streets and burned the American flag in celebration of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Would action by Mrs. Aponte have made a difference in this year’s elections? It might have; Sánchez Cerén was elected by a whisker, garnering 50.1 percent of the vote against 49.9 percent for his opponent.

Mrs. Aponte had plenty to work with had she wanted to request law enforcement sanctions against Sánchez Cerén and his cronies. His FMLN party has well known links to MS-13 and Calle 18. A close ally of Sánchez Cerén, José Luis Merino, is the well-documented connection between the FMLN, the FARC (the Colombian drug and terror group) and the Italian Mafia. The Wall Street Journal’s José de Cordoba reported:

…documents [which] show that the FARC has an international support network stretching from Madrid to Mexico City, Buenos Aires to Bern. Merino, the documents suggest, is a key link in that international chain, the FARC’s man in El Salvador, and one of the architects of an arms deal that includes everything from sniper rifles to ground-to-air missiles.

What to Do

Clearly, the Obama administration policy in Central America is not working. We’re seeing the results not just at the border, but in the streets of our inner cities. Equally clear is the way forward. My colleague at The Heritage Foundation, Ana Quintana, offers the following steps:

Remove withholding requirements on foreign assistance to Honduras: Under the Obama administration, the United States has directly contributed to the country’s descent. Following Honduras’s constitutional crisis of 2009, the United States suspended critical aid and joint military operations, largely in the form of counternarcotics assistance. Land, sea and air counternarcotics operations along the Caribbean coast virtually halted, and they were weakened elsewhere. Drug trafficking organizations quickly filled the security vacuum. Since FY2012, Congress has withheld a minimum of 20 percent of security assistance. It maintained this provision in FY2013 and in FY2014, increased the hold to 35 percent, despite the country making great strides in both human rights and democratic governance. Congressional appropriators should ensure the FY2015 budget stops suppressing the U.S. security engagement.

Let Honduras repair its fleet of F-5 jet fighters. Congress recently blocked Israel from taking a contract to repair a fleet of Cold War-era F-5 jet fighters provided by the United States in the 1980s. Despite Honduras’ membership in the F-5 Technical Operation Group, the quality of the fleet leaves much to be desired. The Obama administration must recognize that repairing the fleet is a critical component in the country’s efforts to arrest both inbound and outbound drug flights. Honduras is currently the transit point for an estimated 79 percent of northbound South American drug flights, and this number is expected to increase. The repair of this fleet would support the country’s much-needed expansions in aeronautical radar technology.

Recognize Guatemala’s critical position and relieve burdensome legislative restrictions: Congressional restrictions on Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) for Guatemala continue to undermine regional-security efforts. It hinders the promotion of human rights and reduces our ability to promote democratic values and professional military education. In 2013, U.S. Southern Command supported the new Guatemalan Interagency Task Force, which provides infrastructure and operational antitrafficking support along the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Yet FMF and IMET restrictions impede strengthening this cooperation. Guatemala shares a 600-mile border with Mexico and is the final Central American destination for individuals traveling from Honduras and El Salvador. Despite the long border, there are only eight formal points of entry. With the surge in unlawful border crossings, an estimated 350 informal crossings have been created. The United States should support Guatemala’s efforts to secure this border.

These simple steps would do a lot more for our country’s security than relitigating the 1980s.

 - Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The National Interest